The Canadian government has reached the legal threshold to invoke the emergency law to disperse the 2022 “freedom convoy,” the commission notes.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s use of an emergency measure to disperse anti-vaccination 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 the Canadian 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 ban any public gathering “which can reasonably be expected to result in a breach of the peace” and restrict access to certain areas to disperse the protests.
“After careful consideration, I have come to the conclusion that the very high threshold required to invoke the law has been reached,” Paul Rouleau, a former Ontario Court of Appeals judge and panel commissioner, said during a news conference in the Canadian capital.
But Rouleau said he reached his conclusion “with reluctance.”
“The state should generally be able to respond to urgent circumstances without the use of emergency powers,” he wrote in the much-anticipated report (PDF), which totaled more than 2,000 pages and highlighted a number of police and government failures sketched.
“Some of the missteps may have been small, others were significant, and collectively they contributed to a situation spiraling out of control. Lawful protest led to lawlessness and culminated in a national emergency,” the report said.
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 activists who questioned whether Canada had met its stringent legal requirements.
But Rouleau told reporters on Friday that when the measure was applied, “the Cabinet had reasonable grounds to believe that there was a national emergency of threats to Canada’s security that required special, temporary measures to be taken.”
Participants in the Freedom Convoy gathered in Ottawa in late January 2022 to protest a vaccination 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.
For several weeks, participants occupied downtown streets, honking and disrupting daily life while others set up blockades at border crossings in the provinces of Ontario and Alberta.
Days after Trudeau invoked the emergency law on February 14, 2022, federal and provincial law enforcement agencies stepped in to end the blockades and occupation of Ottawa. They arrested dozens of participants.
The Emergency Public Order Commission held several days of public hearings late last year, hearing from dozens of witnesses, including protest organizers, police officers and Trudeau and other senior government officials.
So-called “Freedom Convoy” protesters gather in Ottawa, Canada, on February 9, 2022 [Kadri Mohamed/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images]During his testimony in November, Trudeau said his government had assessed whether the “Freedom Convoy” posed a threat to Canada’s security and whether it was involved in activities that posed a “threat of serious violence.”
“There wasn’t a feeling that things were unraveling,” Trudeau said, pointing to the presence of guns at a border blockade in Alberta, the use of children as “human shields” at another protest site, and the “arming” of vehicles in the convoy.
“We could not say that there was no potential for threats of serious violence, that serious violence could happen,” the prime minister testified. “We’ve seen things escalate, not things get under control.”
On Friday, Trudeau hailed the “prudent work of the commission” and said his government would provide a response to the report’s 56 recommendations within the next year.
“There are lessons for everyone involved: law enforcement, all levels of government and elected officials. We will take the Commissioner’s conclusions and proposals seriously,” Trudeau said during a press conference.
Rouleau, the commissioner, had said earlier in the day that “the situation that led to it [the Emergencies Act’s] Deployment could probably 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 level of political and social discontent exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic – particularly in the context of the misinformation and disinformation so widespread today – and had they worked together more effectively, it could have been a different response to this unprecedented situation,” he told reporters.
The Emergency Act itself has mandated public inquiry into its use.
This requirement arose out of criticism of the measure’s predecessor, the War Measures Act, enacted in 1970 in response to a wave of violence by hard-line Quebec separatists. The War Measures Act has been widely criticized as an encroachment on civil liberties.