The Official Opposition Conservatives have rejected the proposed makeup of a new oversight committee that will review the government’s decision to invoke special powers under the Emergencies Act.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Wednesday that the government was ending its invocation of those special powers now that cross-country blockades and protests ostensibly related to pandemic mandates have largely dissipated. However, the mere fact that they were used mandates the creation of a special joint committee of the House of Commons and the Senate to review how the powers were put into effect.
It was the first time the Emergencies Act had been invoked since it was passed in 1988, so there is no precedent for what the committee should look like. The language in the act is also outdated in that it refers to representation from the various political parties in the Senate, but the chamber currently only has one group that sits as a political party – the Conservatives. The remaining senators sit in various groupings of independents.
A draft motion circulating among political parties proposes that the committee be made up of seven MPs and four senators. The MPs would include three Liberals, two Conservatives, one Bloc Québécois MP and one New Democrat.
It also proposes that the committee be led by three co-chairs, who would be from the Bloc, the NDP and the Senate, meaning there would be no Liberal or Conservative co-chair.
“The Liberal-NDP partnership is proposing a motion to establish a committee that will give the Liberals a working majority, in contravention of the spirit of the Act,” said Conservative House Leader John Brassard in a statement. “If the Liberals are confident that their actions in Invoking the Emergencies Act will stand up to parliamentary oversight and scrutiny, then they should abandon their motion and submit themselves to a rigorous accountability process that Canadians can trust.”
Government House Leader Mark Holland defended the proposal, claiming that the Conservatives have a “bias” and should not be given a leadership role in the review.
“This is a balanced leadership of committee,” he said in a statement. “The chair would be neither a Liberal, whose government invoked the Emergencies Act, or a Conservative, whose party led the way in supporting protesters.”
He said forming the committee is an urgent matter and that the government is hopeful consensus can be found.
He also said the Conservatives have proposed that the committee should be co-chaired by a Conservative MP and a Conservative Senator.
Joint committees of the House and Senate are not common. As a point of comparison, the parliamentary rules have long required that a joint committee that deals with reviewing regulations must have two co-chairs – a senator and an Official Opposition MP. The Conservatives note that there are currently four House oversight committees – such as the ones for public accounts and government operations – chaired by the Official Opposition, as per the rules.
The wording of the 1988 legislation says the membership must include one MP from each party with formal status and at least one senator from each party in the Senate “that is represented by a member of the House of Commons.”
During debate this week, Conservative senators argued that the wording means only Conservative senators can be named to the committee. Marc Gold, the government’s representative in the Senate, disagreed.
In addition to forming a committee, the act also says an inquiry must be set up to review the use of the emergency powers. The Prime Minister said this week that the inquiry will be established within 60 days.
Interim Ottawa police chief Steve Bell faced questions about the need for the Emergencies Act at a special meeting of his city’s police services board Thursday. He said that while the act was “extremely beneficial” in managing the protests last week, the Integrated Command Centre, which consists of the Ottawa Police Service, the Ontario Provincial Police and the RCMP, is confident it can maintain peace in the downtown core heading into this weekend.
“The removal of that act created initially some dialogue and concern for us in terms of how we would manage the situation through the weekend. We were able, with our RCMP and OPP partners, to really pick apart what are our common law abilities, what are our abilities under the [Highway Traffic Act] and under the provincial act … and able to create a situation where we’re very confident and comfortable with our ability to manage the situation into the weekend,” he said.
He said the part of the act that allowed police to freeze the bank accounts of people involved in the protest was a particularly helpful tool in encouraging demonstrators to leave. He added that financial investigations initiated under the act will continue.
The act cited tow trucks as one of the essential services the government could direct to clear big rigs from the downtown. With the act now rescinded, interim chief Bell said there have not been any issues regarding tow trucks. This led Councillor Allan Hubley to question the need to invoke the act.
“If you got the resources and you’re allowed to keep them and you’ve got the tow trucks and you’re allowed to keep them, other than the financial resources that it gives us, did we need that act to be implemented?”
Interim chief Bell said that question will be part of a local review of the police response and the federal inquiry.
Police will maintain a strong presence in downtown Ottawa heading into this weekend, including checkpoints and security measures. Interim chief Bell said police are monitoring protester encampments outside Ottawa and have a plan to prevent those protesters from entering downtown Ottawa again.
Blair Dunker, the chief administrative officer of the Ottawa Police Services Board, said Thursday that the operation has cost more than $31-million to date. She said the service will seek a full reimbursement from the federal government.
As of Feb. 21, police had arrested 191 people and laid a total of 393 charges in relation to the protests. Acting deputy chief Paul Burnett said additional arrests will probably be made. There are also continuing investigations into some officers who expressed support for the demonstrations.
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