Trudeau to Testify About Invoking Emergencies Act During Trucker Protest

OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada will appear at an inquiry on Friday to testify about his decision in February to invoke Canada’s Emergencies Act for the first time in the nation’s history, after a convoy of truckers protesting Covid vaccine mandates blockaded and paralyzed the streets of downtown Ottawa, the capital.

Mr. Trudeau’s appearance will close six weeks of testimony in the public inquiry, a mandatory investigation when the Emergencies Act is invoked.

To some Canadians, invoking the act was an overreach and an abuse of the government’s powers. For others, it was an overdue measure to end a protest that had shut down Ottawa, left residents feeling threatened and disrupted billions of dollars in trade.

Earlier this month, Mr. Trudeau said the use of the act 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 blockades and other solidarity demonstrations closed three border crossings, including a key bridge from Detroit. The act empowered authorities to take drastic steps to quell the protests.

The federal government froze the bank accounts of about 280 protesters, banned public gatherings, forced reluctant tow truck operators to work with the police and enabled the federal police to help provincial and municipal forces to clear the streets.

It’s unclear what the outcome of the inquiry will be, beyond its examination of the events that led Mr. Trudeau’s government to invoke the act, which is all the law calls for.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaking in Ottawa on Feb. 14.Credit…Dave Chan/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

But Justice Paul Rouleau of the Ontario Court of Appeal, who is overseeing the inquiry and is required to produce his findings by Feb. 20, made clear during the first day of hearings that he was not there to judge the prime minister or anyone else.

“While inquiries seek to uncover the truth, they are not trials,” he said. “Questions of civil and criminal liability are decided by courts and not commissions.”

As in a Parliamentary committee hearing that came before this inquiry, no significant revelations have emerged from the testimony of 75 witnesses, demonstrators and public officials, or the 7,388 documents made public by the commission in recent weeks — though they have confirmed much that was suspected, or obvious, 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 any obvious coordination or common goals.

Police officers, including the head of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, recounted a widespread lack of faith in Ottawa’s Police Department, the force in charge of policing the city’s streets, and Peter Sloly, the city’s police chief who resigned in the middle of the blockade.

Ottawa residents spoke about sleeplessness from the constant blaring of truck air horns, harassment by convoy members and lost business. And documents showed a pattern of finger-pointing between members of the federal government and the provinces, which were responsible for policing, with each accusing the other of inaction as frustration grew among politicians over the protracted standoff.

Police officers arresting people at the trucker protest in Ottawa on Feb. 18.Credit…Brett Gundlock for The New York Times

James Bauder, the head 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 emphasized 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 self-serving motives.

“I got the distinct impression from some others that they were trying to get their hands on what, at that point, was $10 million in donations,” testified Keith Wilson, the lawyer for Tamara Lich, an organizer who raised millions of dollars for the protest through an online campaign. He said that he witnessed a variety of groups and people unsuccessfully trying to take control of the protest.

Ms. Lich is awaiting trial on criminal charges related to her role in the protest.

The inquiry also showed how relations between governments became fractious as frustration grew among politicians who, under the Canadian system, are not allowed to direct the police.

In notes of a telephone conversation between Mr. Trudeau and Ottawa’s mayor at the time, the prime minister is quoted as saying that Doug Ford, the premier of Ontario, the government ultimately in charge of policing the city’s streets, “has been hiding from his responsibility on it for political reasons.”

According to the notes, Mr. Trudeau added: “Important we don’t let them get away from that.”

Tamara Lich at a Public Order Commission in Ottawa last month.Credit…Blair Gable/Reuters

But Mario Di Tommaso, Ontario’s deputy solicitor general, told the inquiry that it was the province’s view that Mr. Trudeau’s federal government was shirking responsibility.

“This question was all about, from my perception, the federal government wanting to wash its hands of this entire thing,” he testified. (Mr. Ford successfully argued in court that he could use parliamentary privilege to not testify. Mr. Trudeau voluntarily waived that right.)

Mr. Trudeau may be the commission’s last hope for determining if the government in fact acted properly when it invoked the act. The legislation was brought in to replace a previous law that was used in 1970 by Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, the father of the current prime minister, after a terrorist group in Quebec kidnapped a British diplomat and a provincial cabinet minister, who was subsequently assassinated.

In what was widely seen an abuse of human rights, Pierre Elliott Trudeau quashed the extremists by sending troops into several Canadian cities and clamping down on some civil liberties. Nearly 500 people were arrested and detained without charges.

Civil liberties groups argue that Justin Trudeau’s use of the Emergencies Act was also an abuse of the government’s powers. The takeover of downtown Ottawa by several hundred trucks and other vehicles effectively closed downtown Ottawa for 25 days, shuttering offices and businesses, including a major regional shopping mall. Added security was brought in for many members of Parliament after they received 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, interfered with about 4 billion Canadian dollars in trade with the United States and almost derailed negotiations that ultimately led to multibillion-dollar investments in manufacturing in Canada.

The current law states that the government can invoke the measure only when there is a “public order emergency,” as defined in another law governing the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.

In one of the inquiry’s more contradictory moments, David Vigneault, the director of the intelligence agency, initially told the committee during an interview before the hearings that the blockades in Ottawa and elsewhere were not a threat to national security.

But when he appeared to testify, Mr. Vigneault said that despite that, he recommended in February that Mr. Trudeau use the emergency law.

“The regular tools were just not enough to address the situation,” he said.

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