The idea of using the Emergencies Act in response to the weeks-long “Freedom Convoy” protests “would have been, from the very beginning. in the back of our minds,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said.
However, Trudeau said it “wasn’t seriously thought of” until later when it became clear things were not dissipating.
“The useful conversations around the Emergencies Act started on February 10th,” the prime minister told the Public Order Emergencies Commission during his Friday testimony.
“I asked the question, ‘okay, what are the extra tools that we would need to bring in, either through legislation or through regulation or in various ways — or through the Emergencies Act — that we don’t actually have now?”
The situation in Ottawa and at two border crossings in Ontario and Alberta was “out of control” and had a “potential for violence,” he testified, pointing to the “serious threat” of violence posed by potential weaponization of vehicles, concerns about the presence of firearms, and the “use of children as human shields.”
“It wasn’t that they just wanted to be heard — they wanted to be obeyed,” Trudeau said of the protesters.
As the protests continued, Trudeau testified, law enforcement “lost control” of the situation and it became clear, he described, “that there wasn’t a plan at all.”
“It was not, even in the most generous of characterizations, a plan for how they were going to end the occupation in Ottawa,” he said of the plan presented from police as of Feb. 13 — the day before the Act was invoked.
As demonstrators dug in both in Ottawa and at the Ambassador Bridge border crossing in Windsor, Ont., Trudeau said he told Ontario Premier Doug Ford that the situation couldn’t “continue to be stretched out this way.”
“There was an expectation that this was a situation that was going on for too long,” Trudeau said.
When the decision to use the Emergencies Act was being discussed on the eve of its invocation, on Feb. 13, at an Incident Response Group meeting, Trudeau said there was “consensus” around the table.
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“There was no question about it,” he said.
“My expectation is always, if you have significant disagreements, this is the time to speak up. There was no voice saying, ‘hold it, we don’t think you should do this.'”
Advice from public service helped PM make up his mind
Trudeau said he still hadn’t made his decision about whether to invoke the Emergencies Act until the paperwork to sign off on the decision was laid out before him, along with a recommendation to do so from the the Clerk of the Privy Council, Canada’s top public servant.
It is standard process for the Clerk of the Privy Council to advise either for or against doing something when the paperwork to take any decision is formally presented to the prime minister.
That advice from the Clerk weighs all of the input received on a matter as well the options available.
Trudeau said the fact the Clerk, having weighed all of those factors and the discussions taking place to that point, had recommended the invocation was a factor in his ultimate decision, as were the considerations of what might happen if he did not invoke the legislation.
“What if the worst had happened in those following days? What if someone had gotten hurt? What if a police officer had been put in a hospital?” Trudeau wondered aloud to the inquiry.
“What if, when I had an opportunity to do something, I had waited and we had unthinkable happen over the coming days, even though there was all this warning?”
The responsibility of the prime minister, Trudeau said, is to make “the tough calls” and “keep people safe.”
“I made that final decision with all the conversations, all the inputs and all the feedback that I’d gotten from caucus, from Cabinet and from first ministers and opposition leaders and all the officials I talked to — that was when I made the decision,” he said.
“I was very comfortable that we were at a moment where this was the right thing to do, and we did it…I am absolutely, absolutely serene and confident that I made the right choice in agreeing with the invocation.”
Trudeau’s testimony caps six weeks of hearings at the Public Order Emergency Commission, which has already heard from seven Liberal ministers about why the Emergencies Act was invoked in response to demonstrations in downtown Ottawa and at several border crossings.
The emergency declaration Feb. 14 – which ministers say was necessary because of risks to Canada’s security, economy and international reputation – allowed the government to extend special powers to police and financial institutions until it was revoked a week later.
The commission is taking place because it is required under oversight provisions in the Emergencies Act, with Commissioner Paul Rouleau expected to deliver a final report to Parliament by early next year.
— With files from The Canadian Press