If the Trudeau Liberals were trying to convince people they had something to hide with regard to the decision to invoke the federal Emergencies Act, they could hardly do a better job.
Invoking the Act was bound to be controversial, even in the just cause of clearing out the disorderly mob that had occupied central Ottawa for nearly three weeks, and threatened to stay there indefinitely – a task that police had shrunk from until then, but speedily executed with the help of the powers available to them under the Act.
The government therefore has at least a prima facie case to make that the Act was needed: in practice, if not in theory. The latter test – might it have been possible in principle to clear the blockade without invoking the Act, even if in fact it was not? – is perhaps the correct legal standard. That will be decided either by a court of law, in one of the multiple legal challenges to the Act’s use already under way, or by the judicial inquiry to come.
But meantime there is the court of public opinion, as convened in Parliament and its committees, and in this the government has made a spectacular mess of things. As if in obedience to some feral instinct, it has returned to the same discreditable tactics on which it has relied in the past, whenever it has been cornered: SNC-Lavalin, WE Charity, the Winnipeg lab incident, the list goes on.
These tactics are: stonewall (it has made no commitment to surrender the relevant cabinet documents, even to the judicial inquiry), blame the public service (in this case, unnamed law enforcement officials, at whose request, Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino has repeatedly claimed, the decision was made), haul in top civil servants to provide cover (the minister’s “intention” had been “misunderstood,” Deputy Minister of Public Safety Rob Stewart told the special joint parliamentary committee looking into the decision this week), and, when all else fails, lie.
Or what else are we to call Mr. Mendicino’s claim, given that Ottawa’s former and interim police chiefs and the commissioner of the RCMP have expressly denied asking the government to invoke the Act? Until the deputy minister’s intervention, there remained the possibility that perhaps the Ontario police had been the ones to make the request.
But since then it has become clear that this is the government’s new line: that although the minister clearly and repeatedly stated, in Parliament and before the committee, that “the advice we received [from law enforcement] was to invoke the Emergencies Act,” that “at the recommendation of police, we invoked the Emergencies Act,” that “it was on the advice of law enforcement that we invoked the Emergencies Act” etc., etc., that what he really meant by this was that police had asked for the “tools” contained in the Act, without ever mentioning the Act itself. A day after his deputy first floated the possibility, the minister took up the refrain, telling reporters that “the request was for the powers, which required the invocation of the Emergencies Act.”
Leave aside the minister’s explicit and repeated language to the contrary. As implausible as it is that that is what he meant, is it any more plausible as a description of what actually happened? It might be, if, say, police leaders were unaware that the extraordinary powers they were requesting required invoking the Act. Or if for some reason they felt obliged to speak in a kind of code, hinting at using the Act without saying it out loud. Of course, this would also require us to believe that, after denying to the committee that they had requested the Act’s invocation, neither leader took the opportunity to clarify that they had asked for the powers it contains.
If, on the other hand, none of this seems plausible, then we must conclude the greater likelihood is that the minister made it up: police neither asked for the Act, nor the powers it contained. In which case, Mr. Mendicino would appear to be in some trouble. This was not some offhand remark, dropped in the course of a television interview or overheard in private conversation: these were formal, in some cases prepared statements to Parliament. Neither does it seem plausible that he could have been merely mistaken, on a matter of such import, any more than it is that he could have been misunderstood. If, then, he knowingly “misled” (to use the polite term) Parliament, well, there is a penalty for this sort of thing. And the penalty, in the conventions of Westminster-style parliaments, is resignation.
What led to the demands for Boris Johnson’s head, after all, was not merely that he partied at Number 10 at the height of the pandemic even as hospital patients across Britain were forced to die alone, or even that he lied about it, repeatedly, but that he lied to Parliament about it. Lie to the public all you want, but lying to Parliament is serious business. Or at least, it is supposed to be.
Of course, I can’t say with certainty the minister lied. I can’t know precisely what his state of mind was. Maybe there’s some construction of events that can be reconciled with his statements: either that the police asked for the Emergencies Act, or as he now maintains, that they asked for the “powers” therein. Who knows: maybe the cops are lying. But he should at the least be called back before the committee to explain himself. As should they.
“It’s not the crime,” it is often said, “it’s the cover-up.” That’s not always true. In the SNC-Lavalin affair the crime was at least as bad. In the present case it appears there was more cover-up than crime. Certainly, the Act appears to have done the job – if, as some maintain, it did not give police any powers they did not already have, it at least spurred them to use the powers they had – at minimal cost to civil liberties. Perhaps a judge will later find the government overstepped, that the bar of strict necessity was not cleared. That would be significant, though mostly for the sake of ensuring future governments do not take this as precedent.
But the habits of this government are so ingrained, it seems, that they can’t help themselves. Rather than accept responsibility – yes, we made the decision, and we stand by it – their response is in every case the same: deny, deflect, and dissemble. Even when they do the right thing, they do the wrong thing.
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