The “Freedom Convoy” amounted to a national emergency warranting the use of the Emergencies Act, but it was an emergency that could’ve been avoided.
That’s a central conclusion of the independent public inquiry into the federal government’s decision to invoke the never-before-used Emergencies Act to address the protest movement that ground downtown Ottawa to a halt and blockaded border crossings last February.
Justice Paul Rouleau, who released his 2,000-page final report on Friday, found Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government met the “very high threshold” for invoking the Emergencies Act after failures by police and politicians to address the protests.
Invoking the Emergencies Act is a “drastic move, but it is not a dictatorial one” Rouleau wrote.
“When the decision was made to invoke the (Emergencies Act) on February 14, (2022) … there existed a national emergency arising from threats to the security of Canada. That necessitated the taking of special temporary measures,” Rouleau told reporters in Ottawa Friday.
Rouleau added that he didn’t reach the decision lightly and did so “with reluctance,” and that reasonable people could come to a different conclusion based on the 36-days of testimony and thousands of documents submitted to the commission.
“The fact that circumstances evolved to the point where cabinet reasonably considered it necessary to invoke the act is regrettable because, in my view, the situation that led to its use could likely have been avoided.”
While Rouleau maintained the federal government was justified in invoking emergency powers, the commission questioned some of the specific powers – such as proposing to suspend protesters’ vehicle insurance
The finding amounts to a political win for Trudeau and his cabinet, who have maintained that the emergency powers were required as the protests spiraled out of control last February.
Rouleau’s report reflected heavily on how that spiral began, and how “lawful protest descended into lawlessness, culminating in a national emergency.”
Speaking to reporters after the report’s release, Trudeau thanked Rouleau for his findings and recommendations and said his government would provide a “comprehensive public response” within the next year. A plan to deal with the recommendations will be in place within six months, he confirmed.
“There should be a high bar for invoking the Emergencies Act, and we hit that,” he said.
“(We will be) looking at all the lessons to be learned so that we don’t have to hit that high bar again, so that we can deal with situations of emergency.”
He said his government’s deliberations over whether to invoke the Act recognized the legislation was written 30 years ago, and said issues like provincial and territorial collaboration and consultation with Indigenous peoples should be formalized in the legislation. He suggested he was open to amending the legislation as Rouleau recommended but did not offer specifics.
Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland added lessons had been learned from the government’s move to freeze the financial assets of the protesters and their supporters under the Act, which the report found were appropriate and effective but contained flaws.
Rouleau found those flaws included the targeting of joint bank accounts shared by spouses who did not support the “Freedom Convoy” and the inability for protesters to regain access to their accounts after leaving the blockades.
“In the very horrible event that this ever has to happen again, for sure there are some lessons for us,” Freeland said.
Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre told reporters in Calgary that Trudeau himself created the conditions that led to the protests, pointing to the rising cost of living and the “politicization” of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“He caused the emergency that unfolded,” he said.
Trudeau on Friday said he regrets not having “chosen my words more carefully” when describing demonstrators as a “fringe minority” who did not represent most Canadians’ desires to keep each other safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The fact is there is a very small number of people in this country who deliberately spread misinformation and disinformation that led to Canadians deaths, that led to excessive hardship in people who believed them,” he said.
“I continue to be very, very firm against those individuals, but that is a small subset of people who were just hurting and worried and wanting to be heard.”
Ottawa ‘abandoned’ by Premier Doug Ford?
The report documented failures by both police and politicians to adequately identify the significance of the convoy, to prepare for the participants in advance, and to address them once they dug in for the long haul.
Rouleau’s report called it “troubling” that the Ontario government under Premier Doug Ford seemed reluctant to “become fully engaged” in efforts to resolve the protests in Ottawa, citing testimony given during the six weeks of inquiry hearings.
“Given (Ottawa) and its police service were clearly overwhelmed, it was incumbent on the province to become visibly, publicly, and wholeheartedly engaged from the outset,” Rouleau wrote.
“Had there been greater collaboration at the political level from the start … (it) could also have provided the people of Ottawa with a clear message that they had not been abandoned by their provincial government during a time of crisis.”
Ford and his attorney general, Sylvia Jones, invoked parliamentary privilege to avoid testifying before Rouleau’s commission.
The report also identified “deficiencies” with how the Ottawa Police Service handled the protest movement — despite noting that the “Freedom Convoy” was unprecedented and would’ve presented “significant challenges regardless of the adequacy of the police response.”
Rouleau noted deficiencies in Ottawa police’s intelligence gathering on the convoy plans, on analysis of “open-source” information, and dysfunction within the force’s senior ranks that limited the effectiveness of the resources they did have.
Rouleau also took issue with the testimony of Ontario Provincial Police Supt. Pat Morris, whose unit produced the OPP’s “Hendon” intelligence reports on the convoy, who suggested there was an “absence of credible threats that protesters intended to engage in violence or other unlawful activity.”
Ottawa protests were ‘unsafe and chaotic'
Rouleau also made clear his assessment of the descriptions of the convoy by participants and organizers.
“I do not accept the organizers’ descriptions of the protests in Ottawa as lawful, calm, peaceful, or something resembling a celebration,” Rouleau wrote.
“That may have been true at certain times and in isolated areas. It may also be the case that things that protesters saw as celebratory, such as horn honking, drinking, and dancing in the streets, were experienced by Ottawa residents as intimidating or harassing.”
Rouleau’s landmark report included 56 recommendations to improve policing responses, federal intelligence collection and sharing, and to improve the Emergencies Act itself.
“The Freedom Convoy was a singular moment in history, in which simmering social, political, and economic grievances were exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, shaped by a complex online landscape rife with misinformation and disinformation, and unleashed in a torrent of political protest and social unrest,” Rouleau’s report concludes.
Rouleau noted the events of last January and February offer “systemic” lessons — for both police and politicians — in a time of simmering grievance, and if those “singular” events repeat they’ll be better prepared to respond.
Rouleau’s commission had sought to answer three central questions: why the Liberal government invoked emergency powers, the circumstances leading up to that decision, and if the sweeping measures were both appropriate and effective in quelling last year’s convoy protests.
But the evidence presented between Oct. 13 and Dec. 2 last year included much more, including dysfunction at the top of the Ottawa Police Service; the impact the convoy had on citizens in various communities; and debates over whether the situation presented a legitimate national security threat.
Rouleau heard from many of the political and policing figures involved in responding to the protests — although notably not Premier Doug Ford or members of his cabinet — including Trudeau, several senior federal cabinet ministers, municipal politicians and senior national security and law enforcement officials.
In all, the commission heard from 76 witnesses over 36 meetings and considered thousands of documents that gave an unprecedented view into the political and policing posture toward the protests.
— with files from Global News’ Rachel Gilmore and the Canadian Press.