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Border blockades tipped ‘Freedom Convoy’ protests into national security threat, Bill Blair tells Emergencies Act inquiry


Border blockades tipped ‘Freedom Convoy’ protests into national security threat, Bill Blair tells Emergencies Act inquiry

OTTAWA—The protests that blocked border crossings during last winter’s so-called “Freedom Convoy” demonstrations amounted to “an attack” on Canada’s critical infrastructure and tipped the crisis into a national security threat, Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair said Monday.

The former Toronto police chief was the first of a series of federal cabinet ministers to appear this week at the ongoing Emergencies Act inquiry — and Blair unambiguously defended the government’s controversial use of the federal law as prudent and necessary to end what became a national emergency.

He described the “Freedom Convoy” occupation in Ottawa as the “anchor” of last winter’s protest movement against pandemic health measures and government authority, but said the border blockades — including the protest that choked traffic across the vital crossing over the Ambassador Bridge between Windsor and Detroit — concerned him the most.

That’s because they interrupted what Blair deemed “critical infrastructure,” including the flow of goods necessary for manufacturing that is crucial to the Canadian economy.

“That represented a serious threat to our national security and became a national emergency,” Blair told the inquiry Monday.

“You don’t have to blow everything up to render it unusable,” he added, labelling the blockades “an attack on critical infrastructure.”

Blair said the blockades were harming Canada’s trading reputation and hurting the economy, and he thought police had either exhausted their existing powers or couldn’t enforce laws — such as those outlawing blocking roads — because of safety concerns.

In its official explanation for invoking the Emergencies Act, which the government did on Feb. 14, the Trudeau Liberals said the protest crisis posed a threat of “serious” political violence against people or property, including critical infrastructure. The government also says the protests were harming the economy and Canada’s relations with trading partners, and could lead to supply chains breaking down and an increased level of “unrest” and “violence.”

Civil liberties groups and convoy advocates at the inquiry have argued the invocation of the act was a vast overreach by the federal government that was not justified and amounted to an unconstitutional breach of protesters’ rights.

In his testimony on Monday, Blair downplayed his concerns about the blockades in Ottawa, saying he did not ask for a detailed operational plan from Ottawa police. He said it would be inappropriate for him to seek those details, and he believed if Ottawa needed more resources it could have informally or formally asked other forces under the Ontario Police Services Act.

Blair said it was “a mistake” for Ottawa police to have allowed trucks into the downtown core of the national capital, but he hastened to say he did not intend to criticize police when he said in an interview that aired Feb. 13 that police “needed to do their job.” Blair said he wanted to encourage them to use the tools they had.

“We as a society needed the police … we needed them to do what was required,” he said.

Blair said Ontario’s provincial emergency order, which led the provincial cabinet to issue special regulations to address the crisis on Feb. 12, was helpful but didn’t solve all challenges.


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Asked about RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki’s email on Feb. 13 stating the RCMP position that existing legal authorities had not been exhausted, Blair said it’s not up to police to ask the government for more tools.

He also said he was not aware at the time that the RCMP took that position. The inquiry heard last week that Lucki did not raise that point in two crucial meetings with cabinet ministers on Feb. 13 — the day before the government invoked the Emergencies Act — but that she emailed it to Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino’s chief of staff.

The focus of the federal inquiry into the declaration of a public order emergency shifted gears Monday to examine the political thinking that informed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s decision on Feb. 14 to invoke the Emergencies Act for the first time since the act passed in 1988.

Bringing the Emergencies Act into play gave police the power to declare no-go zones where it would bar public assembly, the ability to freeze bank accounts of convoy organizers without due process, and the means to commandeer tow trucks to remove vehicles.

The inquiry has heard conflicting evidence about the extent to which police used those powers.

At that time, there were more than 500 trucks still in downtown Ottawa, protests were taking place in 10 different provinces, and at 10 border ports of entry officials were grappling with traffic slowdowns or blockades, according to evidence already presented to Justice Paul Rouleau.

However, on the day the full cabinet was considering the Emergencies Act — Feb. 13 — a blockade at Windsor’s Ambassador Bridge to the United States had been cleared by a joint Windsor-OPP operation, using existing legal authorities and provincial emergency measures.

Blair’s testimony also shed some light on his view of Peter Sloly, the Ottawa police chief who resigned on Feb. 15 and faced intense scrutiny during the protest occupation. In a text message to his chief of staff, Blair said he doubted Sloly was getting “a lot of support in his own organization. They are likely sitting back and waiting for him to flounder. He does not have a strong support network within Provincial police leadership either.”

Blair — who worked with Sloly for years with the Toronto Police Service — clarified that he was referring to various police leaders in the province, not the leadership of the Ontario Provincial Police. He also said he was concerned that the necessary “cohesion” of the Ottawa police command structure “may not have been strong as it needed to be.”

In his own testimony at the inquiry, Sloly acknowledged the chaos inside his police force during the crisis but shifted blame to subordinates, other police agencies and politicians.

Earlier Monday, the inquiry heard testimony by CSIS director David Vigneault, who said he advised the government that it was necessary to invoke the Emergencies Act, despite the fact that the convoy protests did not meet the definition of a security threat in the CSIS Act.

The inquiry heard from other senior public servants, including the privy council clerk and the national security adviser, who also believed the move was necessary. However, the heads of the RCMP, the Ontario Provincial Police and the Ottawa police — which were the three forces that finally united in an integrated command team to end the Ottawa protests — have testified they believed that existing legal authorities and provincial Ontario emergency measures were sufficient.

Tonda MacCharles is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @tondamacc

Alex Ballingall is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @aballinga

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