Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has defended his use of emergency powers to end anti-government blockades and an occupation that paralysed downtown Ottawa for weeks, saying the measure was “necessary” to disperse the so-called “Freedom Convoy“.
Speaking to reporters on Monday morning, Trudeau said “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.
“Invoking the Emergencies Act has been necessary. Law enforcement agencies relied on it to set up secured areas in downtown Ottawa and at border crossings. It prevented foreign money from continuing to fund illegal blockades and it’s making sure our borders remain open,” he said.
“It has been the responsible thing to do.”
A large group of Canadian truckers and their supporters converged on the Canadian capital late last month as part of the convoy, which was organised by some far-right and other activists. For three weeks, protesters demanding an end to all coronavirus restrictions blocked the streets around Parliament Hill in what residents denounced as a “siege” and “occupation”.
After local authorities failed to disperse the protesters, and other similar blockades sprung up at key border crossings with the United States, on February 14 Trudeau invoked the never-before-used Emergencies Act to give his government sweeping powers to aid law enforcement agencies.
A prominent Canadian civil liberties group, opposition legislators and other observers have questioned whether the Emergencies Act was necessary to respond to the convoy, however, and whether the federal government had met the strict legal threshold needed to invoke the measure.
But Trudeau last week pledged that “the scope of these measures will be time-limited, geographically-targeted, as well as reasonable and proportionate.” He also told reporters on Monday that the Act has given authorities needed additional powers, such as the ability to compel tow truck companies to remove big rigs from designated areas.
Police on Friday began arresting participants in the Ottawa blockade after warning them for several days to leave the area.
The Ottawa Police Service said on Monday that they had set up approximately 100 checkpoints around a secured portion of downtown, and by Sunday afternoon, nearly 200 people had been arrested and almost 400 criminal charges were laid.
“Despite the successes of the past few days, we still require these measures to prevent unlawful protesters from returning,” Ottawa’s interim police chief, Steve Bell, told reporters on Sunday afternoon, about the continued police presence in the area. “We continue to advise unlawful protesters that they must leave the area immediately or they may face arrest,” he added.
The Ottawa Citizen newspaper reported on Monday that the “red zone” downtown “has been largely cleared of debris since police gained back the ground from protesters over the weekend” while “no vehicles except for those used by law enforcement or clean-up efforts are allowed in”.
Meanwhile, Canadian legislators have been debating Trudeau’s use of the Emergencies Act in the House of Commons.
Parliament members voted on Monday evening to approve the use of the measures for the first time in Canada’s history.
The decision was passed by 185 votes to 151, with the minority Liberal government getting support from the left-leaning New Democrats.
Some members from the opposition Conservative Party, who have voiced support for the convoy, have said the measures are unnecessary and a breach of freedoms. The vote means the use of the Emergencies Act will remain in place until the middle of next month.
The Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) last week announced plans to sue the federal government for its decision to invoke the emergency measure, saying it had not met the necessary legal standard.
“We do not want to minimize the impacts of the protests that are occurring across the country. But, while some of the blockades have been immensely disruptive, it is unclear that the ongoing protests ‘endanger the lives, health or safety of Canadians’ so as to rise to the threshold of a national emergency under the law,” Abby Deshman, director of criminal justice for the CCLA, said in a statement last Thursday.
The Canadian Press news agency reported that regardless of the vote’s outcome, an investigation into the use of the Emergencies Act must be carried out and a report must be presented to the House of Commons and Senate by next February.
Meanwhile, several of the main convoy organisers have been arrested and charged with mischief, among other charges.
Pat King will have a bail hearing on Tuesday morning, Canadian media have reported, while a judge that same day is also expected to issue a decision on bail for Tamara Lich, another of the key organisers who was in charge of a GoFundMe online fundraiser for the convoy.