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President of the Queen’s Privy Council for Canada and Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair appears as a witness at the Public Order Emergency Commission on Nov. 21, in Ottawa.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

There are lots of ways to answer questions – especially ones that might lead somewhere uncomfortable – and the Public Order Emergency Commission unfolding in Ottawa has at times been a science fair demonstration of possible techniques.

There were the convoy leaders, trotting out heartfelt dispatches from a parallel reality with a selective guest list. There was former Ottawa Police chief Peter Sloly, who often appeared to have participated in an entirely different conversation from the people to whom he was speaking. There was RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki, with a memory as solid as a cheese grater.

But in his testimony on Monday, Bill Blair, the Minister of Emergency Preparedness, offered a masterclass in both excellent communication and elegant obfuscation. A former police chief before he became a federal politician, he is loquacious, polished and confident. He can explain the subtleties of anything with a level of detail that suggests a genial willingness to offer the inside scoop, while also neatly running out the clock on questions that might be less fun to answer.

Mr. Blair’s talent gives him an admirable willingness to engage in difficult conversations from which less gifted communicators would scuttle away. But it also means he’s able to deflect thorny topics with more finesse than many of his colleagues.

When he appeared in June before a parliamentary committee investigating the invocation of the Emergencies Act, more than one person fell over themselves to thank him for his transparency. That was as much passive-aggression over the obstinate deking of Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland at the same committee as it was commentary on Mr. Blair, but it’s still an accidental tribute to his communication skills.

The difference is like an expert magician compared with an amateur: One you notice at work and one you don’t, but either way, the coin still gets plucked from behind your ear. Or, in the case of Mr. Blair, you may learn a great deal – just not necessarily about the questions you wanted answered.

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At the inquiry on Monday, a constant theme running through his testimony was the career history that kept plunking two different hats on his head that were in direct conflict with one another.

As a federal minister, he could not intervene in police operations during the demonstrations that paralyzed Ottawa and various border crossings – a line Mr. Blair himself kept highlighting. But his decades of policing experience – including 10 years as chief of police in Toronto overseeing countless public demonstrations, among them the G20 summit in 2010 at which hundreds of protesters were corralled like cattle and arrested – was an obvious prompt for various lawyers to ask for his assessment of the policing of the convoy protests.

Mr. Blair really likes talking about policing, and the commission lawyer allowed him to embark on long explorations of all sorts of finer points. “In my experience, public policing is all predicated on public trust and the consent of the people who are policed,” he said at one point. At another, Mr. Blair caught himself, offered a self-deprecating smirk and apologized for using the pronoun “we” as he talked about police operations. Curiously, one police habit escapes Mr. Blair: He said he took no notes at all in meetings and briefings around the invocation of the Emergencies Act.

When he appeared before the parliamentary committee back in June, Mr. Blair talked repeatedly of asking Mr. Sloly and Commissioner Lucki about various enforcement possibilities that might have brought the protests under control. A Conservative MP took Mr. Blair to task for this, given that Ms. Freeland had just told the committee that it would have been inappropriate for any politician to intervene in police operations. With affable patience, Mr. Blair explained that he was not telling anyone anything, simply asking so he could understand how police felt stymied and what they needed to do their jobs.

“I do not believe it appropriate for the government – a politician – to give direction to the police on how to police this event,” he said. “We make sure that they have the resources and authorities that they require, but it’s their job to make those decisions.” But Mr. Sloly, at least – who was once Mr. Blair’s deputy chief in Toronto – told the inquiry that he found the minister’s questions about rudimentary police enforcement measures “strange.”

And Mr. Blair still sometimes found himself using his outside voice to share these opinions. On Feb. 13, the day before the federal government invoked the Emergencies Act, he told an interviewer, “We just need the police to do their job.”

When he was asked about this at the inquiry, Mr. Blair didn’t so much walk the sentiment back as give it a fresh coat of paint. “It was not my intention to criticize the police; it was to encourage them to utilize the tools that were available to them,” he said. “Because again, I spent most of my life telling police officers to do their job.”

He finished the thought by saying he’s very proud of his profession. He meant police officers, but of course, now he is a politician. Some hats are hard to remove.

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