As the ‘Freedom Convoy’ demonstrations continued to snarl downtown Ottawa in February, the prime minister’s national security adviser warned of the possibility that its most extreme attendees could target the general public.
Notes from a closed-door meeting between Jody Thomas and what appeared to be senior bureaucrats on Feb. 14, cautioned that actors “espousing violent extremism” had entrenched themselves in Ottawa — and these people were “distinct” from individuals seeking to participate in “legitimate protest.”
“The most likely IMVE (Ideologically Motivated Violent Extremism)-related scenario involves an individual or small group using readily available weapons and resources such as knives, firearms, homemade explosives and vehicles in public areas against soft targets, including opposition groups or members of the general public,” read Thomas’s speaking notes from the meeting.
IMVE, according to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, is violent extremism motivated by a range of influences, rather than a single specific religion or political view. Those influences include misogyny, racism, anti-government sentiment or other grievances, according to CSIS.
While the overall terrorism threat level remained unchanged, according to Thomas’ notes, she warned that IMVE adherents “may feel empowered” by the level of “disorder” resulting from the protests.
“This could lead individuals vulnerable to extremist messaging to commit isolated acts of violence,” Thomas’ notes read.
Her notes were made public as evidence during the Public Order Emergency Commission, the inquiry tasked with investigating the government’s decision to invoke the Emergencies Act on Feb. 14.
At the time, the prime minister said the extraordinary but temporary powers were needed to quell protests against pandemic-related restrictions and the Liberal government.
According to a summary of an interview Thomas had conducted for the inquiry ahead of her testimony on Thursday, the prime minister’s national security adviser saw the “totality of the circumstances” of the protests as constituting a “threat to the security of Canada, and therefore, a public order emergency.”
Thomas told the inquiry she was asked if the Emergencies Act was necessary on Feb. 13, and that her response was “yes.”
This response was given despite a warning in her Feb. 14 speaking notes, within which Thomas had acknowledged intelligence agency warnings that the move could spur some of the more extreme elements of the demonstrations to become violent.
“CSIS assessments indicate that some IVME actors may see federal government action as a reason to mobilize towards violence,” the notes read.
Still, Thomas had warned in her pre-testimony interview with the inquiry that “once a tipping point of violence was reached, it would be too late, even with the police presence available.”
Thomas and her team also grappled with determining where the line lives between legal and illegal protests — something she said she still doesn’t have a firm answer for.
“It is something that we have to consider as situations like this, perhaps, become more of the norm. What we were discussing is that the only measure can’t be violence of a nature of January 6th,” Thomas said.
This conversation — determining what constitutes legal and illegal protest — is a “conversation that is continuing,” one that Thomas said is “critical.”
“We have seen these kind of uprisings in democracies around the world. What does it mean? What can we do? What should we do?”
Convoy had to be removed to avoid major economic damage
The ‘Freedom Convoy’ blockades at major border crossings across the country had to be removed quickly in order to avoid serious, long-term damage to Canada’s economy, finance department officials said Thursday.
The demonstration against COVID-19 public health measures in February saw major ports of entry in Ontario and Alberta blockaded, resulting in a daily trade loss of “around $56 million per day,” finance officials told the Public Order Emergency Commission in an interview, according to a summary.
Every day the protests continued, the financial hit Canada’s economy took compounded, warned Michael Sabia, deputy minister of the department of finance.
“Whatever we could do, we wanted to do quickly because doing it quickly meant shortening duration — and shortening duration meant avoiding the worst economic consequences that we were concerned about,” Sabia said as he testified before the Emergencies Act inquiry.
Sabia said Thursday that his department was seized with the question of how to quickly disperse the protest as the economic costs grew. But, he told the inquiry, there “wasn’t a lot that that we could do in the near-term without passing legislation.”
The border blockades happened amid a backdrop of increased U.S. protectionism, at a time when President Joe Biden’s administration was rethinking all of its trading relationships. The United States is Canada’s most significant trading partner — and Sabia said the convoy protests put this relationship in jeopardy.
“If American companies or the American government began to think that they could not count on us as a reliable source of supply, then they probably would shift production,” he explained.
“If they were to shift production, that would have a … very significant impact on both the level of GDP and the growth rate of GDP.”
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This meant ending the convoy blockades — and fast — was a “right at the core of all of our thinking within the department.”
Without explicitly stating whether he believed the Emergencies Act was necessary, Sabia said the policy his department set using Emergencies Act powers led to a “pretty good outcome.”
The Emergencies Act allowed the government to regulate or prohibit “the use of property” to fund or support the blockade and special economic regulations meant financial services providers could immediately freeze personal or corporate accounts without facing any liabilities.
The finance department drafted this policy under a tight timeline with “evolving facts,” finance official Isabelle Jacques told the inquiry, but were able to have a “successful implementation of that order” despite these challenges.
“The focus was on the people that were involved in illegal activities and that were funding those illegal activities. We also told people ahead of time that if they continue to fund illegal activities or be involved in those illegal activities, that the bank accounts could frozen,” Jacques said.
“People had notice ahead of time. And if a decision was made, stay on the premises to continue to stay in those activities, these people knew what could happen.”
The measures the finance department implemented using the Emergencies Act, Sabia added, were aimed at giving demonstrators “an incentive to go home, having made their point.”
“That seemed to us to be a path worth pursuing,” he added.
“I think there’s a pretty wide acknowledgment that these financial measures did help law enforcement to bring an end to these in as peaceful way as they possibly could. And I think law enforcement’s been pretty consistent on acknowledging the positive contribution that these measures have made.”
Hearings in the public inquiry began in mid-October and are expected to conclude at the end of next week, with a final report due to Parliament in February.
— With files from Global News’ Jillian Piper, The Canadian Press