The Public Order Emergency Commission is a bit like group puzzle assembly. Some witnesses show up with a fistful of pieces, others with a single piece without which there would be a hole in the picture; some willingly chip in, others need their contributions extracted from their pockets with pliers.
But the net effect of this painstaking reconstruction of the government’s use of the Emergencies Act is that it can give outsize importance to tiny details, simply because they’re absent from the picture.
One of those fuzzy facts to this point has revolved around what exactly police told the federal government about their attempts to bring the protests to heel and whether something extraordinary like the act was needed. Marco Mendicino, Minister of Public Safety, showed up at the commission on Tuesday giving every impression of being an eager and conscientious contributor, despite the fact that he’d had considerable trouble explaining that point in the recent past.
In the spring, Mr. Mendicino told a parliamentary committee, in reference to police input, that “the advice we received was to invoke the Emergencies Act.” Representatives of several police forces then said that they asked for no such thing. Mr. Mendicino’s deputy minister, Rob Stewart, appeared before the same committee to perform a cleanup in Aisle 3, saying his minister had been “misunderstood” and meant only that police had asked for more tools.
More recently, documents revealed that the day before the government invoked the Emergencies Act on Feb. 14, RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki e-mailed Mr. Mendicino’s chief of staff to say that she believed police had “not yet exhausted all available tools.”
So by the time Mr. Mendicino arrived at the inquiry, what exactly police told him and what he chose to hear were significant, if granular, missing details. But when a commission lawyer finally asked Mr. Mendicino about that note of caution from Commissioner Lucki, he essentially said it was irrelevant.
Rather, it was a conversation between the two of them earlier that same day that convinced him the Emergencies Act was needed, he said. In it, Commissioner Lucki confided her worry about the potential for violence at the blockade of the Coutts, Alta., border crossing, and with undercover RCMP officers at risk, she gave him permission to tell only Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s office so that information wouldn’t leak and inflame things further.
“For me, this represented far and away the most serious and urgent moment in the blockade to this point in time,” Mr. Mendicino said. “It also spoke volumes to me about the Commissioner’s state of mind.”
The questioning of each witness at the inquiry has proceeded in roughly the same way, and Mr. Mendicino was no exception. First, they introduce themselves and explain their jobs on a normal day and during the extraordinary weeks of the protest. After that, the commission lawyers tend to walk each witness through events chronologically. There’s obvious logic to that, but it also has the effect of re-enacting in fast-forward the frustration, alarm and tension that mounted as they watched the events of last winter unfold.
In Mr. Mendicino’s testimony, by the time he got to the point of describing the Coutts blockade as “a hardened cell of individuals who were armed to the teeth, with lethal firearms, who possessed a willingness to go down with the cause,” it was clear how tightly the screws were turned.
His explanation to the commission for why he believed the invocation of the act was necessary did not rest on narrow technical ground, but rather a panorama of malevolent chaos. He was concerned about fed-up Ottawa residents taking matters into their own hands, the fact that police simply had not been able to gain control, the mounting economic carnage and what seemed to him like the smouldering potential for things to get much worse.
“My concern, in my capacity as the Minister for Public Safety, is that if we don’t equip police with the additional tools and the authorities that they need to specifically address the gaps that they had been consistently briefing us on, then that might lead to more violence,” he said.
By the day after his conversation with Commissioner Lucki, however, with the blockade of the Ambassador Bridge clearing and the Emergencies Act imminent, Mr. Mendicino appeared to be feeling calmer. The inquiry saw text messages between him and his chief of staff, in which Mr. Mendicino suggested that he should go to the bridge to thank police. “I think it’s a powerful visual,” he said. “Otherwise it’s just tweets.”
In cross-examination, a lawyer for the Ontario Provincial Police was only too pleased to lay out what happened next: Police shut down what they saw as an ill-advised photo-op because they were concerned it would reignite protest tensions. Mr. Mendicino, however, explained earnestly that the whole idea was never about him, but about soothing a jittery public.
“I think what I’m getting at is that people are anxious and are concerned and want to be confident that we are restoring public safety,” he said. “Ultimately, I chose not to go on sober reflection.”
In certain moments, the commission turns into Take Your Public To Work Day for political sausage-making.