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Isabelle Jacques from Finance Canada listens to Michael Sabia respond to a question as they testify at the Public Order Emergency Commission, on Nov. 17, 2022 in Ottawa.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Amid all the technical details that featured in the testimony of senior finance department officials at the Public Order Emergency Commission on Thursday, something strangely human floated to the surface.

Much of what the bureaucrats laid out – albeit in very careful, clinical terms – was the difference between the all-consuming tick-tick-tick of a crisis, where any terrible outcome seems possible when you’re ankle-deep in things, and the clear-eyed way it’s possible to see it in the rearview mirror.

Michael Sabia, Deputy Minister of Finance, spent much of his time in the hearings laying out the economic circumstances when the trucks arrived to block crossings like the Ambassador Bridge between Windsor, Ont., and Detroit, Mich., by way of explaining why finance officials felt such urgency to get things resolved quickly. COVID-19 was barely receding, inflation was on the march, supply chain issues and the invasion of Ukraine were about to make everything harder, Mr. Sabia said – and then along came thousands of protesters to shut down major trade routes all along the border.

“The Canadian economy in our view at the time was at a very, very fragile moment,” he said.

And a protracted or expanded blockade was not just a longer, messier version of what was already going on, Mr. Sabia argued, but a fundamentally different beast in terms of the risks it posed to the Canadian economy.

In launching its COVID-19 recovery, the U.S. had gotten very interested in doing business with itself, Mr. Sabia explained. This was a particular problem for Canada because three-quarters of its exports head south, and U.S. officials needed to be persuaded to keep Canadian companies inside the protectionist fold.

“This was not a second-tier issue in the Canada-U.S. relationship,” Mr. Sabia said. “This was a first-tier issue.”

In his telling, the blockades were an immediate problem because of how they’d hamstrung production – particularly in critical industries such as auto manufacturing – but they also posed a larger existential threat. The whole mess risked making Canada look like a basket case, at the very moment when it needed to look like a fine, upstanding trading partner.

Emergencies Act inquiry: What to know about the commission and what’s happened so far

As Mr. Sabia and his colleagues walked the inquiry through their attempts to get a grasp on the costs and find the fastest route to a resolution, it seemed that everyone at finance was hearing two very loud metronomes: one ticking off the seconds with trade frozen in place, and another marking each dollar shaved off Canada’s economy, with the country’s reputation torched in the process.

For inside-the-Queensway types who toss around the names of government advisers like figures on collector cards, Mr. Sabia arrived in the hearing room with a tantalizing trail of breadcrumbs behind him.

He was named Deputy Finance Minister two years ago, in an appointment that merely formalized his long-time status as economic whisperer for the Trudeau government, after decades as a top executive at CN Rail, Bell Canada and the Quebec pension fund Caisse de dépot et placement du Québec. But Mr. Sabia wears a dual aura – both sage-like influence and the whiff of undelivered promise from once-vaunted and now dusty ideas like the economic growth council and the Infrastructure Bank.

Given this government’s general reluctance to show its work, Mr. Sabia is a sort of skeleton key that unlocks not only how the government saw these pernicious problems last winter, but also the sort of mind that captivates them, in the form of Mr. Sabia himself. It was apparent from his appearance at the inquiry why he might command a room as an executive or impress the upper echelons of government.

In a role where many witnesses have looked spooked, Mr. Sabia was loose and confident, self-deprecating and even sardonic. “I would like to say it’s nice to see you and be here again, but that would be playing fast and loose with the truth,” he said in response to a lawyer’s generic greeting.

His testimony was precise, coherent and on message, and also strangely compelling given how dry the subject matter might have been. Mr. Sabia repeatedly volunteered context before the lawyers could ask for it, and at one point, one congratulated him for wiping out “about five pages of questions” with one soliloquy, for which Mr. Sabia then made fun of himself.

Once the blockades were finally cleared, the inquiry heard, a colleague sent Mr. Sabia an e-mail summing up the economic damage, concluding that “much of the impact” on Canada’s GDP would be recouped. As a commission lawyer probed at this idea that in the end, the bleeding hadn’t been so bad, Mr. Sabia again volunteered himself.

“I hope you’ll understand what I mean when I say this, but that analysis says to me: success,” he said. ”It seemed as though they – we – had succeeded, the government had succeeded in keeping those disruptions within a relatively short period of time.”

It’s a difficult thing to explain in the calm light of day what was haunting the corners of your room at night, but Mr. Sabia did about as good a job as it was possible to do, on behalf of a government that usually doesn’t explain much of anything.

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