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Trudeau defends invoking emergency powers against trucker protests

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TORONTO — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau began testimony Friday before a public inquiry into his decision to invoke never-before-used emergency powers to suppress the self-described “Freedom Convoy” demonstrations of the protesters, including some truckers, who spent weeks paralyzing the nation’s capital and snarling commerce at the major border crossings between the US and Canada.

His long-awaited testimony concludes the six-week investigation in Ottawa, where life was turned upside down in late January when large oil rigs and other vehicles rolled in to block roads, including the main road in front of parliament, to protest pandemic health measures and Trudeau’s government. The demonstrations continued about three to soften.

In a country where officials handle topics of conversation and requests for the public with care the files take years to process, but the investigation offered a rare behind-the-scenes look at the mechanics of police and government – ​​and the dysfunction and rivalries that complicated the response to the blockades.

Trudeau invokes the emergency law against the ‘Freedom Convoy’ truck protest in Canada

“At the municipal level of policing and the interaction between police board, police and municipal government, there was infighting, incompetence and lack of preparedness,” said Michael Kempa, a criminologist at the University of Ottawa. “At the provincial level, there was total indifference to responding with provincial powers…and then [at the level of] the federal government, there was massive confusion.”

Thousands of pages of documents, including text messages between cabinet ministers and intelligence reports marked “secret,” have been submitted as evidence and more than 60 witnesses have testified. They include Canada’s top agent, chief spy, mayors of major and minor cities, cabinet ministers and convoy leaders.

Few witnesses have come out of the battle unscathed. A lawyer for the convoy organizers was expelled after he advanced an unfounded conspiracy theory. A cartoon in the Globe and Mail depicted research participants as clowns. The exception was Paul Rouleau, the judge leading the investigation, who thinks, “I’m starting to see a pattern here…”

At issue in the inquiry is Trudeau’s Feb. 14 invocation of the Emergency Act, a 1988 law that is supposed to be a last resort, available only when no other law can respond to a national emergency. He repealed the law on Feb. 23, days after a massive police operation lifted Ottawa’s blockades.

The law gave authorities sweeping powers to establish no-go zones, temporarily freeze bank accounts of protesters and their main donors, and force tow trucks to clear vehicles blocking roads.

Evidence showed that convoy leaders raised nearly $18 million through crowdfunding, cryptocurrency, and e-transfers. On one crowdfunding platform, 51 percent of donors identified as American, 43 percent as Canadian.

The Emergency Act requires that a public inquiry be convened to determine whether the threshold for its invocation has been reached met. But as the hearings conclude, testimonies are being presented on several key questions, including whether the convoy posed a threat to national security and whether the statement was needed – is mixed.

What is the Emergency Act?

Some police officials said the powers were useful, but not necessary. A Canadian Security Intelligence Service document said that invoking the law would “likely boost anti-government narrative” among some protesters and could promote “radicalization paths to violence.”

When the deed was first spoken of, Royal Canadian Mounted Police Commissioner Brenda Lucki testified that she had “no idea what exactly that meant.” On the eve of Trudeau’s statement, she said, there was a police plan to end the demonstrations — but she did not share that information at cabinet meetings that day.

When asked if she should have done that, Lucki said, “In retrospect, I think maybe that was a big thing.”

Stephanie Carvin, an associate professor of international relations at Carleton University, called Lucki’s failure to disclose that information “mind-boggling.”

CSIS, the intelligence agency, ruled that the demonstrations did not pose a threat to national security, as defined by Canada’s national security law. The emergency law says there must be “threats to Canada’s security”. as defined by the CSIS Act to declare a public order emergency.

But David Vigneault, the head of CSIS, told the inquiry that he recommended Trudeau to invoke the law based on legal advice he sought, saying the definition of a threat to national security was “broader” under the emergency law. . than under the CSIS Act.

Other federal officials, including Canada’s top official and Trudeau’s national security adviser, gave similar testimony. But they have not given the opinion that advocated the broader interpretation. The Attorney General of Canada has not issued that advice either, citing attorney-client privilege.

“That becomes the main issue: does Rouleau agree with this argument about the possibility of broadening understanding,” said Carvin, a former national security analyst.

The self-proclaimed ‘Freedom Convoy’ arrived at an inopportune time for US-Canada trade

It is rare, but not unprecedented, for a sitting prime minister to testify before a public inquiry.

Ottawa residents were among the first to testify. They spoke of the uneasiness and fear that characterized life during the protests and the disruption caused by the incessant honking and fumes released by idling vehicles. They said there was a sense of “lawlessness” in the city. The investigation found that federal officials received death threats and that police filed more than 530 charges.

The current and former Ottawa Police Department said they were preparing for a single protest weekend. But the investigation found they had been warned in advance, including by a local hoteliers’ association and the Ontario Provincial Police, that protesters planned to “lock up areas” and stay much longer.

Convoy organizers presented a very different portrait of the demonstrations – describing it as a peaceful love fest. But they, too, were torn by division, with many acknowledging that they could not control the actions of all the demonstrators. Several claimed they were “leaked” by police.

Tamara Lich, one of the convoy organizers, told the inquiry that when she urged protesters to “stay on the line,” she was not encouraging them to stay in Ottawa, but to “stay true to your values.”

“It seems to me that your memory is selective,” an Ottawa Police Department attorney told her at one point during cross-examination. “If I take you to something that involves you, you have no memory of it.”

The inquiry heard officials feared the border blockades would strain US-Canada ties and damage Canada’s reliability as a trading partner at a time when it sought exemptions from protectionist measures. including on incentives for electric vehicles, in the United States. (The border blockades were lifted without emergency powers.)

One of the most concerning was the blockade at the Ambassador Bridge, which connects Detroit to Windsor, Ontario. The conduit, the busiest corridor on the US-Canada border, is crucial for the automotive industry. At one point, General Motors apparently tried to rent an icebreaker to transport cars across the Great Lakes.

At a blockade in Coutts, Alberta, authorities seized a stash of weapons and charged several people with conspiracy to kill police.

“This was not a second-rate issue in the relationship between Canada and the US,” said Michael Sabia, the deputy secretary of the treasury. “This was a problem of the first order.”

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