The Liberal government invoked the never-before-used Emergencies Act because law enforcement advised that existing authorities were ineffective to restore public safety during blockades at ports of entry, Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino said on Tuesday evening.
Mr. Mendicino, who appeared before MPs and senators on a special committee struck to examine the declaration of an emergency under the act, was pressed to reveal the specific advice that led to the government’s decision.
The minister did not provide details, but said the government had a lot of communication with police forces. He also maintained the federal government was careful and thoughtful about turning to the act, and that it worked. At all times, the government was guided by a “simple principle of limited use,” he added.
“Put simply, when it came to the Emergencies Act, we were reluctant to invoke and eager to revoke,” Mr. Mendicino said.
The political decision to invoke the act is now the subject of much scrutiny, both at the special committee and a public inquiry to be led by Ontario Court of Appeal Justice Paul Rouleau. The Opposition Conservatives and civil liberties groups have questioned the use of the Emergencies Act, and groups including the Canadian Civil Liberties Association have launched legal challenges.
On Monday, when the public inquiry was announced, Mr. Mendicino said Justice Rouleau will have “broad access,” including classified documents, and the government intends to collaborate with the judge. The minister has not said the government would waive cabinet confidence.
Conservative MP Glen Motz, who cited his 35 years of law enforcement experience, told Mr. Mendicino on Tuesday that he has a built-in lie detector, and it can be satisfied only if the minister is committed to presenting the committee with every unredacted document and to transparency.
“How can Canadians now trust that the information you relied upon to invoke the act in the first place was accurate and appropriately reliable?” Mr. Motz said.
On Feb. 14, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau invoked the Emergencies Act for the first time in Canadian history in an attempt to end protests against pandemic restrictions and vaccine mandates. There were prolonged demonstrations in downtown Ottawa and blockades at some border crossings.
The act was in place for 10 days and was revoked on Feb. 23. It gave temporary power to the federal government to respond to the demonstrations, including allowing it to expand police powers. Under the legislation, banks were also given the authority to freeze personal and corporate accounts without a court order.
Mr. Mendicino said on Tuesday the Emergencies Act should be carefully scrutinized, because authority should only be granted when it is absolutely necessary, and strictly to address a specific state of emergency.
He said, for example, that by “any sensible definition” there was a “massive illegal occupation” in the city of Ottawa for nearly a month, in reference to a convoy of trucks that blocked many streets in the core of the capital, including right outside Parliament Hill.
The government remained engaged with law enforcement throughout the protests to ensure they had the support and resources needed, Mr. Mendicino said, but added that when efforts that relied upon existing authorities proved ineffective, the government received advice to invoke the Emergencies Act.
RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki told the committee on Tuesday that the Mounties were involved in addressing the protest from the beginning, and the force was free of any influence or pressure from the federal government.
When asked about double standards in RCMP officers’ treatment of Indigenous protesters and convoy demonstrators, Commissioner Lucki did not answer, saying only that the conflict was “particularly different.”
NDP MP Matthew Green said RCMP officers in Coutts, Alta., were seen giving handshakes and hugs to demonstrators as they departed a border blockade there.
Last month, the Commissioner of the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) told the House of Commons public safety committee that a national-security threat connected to the blockades against pandemic restrictions was identified by the province’s intelligence bureau a week before the federal government invoked the Emergencies Act. OPP Commissioner Thomas Carrique said police were able to use a number of powers after the act came into effect on Feb. 14.
Ottawa interim police chief Steve Bell also testified in March that the use of the Emergencies Act was “critical” to bringing to an end to the “unlawful” convoy protest.
Justice Minister David Lametti said the federal government felt the situation constituted a national emergency under the Emergencies Act because it seriously endangered the safety and security of Canadians and exceeded the capacity of other authorities, particularly at the provincial level, to take care of it.
“It was a situation of an urgent and critical nature,” he said, adding that it could not be dealt with under any other law.
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