The federal government’s unprecedented decision to invoke the Emergencies Act came after suggestions of a potential “breakthrough” with demonstrators associated with the so-called “Freedom Convoy” came to naught.
In a statement on Friday, a spokesperson for Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino confirmed a report first published by the Toronto Star on Thursday evening, acknowledging that federal officials had been told a “breakthrough” might be possible before it became clear municipal negotiations had failed.
“The potential for a breakthrough referred to negotiations led principally by the City of Ottawa with illegal blockaders in the days before the invocation of the Emergencies Act,” said Alex Cohen, director of communications for Mendicino in an email to Global News.
“The government closely monitored the status of negotiations, which were disavowed by many associated with the so-called Freedom Convoy and were ultimately unsuccessful. The government considered this as a factor in the decision to invoke the Emergencies Act.”
The remarks come after the government filed documents in Federal Court last week in response to a challenge of the invocation of the Act by associates of the convoy organizers.
Those documents include notes from a meeting of the Incident Response Group on Thursday Feb. 10.
The notes say that a “plan of action” was being developed and that “the preference remains to continue moving forward with negotiations, with enforcement actions to start early next week if negotiations remain unsuccessful.”
Three days later, Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson would go on to confirm “backchannel” negotiations with convoy organizers to have their trucks leave residential areas in the core by the following day.
However, while a small number of vehicles shifted, the majority remained encamped in those areas and the federal government invoked the Emergencies Act on Feb. 14.
Peter Sloly resigned as chief of the Ottawa Police Service on Feb. 15, while the major multijurisdictional police operation that began to clear out the demonstration on Feb. 18.
Trudeau revoked the Emergencies Act on Feb. 23.
Participants in the demonstration encamped and blockaded city streets for three weeks in late January and February 2022, including the residential communities in the downtown core.
During that time, participants blasted truck and air horns for hours on end, including through the night. Ottawa police said they received hundreds of reports from residents of harassing, threatening and abusive conduct, along with hateful conduct, traffic violations and municipal bylaw violations.
The documents filed by the federal government in court describe Mendicino indicating to the meeting that there was an increase in “systematic targeting and coordination rather than ad hoc protests,” and questions about the willingness of law enforcement to act.
“There is a broader challenge with law enforcement, some of whom may be sympathetic to the protesters’ cause, resulting in reluctance to enforce,” the meeting notes state.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau put two potential tracks for discussion to the group at the meeting, made up of federal cabinet ministers and national security officials from several different agencies: “actions that could be taken under existing authorities,” and “the process of invoking the Emergencies Act.”
The pages that follow are heavily redacted, including the “wrap up” section, and it is not clear from the documents whether the decision to invoke the Emergencies Act was made at that specific time.
Ottawa police lack of plan raised in key meeting
Another meeting of the Incident Response Group took place on Feb. 12, and the notes describe officials acknowledging an increase in the number of people at the demonstrations over the days since the last meeting.
“The Prime Minister confirmed that he had been speaking with a number of international partners and they are all expressing concern about Canada and our ability to handle it,” the notes state.
Mendicino, according to the notes, told the meeting that there appeared to be two groups at play in the blockades across the country: the first, he said, was “relatively harmless and happy with a strong relationship to faith communities.”
In contrast, the second was described as “more concerning and comprised of harder extremists,” including individuals with military training who appeared to be advising the organizers.
Those documents also emphasized that Ottawa was seeing a “significant escalation in the boldness of the protestors” in the nation’s capital, including a flood of hoax calls to the city’s 911 lines.
The records also mention “indications of weapons on site” at the blockade in Coutts, Alta., and that attempts to dismantle a blockade of the Ambassador Bridge in Windsor, Ont., were forced to stall after police became outnumbered by demonstrators.
“There appears to be a lack of a plan in Ottawa,” the notes go on to suggest.
At the time, Sloly was still chief of police and facing intense criticism for having allowed the convoy to encamp in the city streets in the first place despite public statements from participants days ahead of their arrival that clearly stated an intent not to leave once they arrived.
A list of takeaway tasks from the Feb. 12 meeting indicate directions were given at that time to draw up an operational plan on how to communicate and execute a potential invocation of the Emergencies Act.
The notes from a subsequent Feb. 13 meeting of the Incident Response Group are almost entirely redacted. The brief lines of unredacted text state only that while some progress had been made in beginning to clear blockades outside of Ottawa, there was no timeline for when the border crossings would reopen and growing concerns about “ongoing economic losses.”
Those were pegged at between 0.1 per cent to 0.2 per cent of Canada’s GDP per week that the blockades were permitted to continue.
The latter point has been one of particular contention amid questions over whether the risks of economic damage from the blockades at border crossings were justified.
A Global News assessment of cross-border trade data from the time showed only a small decrease in trade volume, and what appeared to be a quick recovery as truckers found alternate routes.
A cabinet meeting at 8:30 p.m. Eastern later that same day — Feb. 13 — listed an “overview of the Emergencies Act” on its agenda, but the minutes from that section of the notes are fully redacted.
Thomas Carrique, commissioner of the Ontario Provincial Police, told a parliamentary committee in March that the force had deemed the convoy a national security threat one week prior to the invocation of the Emergencies Act. He did not specify what led to that determination.
Ottawa police repeatedly came under heated criticism from residents struggling to understand why the force allowed the convoy to encamp in residential streets, which surround Parliament Hill, as well as over concerns about a lack of enforcement of the laws and local ordinances.
Steve Bell, interim chief of the Ottawa Police Service, said during that March parliamentary committee there were 230 arrests with 118 people criminally charged with more than 400 criminal counts to date.
He was asked whether he would describe the convoy as “peaceful” and “unobtrusive.”
“No, I wouldn’t,” he answered.
With files from Global News’ Stewart Bell.