It became “virtually impossible” to enforce the law in downtown Ottawa during the “Freedom Convoy” protests, Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino says.
This was part of what fuelled the government’s decision to invoke the controversial Emergencies Act in order to clear out the protesters earlier this year, Mendicino told the inquiry tasked with probing that decision on Tuesday.
“In ultimately forming the opinion that we needed to invoke the Emergencies Act, one of my main concerns was the inability to enforce the law adjacent to critical infrastructure. That would have included Parliament,” he said.
“The situation on the ground…it was on the brink of being completely ungovernable, if not already.”
There were two distinct groups present at the protest, according to the public safety minister. One group was “exercising their lawful right to protest” against specific government policies — but the other, he said, “had other more extreme objectives.”
This second group, Mendicino told the Public Order Emergency Commission, “was much more sophisticated and organized.” It was “made up, potentially, of individuals who had previously served in either the military or in law enforcement.”
“That, to me, raised a concern, a very serious concern, about some of the counter-operations that could be run by that group to overwhelm legitimate law enforcement.”
The inquiry is scrutinizing the events and advice that led to the mid-February decision to invoke the Emergencies Act, which came nearly three weeks into the protests that took over downtown Ottawa and blockaded border crossings.
Mendicino details threats levied at politicians during convoy
According to Mendicino, some of these protesters were “prepared to become violent.”
“We were concerned about whether or not the blockade might target the prime minister,” he told the inquiry.
“There were (subsequently) many threats that were made towards not only public, elected public figures, but equally law enforcement, and representatives of the media … which to me again signaled that this was a movement that in some cases was prepared to attack our democratic institutions to force change around policies.”
Mendicino also testified that not only did he receive a death threat “throughout the convoy,” but his family did as well.
These concerns led to a “heightened security posture” around Parliament Hill, Mendicino said, so the “business of government” could continue despite the protests that surrounded the workplace.
“I had many conversations with parliamentarians — disproportionately women, I would point out — who were the recipient of harassment, intimidation, expressions of hate through the convoy,” the public safety minister said.
“So that additional security was very much driven by the reality on the ground.”
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Mendicino shares perspective on chats with Lucki, Ontario
As the hearing continued, Mendicino was asked about an email RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki sent to his office the day before the government invoked the Emergencies Act, which suggested police might not need the act’s extraordinary powers.
Mendicino said Lucki never shared these concerns with him.
“The commissioner did not express that opinion to me, at any time, directly,” he explained.
Tuesday’s hearings also shed new light on difficult dynamics between the federal and provincial government during the convoy protests.
Past testimony the inquiry has heard indicated Ontario was reluctant to step in for “political reasons,” forcing the City of Ottawa to declare a state of emergency in the hopes of pressuring the Ford government into taking action.
In a text exchange submitted into evidence during Tuesday’s hearing, Mendicino’s chief of staff Michael Jones described a “frosty” encounter with then-Ontario Solicitor General Sylvia Jones during the convoy.
In the text, Mendicino’s chief of staff said “…the last call got pretty frosty at the end when (Mendicino) was saying we need the province to get back to us with their plan.”
He then sends a quote, which appeared to cite the Ontario solicitor general, that read “I don’t take edicts from you, you’re not my (f—ing) boss.”
When asked if this quote accurately reflects his call with the Ontario minister,Mendicino acknowledged that there was some “colourful vernacular” towards the end of his call with Ontario’s Jones, but told the inquiry the two “still enjoy a very productive and positive rapport.”
Feds considered mediation with 'Freedom Convoy': Mendicino
The federal government considered hiring a mediator or some form of interlocutor to facilitate conversations between ministers and the “Freedom Convoy” protesters, Mendicino said.
“There were conversations between the prime minister and myself about searching for a suitable mediator or interlocutor, someone who would have had the experience to de-escalate and resolve situations that are complex,” he said.
During the protests, Trudeau wouldn’t provide a definitive answer about negotiating with protesters — but he did say the idea of bringing in “an alternative government,” which one of the organizing groups, Canada Unity, suggested in a petition with hundreds of thousands of signatures, was a “nonstarter.”
'Freedom Corp' lawyer kicked out of hearing
Things grew tense between Justice Paul Rouleau, who is the commissioner overseeing the Emergencies Act inquiry, and the lawyer for the organizers of the “Freedom Convoy,” Brendan Miller.
Miller attempted to have the commissioner rule on multiple motions on the spot during the hearing, including a demand to call another witness and a request to force the government to un-redact numerous documents.
Rouleau gave Miller repeated warnings about respecting the schedule of the committee.
“The schedule is not as important to getting to the truth,” Miller told the commissioner.
The commissioner replied that “there is no question” that the inquiry wants “to get at the truth.”
“But you know what? It’s a very complex issue and it’s not all about what you want,” Rouleau added.
After being asked to submit his request in written form, Miller continually spoke over Rouleau as the commissioner attempted to resume the hearing. Ultimately, Rouleau had Miller removed from the hearing.
The public safety minister is the first of two federal ministers set to testify before the inquiry on Tuesday.
Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc, whose file governs federal relationships with the provinces, is expected to testify later in the day and may be prompted to respond to Prairie provinces’ concerns they weren’t adequately consulted on federal plans.
More ministers are expected to appear before the commission throughout the week, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s testimony is expected on Friday.
— With files from The Canadian Press