The Canadian military faced an “exceptional” and “unprecedented” challenge in determining what — if any — role it could play in clearing the so-called “freedom convoy” earlier this year, defence experts say.
That comes after Global News first reported on Wednesday about documents shedding further light on how senior defence officials weighed the risks and role of the Canadian Forces in what is now widely described by law enforcement and political leaders as an occupation of the nation’s capital.
One of those documents was a legal memo prepared by the deputy judge advocate general of the military for the chief of the defence staff, Gen. Wayne Eyre, describing a “lack of precedent” for the situation, which saw multiple members of the Canadian Forces under scrutiny for participation.
“Military folks are planners. They want to anticipate what’s going happen and have a plan for dealing with things. And so it’s not a matter of whether they would like to have acted in this thing — it’s that they were concerned or anticipating that they would be asked,” said Steve Saideman, a defence expert and director of the Canadian Defence and Security Network out of Carleton University.
“This being very un-standard situation, something very exceptional, there’s no doubt that they were anticipating being asked.”
Multiple military and law enforcement sources told Global News in February the government and RCMP asked about the possibility of military assistance, primarily the use of military vehicles capable of towing the encamped trucks, as well as the potential for using military-owned space to stow them.
The sources, who spoke on background because they were not authorized to speak publicly on security matters, said senior military officials were not keen to get involved given the military is not a police force.
The documents obtained by Global News, while heavily redacted, show reference in that legal memo to both the powers vested in the National Defence Act, which lays out the duties and powers of the military, as well as uncertainty about what the invocation of the Emergencies Act would mean.
At the time, the demonstration had obstructed the streets of the nation’s capital for three weeks and led to hundreds of calls to police and posts on social media from residents describing harassing, intimidating, threatening and abusive behaviour by convoy members towards the public.
“You had an unprecedented situation,” said Christian Leuprecht, a defence expert working with the Royal Military College of Canada and Queen’s University.
“The fact that the judge advocate general was within minutes providing this advice to the chief of defence staff and to the deputy minister, suggests that the judge advocate general had already been working on this possibility and was doing their due diligence.”
Former Ottawa police chief Peter Sloly had mused on Feb. 2 that there may not be a “police solution” to the convoy blockade. One day later, Defence Minister Anita Anand ruled out a role for the military in ending the demonstration.
“The Canadian Forces are not a police force,” she tweeted on Feb. 3. “As such, there are no plans for the Canadian Armed Forces to be involved in the current situation in Ottawa in a law enforcement capacity.”
Leuprecht added that even without using the military as a “police force,” involvement in other areas of support such as intelligence or surge capacity could have been on the table.
“Just because you call it the Armed Forces, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re looking to have uniformed members in the streets helping police to do law enforcement,” he said.
Military members among convoy show 'real problem'
Among the other considerations detailed in those documents was the involvement of some military members — including at least two members of Canada’s elite special forces — in the convoy blockades.
Officials inside the Department of National Defence privately warned of the need for a strategy as journalists began asking questions about members participating in the activities.
“This likely will shift into an institutional issue rather than related to just CANSOF and we will need a unified strategic approach in how we deal with it,” an assistant deputy minister at the Department of National Defence wrote in an email to both Eyre and Deputy Minister Bill Matthews on Feb. 10, 2022.
Just two months later, a high-profile and damning federal report would go on to warn of growing numbers of extremists among the ranks of the Canadian Forces — in particular, white supremacy- and ideologically-motivated violent extremism.
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The latter is a phrase used by national security agencies in Canada to describe the spectrum of extremist and, in some cases, terrorist ideologies that often share similar themes of anti-immigrant, anti-government, antisemitic and anti-women views, many of them rooted in white supremacy.
“When you actually have an organization or a protest movement headed towards and then occupying Ottawa for quite a period of time, that is getting aid from active members of the military, that’s a real problem,” Saideman said.
“The stakes are higher. It makes it more real that there are folks within the military that may not have the values that the military would like to espouse.”
The implications for the military’s future, he added, are clear.
“It’s bad because that means that those people may disobey orders and it’s bad because it may hurt other people from joining the military or staying in the military because they don’t want to be working with those people.”
The National Security Intelligence and Review Agency had warned in December 2021 that white supremacists in the Canadian Forces pose an “active counter-intelligence threat.”
As Global News has reported previously, some — but not all — of the organizers behind the convoy have ties to white nationalism and other racist ideologies.
– with files from Global’s Mercedes Stephenson and David Baxter