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National inquiry called into Trudeau's use of Emergencies Act to end 'Freedom Convoy'

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OTTAWA -

A national inquiry into the federal government’s use of the Emergencies Act to bring an end to the “Freedom Convoy” trucker protests and blockades has been launched, with a mandate to examine the circumstances that led to the use of the Act, and the measures taken through it to deal with the emergency situation.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has named Paul S. Rouleau to lead the independent “Public Order Emergency Commission,” which will be ongoing for the better part of the next year.

Rouleau, a long-time judge, will have to present his final report, including key findings and “lessons learned,” to both the House of Commons and Senate in both official languages, by Feb. 20, 2023. He’s expected to weigh in on the “appropriateness and effectiveness” of the measures taken by the government in its invocation of the Emergencies Act.

It will cover “the evolution of the convoy, the impact of funding and disinformation, the economic impact, and efforts of police and other responders prior to and after the declaration,” with the hopes of preventing similar events from happening again, according to a statement from the Prime Minister’s Office.

More specifically, this means the commissioner will be examining:

  • the “evolution and goals” of the protests, the organizers, and participants;
  • the role domestic and foreign funding, including crowdsourcing, played;
  • the use of social media and impact of sources of misinformation and disinformation;
  • the economic and international impact of the blockades; and
  • the “efforts of police and other responders” in the lead up to and following the declaration of an emergency.

In a statement, Rouleau said he’s looking forward to beginning the inquiry, and says he’ll have more information on how the commission will function “in the near future.”

"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,” he said.

The commissioner will have the power to decide who participates, summon witnesses under oath, and compel them to provide documents. In addition to the Government of Canada’s involvement, provincial and municipal governments—not all who supported invoking the cross-country powers— will be given an opportunity to have their say.

And, according to the Order in Council filing from the federal government that establishes the commission, the study will have access to federal finances and legal supports to complete its work.

Though, it also states that the commissioner has to “perform their duties in such a way as to ensure that the conduct of the Public Inquiry does not jeopardize, any ongoing criminal investigation or proceeding or any other investigation,” while also taking “all steps necessary to prevent any disclosure of information to persons or bodies other than the Government of Canada that would be injurious to international relations, national defence or national security.”

The launching of a national inquiry was mandated under the federal Emergencies Act. It stipulated that the inquiry had to be struck 60 days after a declaration of national emergency was revoked, or expired. Monday was the last day for the Liberals to announce this public inquiry under the law.

Speaking about the newly-launched inquiry, Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino vowed Rouleau will have access to “classified documents” as part of his work but would not specify if that included documents that are considered “cabinet confidences.”

“This is not just about checking a box off, this is healthy for our democracy,” the minister said, adding he remains confident that the government’s invocation of the wide-sweeping powers was justified. “It was a necessary decision, it was a responsible decision, it was the right thing to do and we are certainly looking forward to co-operating.”

In an interview on CTV News Channel’s Power Play, Conservative emergency preparedness critic and MP Dane Lloyd questioned the federal government’s commitment to transparency in this inquiry process. His party has called the parameters as set out an attempt to “whitewash” the invocation of the Emergencies Act, raising concerns about whether the Liberals will turn over all requested documents, something they’ve stopped short of doing in past controversies.

“I think the consequence for Canadians is that it'll be a massive blow to our already [lagging] trusts in the institution of government,” Lloyd said. “And I think, you know, having a commission that's open, that has access to all the evidence is going to be a critical part of rebuilding that trust with Canadians. Anytime you see the Liberal government saying they're going try to withhold documents or withhold evidence from this committee, or from this commission, that you're going to see that trust erode further.”

In a statement, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) –which has taken the government to court over its use of the Act— cautioned that the inquiry should not look primarily at the actions of the protesters. “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. The broader context is important, but the government’s attempts to divert attention from their own actions is concerning,” said director of the CCLA’s criminal justice program Abby Deshman.

Between late January and mid-February, protesters occupied downtown Ottawa and key border crossings across Canada were blockaded, cutting off millions of dollars in trade and shuttering numerous downtown businesses in the nation’s capital. The protests began as a rejection of federal COVID-19 vaccine mandates and restrictions, but some organizers expressed a desire to see the democratically-elected government overthrown.

After weeks of what Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino described as “lawless” behaviour and tormenting locals with incessant horn honking and threats, citing increasing concerns about the risk for violence, the federal government took the unprecedented step on Feb. 14 of invoking the Emergencies Act to remove the protesters who at that point were encamped in the downtown core with copious supplies and recreational equipment. 

The temporary powers granted allowed officials to crack down on protesters’ access to funds; enabled the RCMP to have the jurisdiction to enforce local laws; designated critical infrastructure and services such as tow-truck operators; and imposed fines and imprisonment on participants who refused to leave the protest zone.

After large-scale police operations were undertaken in the capital between Feb. 17 and 20, numerous arrests were made, the rows of transport trucks were cleared out, and hundreds of charges were laid against protesters, bringing the main demonstration to an end. Road closures and police checks of vehicles looking to enter the protest zone continued for days out of concern about protesters’ return. 

On Feb. 23, Trudeau announced the revocation of the extraordinary national powers, saying that the situation was “no longer an emergency.”

Since the main protest in Ottawa was broken up, vehicle access to Wellington Street has remained largely restricted, with a small number of protesters still sporadically showing up in the area, typically on weekends. Banks have unfrozen supporters’ accounts, though court proceedings for some high-profile organizers continue to unfold.

The launch of the inquiry comes as the city of Ottawa and local police are preparing for another convoy set to roll into town this weekend, this time largely on motorcycles.

Mendicino said that federal law enforcement is aware of the plans for the “Rolling Thunder” demonstration, suggesting despite the review work ongoing, law enforcement lessons from the convoy protests are being taken into consideration in preparing for the incoming protesters.

This inquiry—which will have its main office based in the National Capital Region— is the second piece of post-declaration scrutiny being put into place.

This inquiry is the second piece of post-declaration scrutiny being put into place.

There is also a joint House and Senate multi-party parliamentary review committee that was struck in the aftermath of the protests.

It has a mandate to review the government’s actions starting on the day the Act was invoked, and ensure the government used its powers responsibly through the time it remained in effect. On Tuesday, after a slow start and a very brief first report, the committee is slated to hear from key ministers involved in the invocation of the Emergencies Act.

One of the committee's join chairs NDP MP Matthew Green told reporters on Parliament Hill Monday that he’s not concerned about undue overlap between the committee and the commission.

“As somebody who supported the invocation of the act, you know, we [the NDP] did so with the information that was made publicly available, but as we've come to find out and discover in the weeks after, there was a lot more going on, of which I think Canadians rightfully have the duty to know about,” Green said.

Other parliamentary committees have also opted to pick up threads related to the protests, including the House Public Safety and National Security Committee, which is well into a study of the rise of ideologically-motivated violent extremism in Canada.

This is one element of the convoy that Canada has “a lot to unpack” when it comes to understanding what transpired, from the perspective of Trudeau’s top security adviser.

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