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Protesters and supporters gather to listen to speakers in downtown Ottawa as a protest against COVID-19 measures occupies Ottawa, Feb. 17, 2022.COLE BURSTON/The Canadian Press

The final report of the Emergencies Act inquiry found Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was justified in his unprecedented decision to declare a national emergency in response to last winter’s anti-government, anti-vaccine mandate protests that gridlocked Ottawa and jammed several border crossings.

After 10 months of study, hundreds of hours of witness testimony, and thousands of pages of documents, Justice Paul Rouleau said Mr. Trudeau acted reasonably when he invoked the act. Here are five key take-aways from his report.

Protests were ‘unsafe and chaotic’

Throughout the protests in January and February of last year police, politicians and local residents described the demonstrations as unsafe, threatening, violent and disruptive. Protesters and their leaders rejected those assessments, maintaining that the blockading of streets, partying and incessant honking were peaceful means of protest.

The protest leaders who testified at the inquiry last fall maintained their position, describing the events in Ottawa as peaceful and family-friendly.

Their perspective was rejected by Justice Rouleau.

“I do not accept the organizers’ descriptions of the protests in Ottawa as lawful, calm, peaceful, or something resembling a celebration,” he wrote. “The bigger picture reveals that the situation in Ottawa was unsafe and chaotic.”

He said the unsafe environment was illustrated by the fact that vehicles blocked designated emergency lanes, even when convoy leaders tried to keep them clear, which could have led to “a real catastrophe.”

Many protesters took advantage of the “lack of police supervision to disrupt and intimidate residents,” he said. “There was disregard for both the law and the well-being of the people of Ottawa.”

However, he made clear that all of the protesters should not be painted with the same brush. “While it is important to recognize the presence of controversial and extreme elements at the protests, it should not detract from my findings that many and perhaps most of the protesters sought to engage in legitimate and lawful protests,” Justice Rouleau wrote.

Emergency declaration was appropriate

Justice Rouleau found the federal cabinet was facing a worsening situation that was “at risk of becoming dangerous and unmanageable.” He wrote that credible and compelling evidence supported the government’s belief that a public order emergency existed.

“The decision to invoke the act was appropriate,” he said.

Justice Rouleau disagreed with the position taken by civil liberties groups that the protests did not meet the threshold required to invoke the act, most notably that a threat to the security of Canada did not exist. He found that there was “credible and compelling information supporting a reasonable belief that the definition of threat to the security of Canada was met.”

What we learned at Emergencies Act inquiry after six weeks of testimony

Policing failures and missteps

The report finds that the federal emergency declaration could have been avoided if it weren’t for a series of missteps that culminated in a failure of policing.

Justice Rouleau’s chief criticisms were directed at the Ottawa Police Service. He identified numerous issues in the response of the lead police agency, including “serious deficiencies” in how the service used social media and other online information. He said the service should have given more weight to intelligence, namely from the Ontario Provincial Police, that contradicted the trajectory of the plan Ottawa police had initially developed which was based on the incorrect belief that the protests would not last more than a weekend.

“The response to the Freedom Convoy involved a series of policing failures,” Justice Rouleau said. “Some of the missteps may have been small, but others were significant, and taken together, they contributed to a situation that spun out of control.

“Lawful protest descended into lawlessness, culminating in a national emergency”

Political failures and Ford government’s absence

Beyond the failures in policing, Justice Rouleau identified a “failure of federalism” where political leaders were unable “to rise above politics and collaborate for the common good.”

His report takes particular issue with Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s government, which he said was largely absent until the protests spread beyond the country’s capital, to the Ambassador Bridge border crossing with the United States.

“The province was not as engaged when protests in Ontario were limited to Ottawa,” he said. if there had been more collaboration at the political level, he said the governments could have helped to iron out the communication, jurisdictional and resourcing challenges that “plagued the early response to the protests.”

“It could also have provided the people of Ottawa with a clear message that they had not been abandoned by their provincial government during a time of crisis,” Justice Rouleau wrote.

He added that the Ontario government’s absence in the early response to the demonstrations was “difficult to assess” since they were also partially absent from the inquiry process.

Unlike the Prime Minister, Mr. Ford refused to testify during the inquiry.

If the police and politicians had acted differently, “the emergency that Canada ultimately faced could likely have been avoided. Unfortunately, it was not.”

Opinion: Let the inquiry ask tough questions of Doug Ford’s Ontario

56 recommendations for police agencies and governments

Justice Paul Rouleau issued 56 recommendations for governments and police. One of the key recommendations was to sever the link between the Emergencies Act and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service Act. The Emergencies Act relies on the CSIS Act definition for “threats to the security of Canada.”

He said there should be an in-depth review of the definition of a public order emergency, ensuring that it is “modernized” to capture all the situations that would pose a risk.

He also made a number of recommendations pointed at policing, including that police agencies development protocols around how to make requests for additional law enforcement resources, when a police service is unable to respond to an event on its own.

Justice Rouleau also called for a working group to study whether changes should be made to the division of policing and security in the National Capital Region.

With reports from Shannon Proudfoot and Campbell Clark

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