Montreal, Canada – An independent panel will begin hearings this week into Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s use of an emergency measure to disperse anti-vaccine protesters who had blocked Canada-US border crossings and occupied downtown Ottawa earlier this year.
The Public Order Emergency Commission, headed by former Ontario Court of Appeal Justice Paul Rouleau, will hold its first public hearing on Thursday in the capital.
“This critical phase will shed light on the events that led to the declaration of the public order emergency and fully explore the reasons advanced for the declaration,” Rouleau said in a statement on Tuesday.
The panel said it will hear testimony from 65 witnesses, including convoy participants, Ottawa residents, law enforcement officers, municipal and provincial officials, and federal government ministers. Trudeau is also expected to answer questions during the six weeks of public hearings.
The decision to invoke the Emergencies Act for the first time since it came into force in 1988 drew concern from civil rights groups and other observers who questioned whether Canada had met the strict legal threshold needed to invoke the measure.
Others have asked whether it was necessary to use the act at all or if authorities lacked the will to use the tools already at their disposal to end the protests.
The move gave the government sweeping powers, including the ability to bar any public assembly “that may reasonably be expected to lead to a breach of the peace” and restrict access to specific areas.
The Emergencies Act also mandated the public inquiry beginning this week.
That requirement was born out of criticism of the measure’s predecessor, the War Measures Act. It was invoked in 1970 in response to a wave of violence by hardline Quebec separatists and was widely criticised as an infringement on civil liberties.
The “Freedom Convoy” participants converged on downtown Ottawa in late January to protest a vaccine mandate for truckers crossing the Canada-US border. The anti-vaccine truckers and their supporters also called for an end to all COVID-19 restrictions and for Trudeau to step down.
Participants occupied the streets of downtown Ottawa for several weeks, blaring their horns and disrupting daily life while others erected blockades at border crossings in the provinces of Ontario and Alberta.
Days after Trudeau invoked the Emergencies Act on February 14, federal and provincial law enforcement agencies moved in to end the blockades and the Ottawa occupation. They arrested dozens of participants.
The prime minister later defended his decision, saying it was “the responsible thing to do”.
“After weeks of dangerous and unlawful activities, … it became clear that local and provincial authorities needed more tools to restore order and keep people safe,” Trudeau said.
Cara Zwibel, director of the fundamental freedoms programme at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, said the group believed from the very beginning that Canada’s use of the Emergencies Act was unjustified.
“We have real questions about why normal, pre-existing legal avenues were not used to address things instead of invoking the Emergencies Act,” Zwibel told Al Jazeera in an interview this week ahead of the commission’s first hearing.
Rouleau, the lead commissioner, granted full standing during the public hearings to 20 entities, including the federal government, three provinces, two cities, five police officials and groups, and a group of convoy organisers.
“Full standing means they will be given advance notice on information submitted into evidence before the inquiry as well as certain privileges, such as the opportunity to suggest or cross-examine witnesses,” The Canadian Press news agency reported.
According to Zwibel, the commission hearings are important for accountability purposes and will push the government to explain why certain restrictions were put in place under the Emergencies Act, including a freeze on the assets of convoy organisers.
“I think this is something that the commission of inquiry will get into in more detail,” she said.
“It really wasn’t clear to people how that order would apply, how it would be implemented, including frankly the institutions like banks and credit unions that were charged with actually implementing it,” she said.
Zwibel added that she expects the government to try to shield some information from the public hearings by claiming privilege “on the basis of national security and on the basis of cabinet deliberations or cabinet confidences”.
“And so that’s one of the things that I think we’re going to be looking at very closely is to try to see really how transparent is the government being and how transparent frankly does this inquiry process require them to be,” she told Al Jazeera.
In late June, the commission announced that the government would release cabinet documents to the panel after agreeing not to claim privilege. It is unclear if those documents will be made public.
The commission has until February 6, 2023, to submit a final report to the Canadian government, including any recommendations.
Meanwhile, a separate parliamentary inquiry is being held into the “Freedom Convoy” and the authorities’ response, as is a community-led initiative known as the Ottawa People’s Commission on the Convoy Occupation.