OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s national security and intelligence adviser says the head of the RCMP failed to inform the federal cabinet when it was on the cusp of invoking the Emergencies Act of her view that police had not exhausted all legal tools to deal with last winter’s so-called “Freedom Convoy” protests, an inquiry was told Thursday.
Jody Thomas, Trudeau’s senior national security aide, refuted key elements of testimony by RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki, saying the top Mountie had a duty to speak up — but didn’t — when the government was considering the controversial decision on Feb. 13. Lucki also did not communicate her view to Thomas before she briefed cabinet ministers at two crucial meetings that day, mere hours before the government invoked the Emergencies Act, Thomas said.
Moreover, Thomas testified, Lucki failed to make clear that the RCMP felt police finally had an operational plan in place that would end the blockade of downtown Ottawa without federal emergency powers. She said Lucki only told a meeting of bureaucrats — not politicians — on Feb. 13 that police “possibly” had a plan, a statement Thomas recalled the RCMP commissioner had made several times before.
Thomas charged that Lucki had an obligation to directly raise that information with the prime minister and his cabinet as they made a critical and unprecedented decision.
“If there is useful information or critical information, it needs to be provided whether you’re on the speaking list or not,” she said.
It was extraordinary testimony that reveals a deep fracturing of trust at senior levels of government in the country’s top Mountie.
Lucki claimed on Tuesday she had communicated to the government “verbally” and “in writing” that there were existing legal tools for police to end the protests, but said she was not called upon at the meetings of cabinet members.
Lucki also said she informed the government that an integrated police command team had put together a plan that would use those existing tools.
However, Lucki’s evidence was marked by contradictions with the written record.
An email she sent directly to Thomas and Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino contained the RCMP chief’s “key messages” about half an hour before a full cabinet meeting on the evening of Feb. 13 outlined a plan to deal with the protest occupation in Ottawa, which had the support of the RCMP and Ontario Provincial Police. But the email did not contain her advice that police still had tools available to use without using the emergency powers.
That point was made in a separate email sent moments later to Mendicino’s senior aide, Mike Jones. Lucki told reporters this week she felt that was akin to telling the minister himself.
Yet, according to Thomas, both points failed to make it through to the cabinet discussions the day before the Emergencies Act was invoked.
On Thursday, inquiry lawyer Shantona Chaudhury questioned Thomas, asking if Lucki’s concerns were a message Thomas was asked to convey at either of the two ministerial meetings that day.
“No, I was not,” Thomas said, adding “and we build my speaking points from the information from the agencies and departments.”
Thomas also denied the RCMP commissioner gave notice to the Trudeau cabinet that police had, by then, a workable operational plan to end the blockades, despite repeated questions from the government to confirm such a plan existed from the outset after the protests entrenched in downtown Ottawa after the first weekend.“ I don’t recall cabinet being informed of that,” Thomas said. “We had no evidence of that.”
Thomas said the government “would expect some level of assurance from the RCMP that the people were in place, it was executable. We don’t expect to see details. That’s policing. But we needed a level of assurance that yes, finally, the officers needed, the equipment needed, the executable strategic and tactical plan was there, and the same thing had been asked for several days, and we didn’t have any evidence or assurance that that was, in fact, where we were.”
Late Thursday a spokesman for Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino said in an email to the Star, “The government has confidence in Commissioner Lucki.”
“We continue to work with her to keep our communities safe and make significant progress on an array of important issues — including reforming the RCMP, advancing Indigenous policing, protecting Canadians from gun violence and more,” said Mendicino’s communications director Alex Cohen.
It was a critical time, the inquiry heard earlier Thursday from senior finance officials, as the Liberal government saw no end to the disruptions, although a Windsor-OPP led police operation using provincial emergency authorities was underway to end the blockade of the Ambassador Bridge.
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Finance officials described how the government believed the protests would cause greater economic harm the longer they were able to last, especially with the border blockades. They also said the situation drew high-level concerns from the United States and put Canada’s trading relationship with this vital economic partner in jeopardy, with U.S. President Joe Biden discussing it with Trudeau.
Thomas also said Thursday she opposed, in meetings with cabinet ministers, a proposal that was floating around that unspecified federal officials should meet with protesters, in part because of a failed negotiation bid by the Ontario government with Ambassador Bridge blockaders. She also felt it was unclear that protest leaders had influence to direct the entire Ottawa occupation.
Thomas confirmed she told cabinet on Feb. 13, as it was deciding whether to invoke the Emergencies Act, that she thought the emergency declaration was necessary, despite the fact the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) was advising — according to documents previously shown at the inquiry — that the protests did not pose a national security threat according to the agency’s own definition.
Brendan Miller, a lawyer representing some “Freedom Convoy” protest leaders, suggested since the Emergencies Act relies on the CSIS definition of a national security threat, that the government’s invocation was illegitimate.
Thomas firmly pushed back, stating the Emergencies Act is not “limited” to the CSIS definition and that the federal cabinet relies on broader advice about what constitutes a national security threat.
“Their mandate is very narrow,” she said of CSIS. “They are not the only arbiters of what is a national security threat in this country.”
That statement alarmed one lawyer at the inquiry, Sujit Choudhry, who is representing the Canadian Constitution Foundation, an organization opposed to the invocation of the Emergencies Act.
In an email to the Star, Choudhry expressed shock that Trudeau’s senior adviser stated the government didn’t need to show a national security threat existed according to CSIS’s definition — a requirement, according to Choudhry, that is written into the Emergencies Act itself.
“The federal government’s case for the legality of the public order emergency took a dangerous and dark turn today,” he said.
In her testimony, Thomas insisted the protests still amounted to a “national crisis” that included threats to economic security and people’s ability to conduct their normal lives.
Thomas said the government was aware on Feb. 13 the RCMP was concerned about weapons at a convoy protest blockade near the border crossing in Coutts, Alta., but said only the RCMP knew the details of “the extent” of those firearms. The next day, the RCMP seized a cache of semi-automatic weapons and arrested a number of people on conspiracy and weapons charges.
The inquiry heard earlier this week that Thomas wrote to Privy Council intelligence adviser Mike MacDonald, and demanded RCMP produce an “urgent” assessment of the risks of the protests, just before noon on Feb. 14.
Thomas testified she was simply seeking a level of detail needed before the government made the move to invoke the Emergencies Act.
“Clearly this isn’t just COVID and is a threat to democracy and rule of law,” Thomas wrote. “This is about a national threat to national interest and institutions,” Thomas added. “By people who do not care about or understand democracy. Who are preparing to be violent. Who are motivated by anti-government sentiment.”
Thomas testified that reflected her view of the situation. The request was forwarded to the deputy public safety minister Rob Stewart, and an RCMP officer named Adriana Poloz responded with a written summary that warned of a possible “lone actor attack,” and about “ideologically motivated groups and individuals.”
Thomas testified she doesn’t think she ever received the document she expected.
Lucki also testified she could not recall if she ever saw that threat assessment.
After her testimony, Lucki told reporters she continues to have the confidence of the government, saying, “I’m absolutely staying on as commissioner of the RCMP.”
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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