OTTAWA — The night before the Liberal government invoked the Emergencies Act to deal with so-called “Freedom Convoy” protesters, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s national security adviser told the federal cabinet “there was potential for a breakthrough” with the occupation around Parliament Hill, newly released documents show.
In a statement to the Star on Thursday, Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino’s office said the adviser was referring to negotiations with protesters led “principally” by the city of Ottawa.
But these talks were ultimately unsuccessful, Mendicino’s office said, and their failure was a factor in the government’s unprecedented decision to invoke the Emergencies Act less than 24 hours later.
The cabinet meeting where the adviser made the statement about a potential breakthrough started at 8:30 p.m. on Feb. 13, according to the documents. Trudeau announced the government had invoked the act the next day at 4:30 p.m.
The revelation comes from meeting minutes and agendas submitted last week in Federal Court, where civil liberties groups are challenging how the federal government used the emergencies law to give police and banks extraordinary powers to quash protests against COVID-19 health measures that blocked border crossings and paralyzed downtown Ottawa this winter.
The documents show that on Feb. 13, National Security and Intelligence Adviser Jody Thomas — a senior civil servant in the department that supports the prime minister — updated the cabinet on the situation.
Minutes from the meeting say Thomas noted how the most significant border blockade — at the Ambassador Bridge between Detroit and Windsor, Ont. — had been lifted, but that several other crossings were still blocked. Thomas also said Canada’s spy agency had reported the “threat picture” from violent extremism remained “stable and unchanged.”
Thomas went on to say “that law enforcement gains have been important and that there was potential for a breakthrough in Ottawa,” according to the minutes. The rest of the notes from the cabinet meeting are blacked out.
Trudeau announced the following afternoon that the government had invoked the Emergencies Act.
Thomas did not respond to a request for comment left with her office on Thursday.
In a written statement to the Star, a spokesperson for Mendicino said Thomas’s remark about a potential breakthrough referred to “negotiations led principally by the city of Ottawa with illegal blockaders.”
That day, news emerged in Ottawa that Mayor Jim Watson had tried to strike a deal with protest organizers to move parked vehicles from the occupation out of residential areas. Some trucks did move closer to Parliament Hill but many remained on streets where people live in the downtown core.
“The government closely monitored the status of negotiations, which were disavowed by many associated with the so-called Freedom Convoy and were ultimately unsuccessful,” said the statement from Mendicino’s communications director, Alexander Cohen.
“The government considered this as a factor in the decision to invoke the Emergencies Act,” Cohen said.
The decision to use the Emergencies Act allowed the government to create special powers for police to restrict access to certain areas, compel tow-truck drivers to help clear blockading vehicles, and force banks to freeze protesters’ accounts.
Trudeau said at the time that use of the Emergencies Act was a “last resort” as police faced “serious challenges” to enforce the law to deal with protests that began in Ottawa in late January and included blockades at border crossings in Alberta, Manitoba and Ontario.
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The decision sparked objections from civil liberties groups and the opposition Conservatives, who argue the legal threshold to use the legislation was not met. The act says an emergency can only be declared if the situation cannot be addressed by any other law in Canada.
The government has justified the move by stating the protests posed an economic and security threat, and presented the potential for “serious violence.”
In Ottawa, the protesters used tractor-trailers and other vehicles to occupy the streets around Parliament Hill for three weeks. During that time, local police reported death threats against public figures, and said emergency lines were flooded with prank calls. In Alberta, Mounties seized a cache of guns and body armour and arrested 13 people, alleging they planned to kill police officers if they moved to clear a border blockade in the south of the province.
While heavily redacted and marked “secret” on every page, the documents filed in court provide a further glimpse into how the government understood the crisis over the four days before it invoked the Emergencies Act. They include minutes from three meetings of the government’s Incident Response Group, a committee of ministers and advisers chaired by Trudeau. The documents also include minutes from the cabinet meeting on Feb. 13.
They show ministers and law enforcement advisers discussed the possibility of invoking the Emergencies Act as early as Feb. 10. Over the next four days, the documents show how officials grappled with the situation and tried to plan for a scenario when the act was deemed necessary.
The documents say officials wanted to develop a “tactical operational plan” in the event they invoked the act. They also include the question “How does this get communicated?” and said, “We need scenario planning to show how bad things could actually get.”
On top of operational issues, the documents indicate that Trudeau and top ministers on the Incident Response Group were told Feb. 10 that protesters at the southern Alberta blockade are “firmly entrenched in their views, and there are weapons on site.”
At that meeting, Mendicino also noted “there is a broader challenge with law enforcement” for the protests in general, since some officers “may be sympathetic to the protesters’ cause, resulting in reluctance to enforce.”
Two days later, on Feb. 12, the group met again. The notes say that Trudeau stated in his opening remarks that “he has been speaking with a number of international partners and they are all expressing concern about Canada and our ability to handle” the crisis.
Later at the meeting, Mendicino reported to the group about “two distinct movements” involved in the protests.
“The first is relatively harmless and happy with a strong relationship to faith communities,” the notes say. “The second is more concerning and comprised of harder extremists trying to undermine government institutions and law enforcement.”
The notes go on to say Mendicino informed the group: “There are increasing reports of ex-military and ex-(Canadian Armed Forces) members who are advising and instructing on the blockades.”
The documents also reveal the federal government considered negotiating with the protesters after the demonstrators blocking the Ambassador Bridge — a critical trade corridor between Detroit and Windsor — rejected an offer from the Ontario government to meet and discuss their concerns if they lifted their blockade.
Police from several agencies eventually cleared the occupation in Ottawa, where they arrested 230 people and laid 400 criminal charges, including several against protest leaders including Tamara Lich, Chris Barber and Pat King.
By Feb. 23, when the federal government revoked the special powers granted under the Emergencies Act, 257 “financial products” had been frozen at the behest of the RCMP, including bank accounts, corporate accounts and credit cards, according to the police agency.
Alex Ballingall is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @aballinga
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