Skip to main content

'What if the worst had happened': Trudeau explains why he invoked Emergencies Act when he did


On the stand at the federal inquiry examining the federal government's invocation of the Emergencies Act, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau revealed candidly that a central factor in his historic decision to enact unprecedented powers to shut down the 'Freedom Convoy' protests, was his fear of what could happen if he didn't.

After going through how he weighed all the advice he was given to invoke the Act — from the head of CSIS, his national security adviser, top public servants, and his cabinet — he said he also paused to consider the consequence if he said: "Let's give it a few days."

"First of all, what if the worst had happened in those following days? What if someone had gotten hurt? What if a police officer had been put in a hospital? What if, when I had an opportunity to do something, I had waited and we had unthinkable happen… I would have worn that in a way that we would certainly be talking about in a forum such as this," Trudeau told the Public Order Emergency Commission on Friday.

The prime minister was the last witness to testify as part of the weeks-long public hearing process, sparked by his decision on Feb. 14 to invoke the never-before-used federal powers out of fear for Canada's economic and national security. In doing so, the federal government put in place a sweeping range of measures to support the provinces, municipalities, and police forces in ending the demonstrations.

"More than that, the responsibility of a prime minister is to make the tough calls and keep people safe. And this was a moment where the collective advice of cabinet, of the public service, and my own inclination, was that this was a moment to do something… to keep Canadians safe. And knowing full well that this was an inevitable consequence of me signing 'I agree' on this note, I was very comfortable that we were at a moment where this was the right thing to do, and we did it," Trudeau said.

This moment in his testimony came just prior to the morning break, and just after Trudeau painted a vivid picture of his consultations and conversations with premiers, senior officials, members of his Liberal caucus and opposition party leaders in the hours leading up to his decision.

He revealed to the commission that, the night before, there was a consensus around the federal "incident response group" table about invoking the Act and that, while it was helpful, he wasn't necessarily looking for unanimity before making a move no other prime minister had made since the law was passed in 1988.

Trudeau also told the commission that he did not ultimately make up his mind until approximately 3:40 p.m. on Feb. 14, when he received an "invocation memo" from the Clerk of the Privy Council, advising him that the threshold had been met. Until then, he said, it was still possible he wouldn't be here testifying today, given the commission is a product of his invocation.

"It was a big thing, not a small thing, to have the head of the public service formally recommend the invocation of the Emergencies Act and the declaration of a public order emergency. It's not something that had ever been done in Canada before," Trudeau said.

The prime minister was also asked about some earlier testimony that indicated officials were worried invocation may make things worse or inflame tensions, and that in the eyes of CSIS there was no threat to the security of Canada under the CSIS Act.

Trudeau launched into his own explanation, as others have endeavoured, to explain that in his view the threshold for the Governor in Council finding reasonable grounds for threats to security of Canada under the Emergencies Act was "very different" than CSIS needing to meet a "deliberately narrow" threshold to launch an investigation as the definition was initially intended in that law, drafted just a few years prior to the Emergencies Act.

"It's not the words that are different. The words are exactly the same in both cases, the question is, who's doing the interpretation? What inputs come in? And what is the purpose of it?" Trudeau said.

Asked by commission council Shantona Chaudhury if he's concerned there's a possibility the Liberals’ decision to invoke the Emergencies Act even though the threat to the security of Canada didn't meet the CSIS Act definition would "open the floodgates" for future uses, Trudeau was dismissive.

"CSIS isn't the decision maker in a matter of public order emergencies," he said. 

Earlier in his testimony, Trudeau said it was clear even before it began, that the coming trucker convoy would be "a different brand" of demonstration, and as it progressed, the pressure ramped up for him to step in.

The prime minister also confirmed for the commission something that has become recently solidified through ministerial testimony, that "as an idea" the Emergencies Act was discussed very early into the protests. Trudeau said that it was a "back of our minds" option—given contemplations around whether the public welfare emergency option was needed during the worst of COVID-19—as they watched the situation in Ottawa and at key border crossings worsen.

Cabinet had considered many other options, Trudeau told the commission, including bringing forward new legislation to address some of the gaps, but ultimately under a minority Parliament it was established that it would take too long to pass a new bill.

