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Wesley Wark is a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation and the co-author of a major study called Reimagining Canadian National Security.

On Friday, Ontario Justice Paul Rouleau rolled out his inquiry’s report in the nick of time. Submitted just days before the tight deadline imposed by legislation, the five-volume report – the product of the months-long public inquiry he led into the Trudeau government’s 2022 invocation of the Emergencies Act to disband convoy protesters who had planted themselves in Ottawa – totalled more than 2,000 pages. This was, as he said, a “monumental task,” given the sheer amount of evidence the Public Order Emergency Commission heard in that time. But it was also monumental because his findings represent the first draft of the history of a key moment in modern Canadian politics: a period when our fundamental democratic practices were called into question.

There was one surprise straight out of the gate: Justice Rouleau concluded, “with reluctance,” that the use of the Emergencies Act was appropriate in the circumstances, with the federal cabinet having “reasonable grounds to believe” that a public order emergency was the reality facing the government on Feb. 14, 2022. This conclusion was not required by his mandate, but it seems he found a judgment hard to avoid.

He also said that the situation should never have reached a point where a declaration of a public-order emergency was required. He named policing failures, and failures of governmental collaboration between federal, provincial and municipal governments, as major contributors to this state of affairs.

These were correct indictments, on both counts. But the Commission was wrong on two related factors.

The first is that the Commission failed to appreciate that the policing failures were predicated above all on intelligence failures, which were not probed sufficiently. You can’t effectively police a mass protest movement if you are blind to its intentions and capabilities, yet that was the case for many of our federal security and intelligence agencies during three weeks of convoy protests against public-health restrictions. When cabinet finally sat down to deliberate on using the Emergencies Act, on a crisis weekend before the invocation on Feb. 14, 2022, it mostly knew what it did not know. Would border blockades return? Would new and damaging protest sites emerge? Would violence break out at one or more of the protest flashpoints (a question brought to an urgent head by the arrests of an armed faction at the U.S. border blockade at Coutts, Alta.)? Would policing resources across the country be stretched to their breaking point if protests continued? Would Canada’s international reputation as a reliable trading partner and a country governed by the rule of law be irretrievably damaged?

The poor state of the federal government’s intelligence picture could be summed up by the fact that the cabinet had to decide on invoking the Emergencies Act without a detailed threat assessment of the situation they faced. This cannot happen again.

This intelligence failure was a product of many things: uncertain and siloed mandates; narrowly focused intelligence collection; inadequate use of open-source intelligence; an inability to fuse threat assessment reporting; and an extraordinary failure to pay attention to the one bright spot in threat reporting, generated by the OPP’s Project Hendon assessments. To cap all this off, senior officials in the federal government had no valid framework on national security under which to operate; the most recent national security strategy dates back to 2004.

The second factor that the Rouleau Commission report failed to seriously investigate was the impact of federalism in the crisis. Yes, we could all hope for greater co-operation across different levels of government in this country, but we are also growing used to its absence, especially after the patchwork COVID-19 pandemic response. But national security is primarily the responsibility of the federal government; Ottawa has a monopoly on the mandate, resources and capabilities to deal with national security threats, at least in theory. So while the federal government needs to be able to work with other levels of government on national security threats, the buck ultimately stops in Ottawa.

The Rouleau Commission report contains 56 recommendations, including asking the government to respond within 12 months. That is quite a long leash. Indeed, nearly half of the recommendations deal with policing issues, while 40 per cent are about the Emergencies Act itself; only two recommendations deal with federal intelligence collection and co-ordination directly, though there are scattered references to intelligence in the policing recommendations. The Commission also failed to spread its wings in identifying “other areas for future study,” listing only the need to continue to study social media impacts and cryptocurrencies.

Canada will face more national security threats in the future. This monumental report missed the opportunity to prepare us for them.

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