An Alberta cabinet minister complained to Minister of Emergency Preparedness Bill Blair that the province didn’t receive any help to clear a blockade at a border crossing until after the protest was already over and argued Ottawa was wrong to invoke the Emergencies Act, according to text messages at a federal inquiry.
The exchange arose from a request the province had made to the federal government for equipment to dislodge vehicles at the border blockade in Coutts, Alta., which sprung up Jan. 29 as part of Canada-wide protests tied to COVID-19 restrictions, according to documents tabled with the Emergencies Act inquiry. The province was pushing for a loan of military equipment from a base near Edmonton, along with the staff to operate it.
Ric McIver, who was then the province’s minister of municipal affairs, made the request on Feb. 5. By that point, more than 80 tow truck companies in Western Canada refused to help.
Yet the inquiry has heard that the federal government did not end up providing the resources the province requested, nor did it respond to the request. Alberta searched websites such as Kijiji and wound up purchasing its own tow trucks, according to reports tabled with the inquiry by Alberta and RCMP.
Mr. McIver, in his letter, said that the province needed federal assistance removing about 70 semi-trailers and approximately 75 personal and recreational vehicles. Two days after the request, Mr. McIver texted Mr. Blair to follow up.
“I spoke to our Minister of Defence and conveyed the importance and urgency of an answer from CAF,” Mr. Blair replied on Feb. 8. Two days later, Mr. McIver texted: “Any update?”
On Feb. 21, Mr. McIver texted again: “Still no answer.”
By then, the heavy equipment was no longer needed. In the early hours of Feb. 14, the RCMP raided a trailer home and two campers in the village, seizing a number of weapons and making 13 arrests. The remaining protesters at Coutts dismantled the border blockade. The federal government invoked the Emergencies Act on Feb. 14, while downtown Ottawa was still clogged with protesters and their convoy of vehicles.
In response to Mr. McIver’s text, Mr. Blair wrote that the federal government invoked the Emergencies Act, “which addressed the tow truck issue quite effectively.”
Mr. McIver responded: “We received no help until after the Coutts issue was resolved and you know that.”
Mr. Blair then said he was disappointed to hear of Mr. McIver’s reaction “to our efforts to respond to the threat to critical infrastructure and the integrity of our International borders.”
Mr. McIver replied that the province got its own tow trucks after the federal government could not help.
“Your letter speaks for itself,” Mr. Blair responded, prompting Mr. McIver to add, “As does your lack of response until too late … “
“To be clear. Is your point that we should have invoked the Emergency Act earlier?” Mr. Blair asked.
“No. You were too late and did the wrong thing,” Mr. McIver replied.
Marlin Degrand, who served as an assistant deputy minister in Alberta’s Justice Ministry during the protests, addressed the text messages at the inquiry on Thursday.
“We didn’t require the legislative authority of the Emergencies Act to resolve our issue,” he testified. “We required logistical help that was available in province – and it was denied to us. So we found a different way to address it, that is we bought the tow trucks ourselves.”
The Public Order Emergency Commission, which is led by Justice Paul Rouleau, is examining whether the federal government erred when it invoked the Emergencies Act on Feb. 14 in response to the Ottawa protests and related border blockades. The government used the temporary powers to crack down on the protesters, including to freeze bank accounts without a court order and disallow assembly in certain areas.
As the protest at the border crossing solidified, then-Alberta premier Jason Kenney called federal Minister of Public Safety Marco Mendicino to advise him of the province’s plan to borrow military equipment for towing, as private companies had been “intimidated,” according to a provincial report. Mr. Kenney said Mr. Mendicino advised him that the province should send a letter for assistance, which Mr. McIver sent Feb. 5.
Mr. Kenney in a Feb. 9 call told Mr. Mendicino he believed the CAF had suitable equipment at its base near Edmonton and that because the Coutts protest blocked an international border, the situation “implicated a federal interest.”
During Mr. Degrand’s testimony, commission counsel showed him a draft response from the federal government to Alberta’s Feb. 5 request for assistance.
“Given the lack of commercial resources, the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) would be the only Federal asset that might potentially meet this request,” the draft reads. “Unfortunately, discussions have made clear that the CAF have neither the type of assets required, nor the expertise to do this without significant risk.”
Mr. Degrand said he never heard that sentiment from government.
“I’m surprised to read that they don’t have the assets required to move those vehicles given that the Armed Forces base, from my personal knowledge, in Alberta has the assets to move tanks,” he said.