Trudeau justified in using emergency powers to end convoy: Panel

Canadian government met legal threshold to invoke Emergencies Act to disperse 2022 ‘Freedom Convoy’, commission finds.

People walk in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
Canada invoked the Emergencies Act in February 2022 to disperse the so-called 'Freedom Convoy' anti-vaccine protests [File: Lars Hagberg/Reuters]

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s use of an emergency measure to disperse anti-vaccine protesters who had blocked border crossings and occupied downtown Ottawa was justified, an independent panel has found.

On Friday, the Public Order Emergency Commission submitted its report to Canada’s parliament on the government’s decision to invoke the Emergencies Act in February 2022 in response to the so-called “Freedom Convoy” movement.

The decision 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, to disperse the protests.

“After careful reflection, I have concluded that the very high threshold required for the invocation of the Act was met,” Paul Rouleau, a former Ontario appeals court justice and the panel’s commissioner, said during a news conference in the Canadian capital.

But Rouleau said he came to his conclusion “with reluctance”.

“The state should generally be able to respond to circumstances of urgency without the use of emergency powers,” he wrote in the highly-anticipated report (PDF), which totalled more than 2,000 pages and outlined a series of policing and governmental failures.

“Some of the missteps may have been small, but others were significant, and taken together, they contributed to a situation that spun out of control. Lawful protest descended into lawlessness, culminating in a national emergency,” the report reads.

Trudeau’s decision to invoke the Emergencies Act for the first time since it came into force in 1988 had drawn criticism from civil rights advocates who questioned whether Canada had met its strict legal requirements.

But Rouleau told reporters on Friday that when the measure was used, “Cabinet had reasonable grounds to believe that there existed a national emergency arising from threats to the security of Canada that necessitated the taking of special, temporary measures”.

The “Freedom Convoy” participants converged on Ottawa in late January 2022 to protest a vaccine mandate for truckers crossing the Canada-US border. The 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 the city’s downtown core 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, 2022, federal and provincial law enforcement agencies moved in to end the blockades and the Ottawa occupation. They arrested dozens of participants.

The Public Order Emergency Commission held several days of public hearings late last year and heard from dozens of witnesses, including protest organisers, police officials, and Trudeau as well as other senior government officials.

Freedom Convoy in Ottawa, Canada
So-called ‘Freedom Convoy’ protesters gather in Ottawa, Canada, February 9, 2022 [Kadri Mohamed/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images]

During his testimony in November, Trudeau said his government considered whether the “Freedom Convoy” constituted a threat to the security of Canada and whether it was involved in activities that posed a “threat of serious violence”.

“There wasn’t a sense that things were dissipating,” Trudeau said, pointing to the presence of weapons at an Alberta border blockade, the use of children as “human shields” at another protest site and the “weaponisation” of vehicles in the convoy.

“We could not say that there was no potential for threats of serious violence, for serious violence to happen,” the prime minister testified. “We were seeing things escalate, not things get under control.”

On Friday, Trudeau welcomed the “thoughtful work of the commission” and said his government would issue a response within the next year to the 56 recommendations contained in the report.

“There are lessons for everyone involved: law enforcement agencies, all orders of government, and elected officials. We will take seriously what the commissioner concludes and what he proposes,” Trudeau said during a news conference.

Rouleau, the commissioner, had said earlier in the day that “the situation that led to [the Emergencies Act’s] use could likely have been avoided” if police and governments at all levels had better prepared for the convoy.

“Had police forces and governments better anticipated and prepared for the extent of political and social discontent exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic – particularly in the environment of misinformation and disinformation so prevalent today – and had they collaborated more effectively there could have been a different response to this unprecedented situation,” he told reporters.

The Emergencies Act itself mandated the public inquiry into its use.

That requirement was born out of criticism of the measure’s predecessor, the War Measures Act, which was invoked in 1970 in response to a wave of violence by hardline Quebec separatists. The War Measures Act was widely criticised as an infringement on civil liberties.

Source: Al Jazeera