Federal ministers defended the government’s use of the Emergencies Act Monday as they announced an independent public inquiry to investigate the use of the act to end blockades at Canadian border crossings and in Ottawa earlier this year.
The Liberal government declared an emergency under the act for the first time in history on Feb. 14, granting extraordinary temporary powers to police to clear people out and to banks to freeze the accounts of some of those involved.
The temporary powers meant protesters and their supporters could face fines up to $5,000 or five years in prison during the emergency declaration.
“It was a necessary decision, it was a responsible decision, it was the right thing to do,” said Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino.
The Emergencies Act requires the government to call an inquiry within 60 days of revoking the emergency declaration, to examine the circumstances that led to the emergency being declared and the measures taken to deal with it.
Monday was the last day the government could call the inquiry under the law.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau named Ontario Appeal Court Justice Paul S. Rouleau as the inquiry commissioner. Rouleau must provide a final report in English and French to the federal government by Feb. 20, 2023.
“I am committed to ensuring that the process is as open and transparent as possible, recognizing the tight timelines for reporting imposed by the Emergencies Act,” Rouleau said in an emailed statement Monday.
The Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement the Public Order Emergency Commission will include an examination of the evolution of the convoy, the impact of funding and disinformation, the economic impact, and efforts of police and other responders before and after the declaration.
On Monday evening, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association said the government’s comments “fell short” by making it clear they want the inquiry to look into the actions of the protesters.
“But the requirement to call an inquiry was put into the Emergencies Act to ensure a robust examination of the government’s use of emergency powers,” said Abby Deshman, director of the CCLA’s criminal justice program.
“The broader context is important, but the government’s attempts to divert attention from their own actions is concerning.”
The Conservatives echoed that, accusing the government of trying to “whitewash” the inquiry in a statement of their own.
“The Liberal government is doing everything in their power to ensure this inquiry is unsubstantial and fails to hold them accountable,” the statement said.
The Conservatives added that Rouleau should be given the power to compel evidence that includes documents and other evidence covered under cabinet confidence.
Mendicino said Rouleau and his commission will operate independently.
He said the inquiry commission will have broad access to classified documents, but would not say if cabinet confidence would be waived to allow the judge a full picture of the conversations held behind closed doors during the protests.
The extent to which the government’s findings will be made public are still to be determined by the judge, Mendicino said.
NDP MP Matthew Green, joint chair of the parliamentary review committee, said everything related to the use of the Emergencies Act should be public as possible.
“We will be pushing to have as much of the discussion had within the public forum as we possibly can. I know Canadians have many questions,” he said.
Duff Conacher, co-founder of Democracy Watch, criticized the government’s choice to appoint its own commissioner instead of allowing opposition parties to weigh in on who should head it up.
“The fact that the Trudeau cabinet alone chose the inquiry commissioner means the inquiry is not independent from the cabinet, and taints the inquiry as partisan,” Conacher said.
At the time the legislation was invoked, Attorney General David Lametti said the government couldn’t “allow our democratic system to be hijacked by shows of force.”
While many people involved in the “Freedom Convoy” said they were there to demand an end to all COVID-19 restrictions, some, including many of the most vocal organizers, also wanted the Liberal government overthrown.
Throughout most of February, Parliament Hill and the streets around it were packed with people and trucks carrying signs and flags adorned with expletives directed at Trudeau.
The protests significantly affected Ottawa residents and downtown businesses. Officials described a state of “lawlessness” as bylaws went unenforced by police for three weeks and the sound of air horns droned on at all hours of the day and night.
Several provincial premiers have spoken out against what they characterized as a serious overreach of power by the federal government, arguing police already had all the authority they needed to clear out protesters.
The City of Ottawa’s auditor general also launched a review of the local response, and several groups — including the CCLA — have initiated proceedings in Federal Court to challenge the government’s use of the Emergencies Act. Those cases are expected to play out over the coming months.
The inquiry is also distinct from the all-party parliamentary committee struck to review the Emergency Act’s use in March. Both the public inquiry and the parliamentary committee are required under the Emergencies Act.
Another convoy, this one on motorcycles, is due to arrive in Ottawa next weekend.
—Laura Osman, The Canadian Press