Testifying about the international pressure on Canada by the time the border blockades began to snarl Canada-U.S. trade, PM Trudeau was asked by Chaudhury if he thought U.S. President Joe Biden was just as concerned about the protests' impact as he was. Trudeau said "no."

"I think he was very concerned, but I don't think anyone was more concerned than me," Trudeau told the commission.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau testifies at the Public Order Emergency Commission in Ottawa, Friday, Nov. 25, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld


Trudeau started his appearance before the commission going through the chronology of the protests, testifying that as preparations were being made, there was "already a little bit of worry that this might be a different brand of event than Canadians were used to seeing."

The prime minister testified that he thought the anger seen among people planning to protest reminded him of anger seen during the 2021 federal election campaign. After the protesters rolled into the nation's capital it wasn't long before he was hearing directly from local MPs and then-Ottawa mayor Jim Watson about having the federal government intervene because, by the end of the first weekend, police's ability to keep it under control "was not exactly there."

"I dare say that citizens of Ottawa are used to political activity and protests on the Hill on a range of things. But this was present in their daily lives and disrupting their weekend in a way that wasn't a usual political protest," Trudeau said. "From the intimidation and harassment of people for wearing masks, to a very concerning story about folks disrupting the nearby homeless shelter and soup kitchen, there were indications that there was a level of disregard for others that unfortunately, we had seen examples of during the election campaign."


As the protests persisted, Trudeau was facing calls from the Official Opposition and others to meet with or otherwise hear from the protesters in some way, and the commission has heard a lot about the various proposals and considerations of how it could happen.

Trudeau told the commission on Friday, while there was a willingness to talk, some of the "Freedom Convoy" leaders' demands were non-starters including overturning the 2021 election results, or revoking federal health mandates. Moreover, Trudeau said he was concerned about setting a precedent or legitimizing the demands.

"I'm worried about setting a precedent that a blockade of Wellington Street can lead to changing public policy," Trudeau said. "We have a robust functioning democracy and protests, public protests, are an important part of making sure Canadians are getting messages out there and highlighting how they feel about various issues. But, using protests to demand changes to public policy is something that I think is worrisome."

Thinking more about this broad response, Trudeau sought to clarify:

"There is a difference between occupations and you know, saying: 'We're not going until this has changed' in a way that is massively disruptive, and potentially dangerous."


Recalling a phone call he had with Gov. Gen. Mary Simon on the first Saturday of the protests, Trudeau told the commission they discussed Canada Unity's contentious and ultimately abandoned "memorandum of understanding" (MOU). This was the document that suggested protesters could have the Senate and Gov. Gen. Mary Simon join them in forming a committee to order the revocation of COVID-19 restrictions and vaccine mandates.

As the commission has already heard, core convoy organizers tried to distance themselves from the proposal — which later morphed into a suggestion that protesters could form a coalition with opposition parties and the involvement of Simon to unseat the government.

Trudeau said the MOU displayed a lack of understanding of how Canada's democracy and institutions actually work, and that he talked to Simon about having to let the "crazy things" being suggested, and the hateful emails coming in as a result, "slide off our backs."


On Friday, Trudeau was also asked about what the commission has heard was considerable federal frustration over what appeared to be the Ontario government's reluctance to engage.

In his own words, Trudeau thought Ontario Premier Doug Ford "was hiding from his responsibility on it for political reasons."

Trudeau told the commission, in his view, the Ontario government was happy to permit the public perception that the convoy was an issue for the City of Ottawa and the federal government, but not the province's responsibility.

"It was an unpleasant situation, there were bad headlines… I can understand that provincial politicians who were being overlooked in the complaints everyone had about why this wasn't getting resolved, would say 'You know what, let's not poke our noses into this. And people will continue criticizing those people that help,'" Trudeau said.

He added that, while he believes there was provincial police engagement, "at the political level, there was probably a decision to continue to stay back a little bit, and let us wear it a little bit."

Members of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's security detail stand at the front of the room during a break as he appears as a witness at the Public Order Emergency Commission, in Ottawa, on Friday, Nov. 25, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang


During cross-examination by Ottawa Police Service's council Jessica Barrow, the prime minister was asked about his understanding of what plans were in place by police to move in and clear out the occupation in Ottawa, pre-invocation.

