OTTAWA – Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada will appear Friday at an inquest to testify about his decision in February to invoke Canada’s Emergency Act for the first time in the country’s history, after a convoy of protesting truck drivers against Covid vaccine mandates has blocked and paralyzed the streets of downtown Ottawa, the capital.
Trudeau’s appearance will end six weeks of testimony in the public inquiry, a mandatory inquiry when the Emergencies Act is invoked.
For some Canadians, invoking the law was an excess and an abuse of government powers. For others, it was a late move to end a protest that had crippled Ottawa, left residents feeling threatened and disrupted billions of dollars of trade.
Earlier this month, Mr Trudeau said using the law had been “a measure of last resort”.
He added: “That’s why it was time-limited, it was restricted and restrained, it was proportional and it got the job done.”
The decision came after 17 days of blockade and other solidarity protests that closed three border crossings, including a key Detroit bridge. The law authorized authorities to take drastic measures to quell protests.
The federal government froze the bank accounts of about 280 protesters, banned public gatherings, forced reluctant tow truck drivers to work with police, and allowed federal police to help provincial and municipal forces clear the streets.
It’s unclear what the outcome of the investigation will be, beyond its examination of the events that led Mr. Trudeau’s government to invoke the law, which is all the law requires.
But Justice Paul Rouleau of the Ontario Court of Appeal, who is overseeing the investigation and is due to release his findings by February 20, made it clear during the first day of hearings that he was not not there to judge the Prime Minister or anyone else.
“While investigations are about uncovering the truth, they are not trials,” he said. “Questions of civil and criminal liability are decided by the courts and not by commissions.”
As in a parliamentary committee hearing that preceded this investigation, no significant revelations emerged from the testimonies of 75 witnesses, protesters and public officials, or from the 7,388 documents made public by the committee in recent weeks – although they confirmed much of what was suspected, or evident, in February.
The 15 organizers and supporters who testified, many of whom will appear in court next year on criminal charges, described their mutual suspicions of each other’s motives and a protest that lacked obvious coordination or common goals.
Police officers, including the head of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, recounted a widespread lack of trust in the Ottawa Police Service, the force tasked with policing the city’s streets, and Peter Sloly, the police chief of the city that quit amid the blockade.
Ottawa residents spoke of the insomnia caused by the constant honking of truck horns, harassment by convoy members and loss of business. And the documents showed a pattern of pointing fingers at which members of the federal and provincial governments were responsible for policing, with each accusing the other of inaction as frustration grew among politicians over the deadlock. prolonged.
James Bauder, the leader of a group called Canada Unity, testified that he hoped to persuade the Governor General, Queen Elizabeth II’s representative as head of state at the time, and the Senate, an appointed body , to remove Mr. Trudeau from office for “committing treason and crimes against humanity”.
Mr Bauder, who faces several criminal charges, also repeatedly stressed that none of the convoy members were calling for violence, saying the blockade was an act of “love and unity”.
Other organizers accused their fellow protesters of more selfish motives.
“I got the distinct impression from some others that they were trying to get their hands on what, at the time, amounted to $10 million in donations,” testified Keith Wilson, the attorney for Tamara Lich, an organizer who raised millions of dollars to protest it through an online campaign. He said he saw various groups and people trying unsuccessfully to take control of the protest.
Ms Lich is awaiting trial on criminal charges related to her role in the protest.
The survey also showed how relations between governments have become strained as frustration grows among politicians who, in the Canadian system, are not allowed to lead the police.
In notes of a telephone conversation between Mr. Trudeau and the mayor of Ottawa at the time, the prime minister reportedly said that Doug Ford, the premier of Ontario, the government ultimately responsible for policing city streets, “is hiding from responsibility for political reasons.
According to the notes, Mr Trudeau added: ‘Important, we’re not letting them off the hook.’
But Mario Di Tommaso, Ontario’s deputy solicitor general, told the inquest that the province believes Trudeau’s federal government is shirking its responsibilities.
“That question was, in my perception, that the federal government wanted to wash its hands of all this,” he testified. (Mr. Ford successfully argued in court that he could use parliamentary privilege not to testify. Mr. Trudeau voluntarily waived that right.)
Mr. Trudeau may be the commission’s last hope to determine whether the government did indeed act correctly when it invoked the law. The legislation was introduced to replace a previous law that was used in 1970 by Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, the current Prime Minister’s father, after a terrorist group in Quebec kidnapped a British diplomat and a Minister of provincial cabinet, which was later assassinated. .
In what was widely seen as a violation of human rights, Pierre Elliott Trudeau crushed extremists by sending troops to several Canadian cities and suppressing some civil liberties. Nearly 500 people were arrested and detained without charge.
Civil liberties groups argue that Justin Trudeau’s use of the Emergencies Act was also an abuse of government powers. The takeover of downtown Ottawa by several hundred trucks and other vehicles effectively shut down downtown Ottawa for 25 days, closing offices and businesses, including a major regional shopping center. Heightened security was put in place for many MPs after receiving threats, including one to “put a bullet” in the head of Chrystia Freeland, the Deputy Prime Minister.
The inquiry heard that the blockade in Windsor, Ontario impeded approximately C$4 billion in trade with the United States and nearly derailed negotiations that ultimately led to multi-billion dollar investments in the manufacturing sector in Canada.
Current law says the government can only invoke the measure in the event of a “public order emergency,” as defined in another law governing the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.
In one of the most contradictory moments of the investigation, David Vigneault, the director of the intelligence agency, first told the committee in an interview before the hearings that the blockades in Ottawa and elsewhere were not not a threat to national security.
But when he appeared to testify, Mr. Vigneault said that despite this, he had recommended in February that Mr. Trudeau use the emergency law.
“The usual tools just weren’t enough to deal with the situation,” he said.