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Explainer: Emergencies Act inquiry — what’s been said, what happens next

The final witnesses will appear this week at the public inquiry into the federal government’s unprecedented use of emergency powers to end the convoy protests that had shut down Ottawa earlier this year.

You can watch the hearings of the Public Order Emergency Commission here. Here’s a breakdown of why the inquiry is taking place, the key takeaways so far, and what will happen next.

What prompted the inquiry?

It all stems from the government’s decision to invoke the Emergencies Act on Feb. 14.

The act, used for the first time in its 34-year existence, gave authorities new powers to freeze the finances of those connected to blockades and other protests, to ban travel to protest zones, prohibit people from bringing minors to unlawful assemblies and to commandeer tow trucks, in order to remove the many transport trucks and other vehicles that had clogged the capital’s downtown streets since Jan. 29.

The Emergencies Act says it is only to be invoked when a national emergency “cannot be effectively dealt with under any other law of Canada.” It also requires the government to hold an inquiry after its invocation. 

Police enforce an injunction against protesters camped near Parliament Hill on Feb. 18. The inquiry heard testimony that some police leaders did not believe the government needed to invoke the Emergencies Act. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Who is giving evidence?

This week, several government ministers — including Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair, Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino, Defence Minister Anita Anand and Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland — are scheduled to appear as witnesses. 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will be the last to give evidence, per this week’s witness list. Several of his staff are also due to appear.

Earlier this month, convoy organizers Chris Barber, Tamara Lich and Pat King testified, alongside other protest leaders and participants.

Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino testifies on Tuesday. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Other witnesses have included City of Ottawa officials and leaders of the three police forces involved — RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki, Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) Commissioner Thomas Carrique and former Ottawa Police Service (OPS) chief Peter Sloly.

CSIS Director David Vigneault and other security and intelligence leaders gave evidence behind closed doors.

What are the major revelations so far?

Differing views on need to invoke powers

The inquiry heard conflicting views from police and intelligence agency leaders about whether the Emergencies Act powers were needed. 

The night before it was invoked, Lucki, the RCMP chief, told Mendicino she felt police had not yet exhausted “all available tools,” according to an email seen by the inquiry. A former senior OPP officer told the inquiry he did not believe the emergency powers were needed.

But Vigneault, the CSIS chief, supported invoking the Emergencies Act because “the regular tools were just not enough to address the situation.” He had previously said he didn’t believe the convoy constituted a “threat to national security,” based on the definition in CSIS’s legal mandate. In a February intelligence assessment, CSIS warned that invoking the act would “galvanize” protesters and radicalize some toward violence, according to documents seen by the inquiry.

Trudeau’s national security intelligence adviser, Jody Thomas, said she believed the convoy participants posed a “threat to democracy.”

Concerns over border blockade

Mendicino told the inquiry that Lucki — separate from their email exchange that same day about the situation in Ottawa — warned him directly on Feb. 13 about an “urgent” risk of serious violence from protesters at a border blockade in Coutts, Alta., and the conversation led him to believe she supported invoking the Emergencies Act. 

Around dawn the following morning, the RCMP arrested more than a dozen Coutts protesters and seized a cache of weapons, body armour and ammunition — hours before the Emergencies Act was invoked.

Protesters leave Coutts, Alta., on Feb. 15 after blocking a highway to the U.S. border crossing for more than two weeks. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Ottawa police plan inadequate

Sloly, the Ottawa police chief who resigned the day after the act was invoked,.conceded that his police force’s planning — which was based on the assumption that the protesters would only stay in Ottawa for one week — was wrong. But he maintained that the intelligence he received did not suggest that protesters would dig in and remain.

In text messages released at the inquiry, Lucki told Carrique she was already losing confidence in Sloly and his police force, just one week into the protesters’ three-week occupation of downtown Ottawa.

Shortly after Sloly’s resignation, the RCMP and OPP took over the response to the convoy.

Interim Ottawa Police Services Chief Steve Bell, left, and former Ottawa mayor Jim Watson, seen here on April 28, both gave evidence to the inquiry. Bell replaced Peter Sloly, who resigned one day after the Emergencies Act was invoked. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Ontario premier accused of hiding

Trudeau and Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson were frustrated by Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s refusal to participate in a meeting to discuss the situation in Ottawa, and believed Ford was avoiding the issue for political reasons

Ford and Deputy Premier Sylvia Jones successfully challenged their summonses to appear at the inquiry. 

Leaks from police to convoy

The inquiry also heard an allegation from a lawyer representing convoy organizers that police and security agencies leaked operational information to the protesters. Lucki said police were reviewing that claim.

What happens next?

The commission will complete its “factual phase” of witness evidence this week; speaking to those involved in the decision to invoke the act. 

Next week, it will hold a series of panel discussions — also to be heard publicly — featuring academics and other experts on a range of topics which are yet to be announced.

In the meantime, these related policy papers on the commission’s site offer some idea of what might be discussed, with topics ranging from the Emergencies Act itself to policing powers, social media and cryptocurrency, which was used to funnel donations to the protesters.

The commission’s final report, with findings and recommendations, must be tabled in the House of Commons and Senate by Feb. 20.

Commissioner Paul Rouleau listens to counsel question a witness at the Public Order Emergency Commission on Nov. 4. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

 

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