The head of CSIS recommended Prime Minister Justin Trudeau invoke the Emergencies Act during the so-called ‘Freedom Convoy’ protests earlier this year, an inquiry into the decision heard.
David Vigneault, the head of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, told the Public Order Emergencies Commission about his advice to the prime minister during a closed-door interview earlier this month, according to an unclassified summary.
That summary, released on Monday morning, said Vigneault did not believe the convoy posed a national security threat under the CSIS Act but that invoking the Emergencies Act was still necessary.
“Mr. Vigneault explained that based on both his understanding that the Emergencies Act definition of threat to the security of Canada was broader than the CSIS Act, as well as based on his opinion of everything he had seen to that point, he advised the Prime Minister of his belief that it was indeed required to invoke the Act,” the summary of Vigneault’s interview with the commission read.
During the hearing on Monday, the commission counsel read that excerpt of Vigneault’s interview out loud.
“You remember saying that during the closed session?” counsel asked.
The CSIS head replied “yes.”
Counsel asked if he was correct in understanding Vigneault’s line of thinking at the time, that “if you take a broader definition and then look more broadly, you come up with the advice you gave to the Prime Minister of your belief that it was required to invoke the Act.”
Vigneault added “Yes, that’s exactly it.”
The inquiry has previously heard that CSIS determined the protests were not a threat to national security according to the legal definition the agency uses to identify such threats, a finding Vigneault repeated on Monday.
But the CSIS head’s testimony indicated he believed the definition under the Emergencies Act could be broader than only threats that met the agency’s legal definition.
CSIS’ mandate and assessment of threats “should not be interpreted as definitional of” or “comprising all national security concerns,” a document submitted as evidence during the inquiry, which provided institutional definitions related to CSIS, explained.
While the Emergencies Act leans on the CSIS Act definition to understand what constitutes a threat to national security, “there was to be a separate interpretation” of what that meant “based on the confines” of the Emergencies Act, Vigneault added during his testimony.
This, the CSIS head said, “is the crux of the issue.”
The revelation came as the Public Order Emergency Commission begins its final week. To date, it has heard from more than 60 witnesses about the decision to declare a federal emergency as demonstrators protesting COVID-19public health measures blockaded downtown Ottawa and Canada-U.S. border crossings.
Top intelligence officials are first on the witness list this week at the public inquiry.
Also appearing are Michelle Tessier, the CSIS deputy director of operations, and Marie-Helene Chayer, the executive director of its Integrated Terrorism Assessment Centre.
The inquiry has previously heard that CSIS determined the protests were not a threat to national security according to the legal definition the agency uses to identify such threats, but Vigneault’s testimony indicates he believed the definition under the Emergencies Act could be broader than only threats that met the agency’s legal definition.
Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair, whose portfolio is explicitly focused on emergencies, took the stand Monday afternoon. Convoy organizer Tamara Lich was among a small group of spectators watching his testimony in person.
He said that he believed the Emergencies Act was used as a measure of last resort, telling the commission: “I came to believe we needed to find a remedy.”
Blair said he was concerned about the security and integrity of Canada’s borders and of its critical infrastructure. “You don’t have to blow everything up to render it unusable,” he testified. “Rendering it unusable is an attack on critical infrastructure.”
Brendan Miller, a lawyer for Lich and other convoy organizers, accused Blair of having planned to use the Emergencies Act early on, a week into the protest.
Miller based the accusation on meeting notes taken by a scribe in the office of the prime minister’s chief of staff. The notes shown to the commission contain only the words “Emergencies Act”under the heading: “Blair’s current strategy.”
Blair said that the notes are from a meeting in which he told colleagues that it would not be appropriate to use the legislation at that time.
Blair was the first of seven ministers who are expected to appear at the inquiry before Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s anticipated testimony on Friday.
— With files from The Canadian Press