This comes after the commission had heard testimony that there was a cross-jurisdictional operational plan and that in the eyes of RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki, as of Feb. 13, not all police tools had been used pre-invocation.

"What we heard was the plans were not adequate, they were not operational plans at that point," Trudeau said. "Throughout the course of the three weeks… there were not yet concrete plans to be able to actually do the work that Canadians were hoping to see."

He was then presented with what Barrow described as a 73-page "integrated mobilization operational plan" developed with input from the Ottawa police, the OPP, and RCMP, and was asked if it was fair to say that prior to the invocation of the Emergencies Act, and prior to the Feb. 18-20 police operation he had not seen this document. Trudeau confirmed he had "never seen it."

Pointed to a reference of a "deployment plan" in the document's table of contents on page 13, Trudeau remarked: "The entire deployment plan fits onto one page?"

"A description of," Barrel replied. 


In what was a much-anticipated cross-examination, commission watchers were surprised Friday to see that it would not be Brendan Miller questioning Trudeau on behalf of the core convoy organizers.

Miller, who has taken the lead in questioning witnesses from the perspective of the protesters throughout the public hearings, was served with a libel notice at the commission on Thursday after attempting to propagate a conspiracy theory tied to the bearers of certain racist flags seen at the Ottawa protest.

In his place was Eva Chipiuk, who used most of her time reading into the record statements from "some of the many concerned Canadians who felt compelled to support the protesters."

After she read into the record these remarks, she asked: "Do you now understand the reason so many Canadians came to Ottawa with such resolve in the midst of a harsh, cold Canadian winter, because of the harms caused by your government's COVID mandates?"

"I am moved. And I was moved. As I heard these testimonies, as I saw the depth of hurt and anxiety," Trudeau said, before going on to note that he was also moved by every story he hears of a family who " "sat beside the bed of a loved one dying because they had believed that the vaccines were more dangerous than the disease."

After more back and forth over his past comments about people who are unvaccinated, Chipiuk asked: "When did you and your government start to become so afraid of your own citizens?"

"I am not, and we are not," Trudeau replied. 

Justice Paul Rouleau listens as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau testifies at the Public Order Emergency Commission, in Ottawa, on Friday, Nov. 25, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang


Over the last six weeks in examining what led up to the invocation, the commission has learned about the impact on Ottawa residents and city council, the dysfunction in the Ottawa Police Service, and the chain of command and information-sharing struggles between the OPP and RCMP.

The hearings also painted clear pictures of the frustration that came from Ontario government's apparent lacking involvement, the convoy organizers' power struggles and grassroots social media origins, and the priority put on the border blockades for economic and diplomatic reasons.

Over the last and final two weeks, Commissioner Paul Rouleau has heard about the incredible amount of federal bureaucracy involved, differing interpretations of what the Emergencies Act as drafted decades ago prescribes when declaring a national public order emergency, and what role top cabinet ministers had in proposing solutions.

Limiting the findings, however, has been the federal government's refusal to waive solicitor-client privilege as it pertains to the legal advice cabinet received about whether the protests reached the CSIS Act threshold of a "threat to the security of Canada," coupled with a gradual release of sometimes highly redacted government documents.

In effecting the extraordinary powers under what formerly was known as the War Measures Act, the federal government put in place a sweeping range of measures to support the provinces, municipalities, and police forces facing the continued demonstrations. The Emergencies Act was then revoked on Feb. 23.

This entire commission process was sparked by Trudeau declaring a national public order emergency,  which came with the requirement for Trudeau to strike this inquiry.

Commissioner Rouleau has to present his final report with recommendations to Parliament, by Feb. 20. Top Stories



W5 George Chuvalo: the boxer nobody could knock down

Canadian boxing great George Chuvalo went blow-for-blow with legends, but it came at a cost. W5's Sandie Rinaldo speaks with Chuvalo's children about the damage that 93 fights did to their father's cognitive health. 'Boom Boom Chuvalo' airs Friday at 10/9 on CTV.

Stay Connected