Justin Trudeau has put his use of the Emergencies Act into the rearview mirror but we still need an accounting, and an answer for whether it was justified. When two inquiries delve into that question in the coming weeks and months, one key witness has to be Ontario Premier Doug Ford.
It wasn’t Mr. Ford who invoked the Emergencies Act to break up the truckers blockades, of course, it was Mr. Trudeau – and it is the Prime Minister who has to answer for it.
But so many of the events that led up to that move, including the obstruction of border crossings in Windsor and Sarnia, and the blockading of downtown Ottawa, happened in Mr. Ford’s Ontario. It’s the province that has jurisdiction over local policing, even if it has delegated a lot of those powers to local forces and police boards.
It was Mr. Ford who invoked a provincial state of emergency, and then, apparently, felt that wasn’t enough, and something more was needed. Unlike some premiers, Mr. Ford supported the use of the Emergencies Act.
No review can be adequate without asking the politician ultimately responsible for policing in Ontario why he believed that the situation was beyond the capacity of law enforcement there. Or why it required powers beyond existing criminal law, provincial statutes, and Mr. Ford’s own emergency orders.
Those were unprecedented steps that can’t be left unexamined, or reduced by empty, side-taking partisanship. Let’s remember what a big deal this is: The Emergencies Act itself states that it can only be used when the situation cannot be effectively dealt with under any other law.
“There’s a reason that there is supposed to be a significant threshold and a check on invoking this law,” said Conservative MP Raquel Dancho, the party’s public safety critic. She said that will require looking into the events that led up to it, include the policing response.
There are two reviews now required by law: a quick review by a special parliamentary committee, and a broader inquiry that could take up to a year.
The longer inquiry will hopefully delve into the detailed chain of events, including, for example, the reasons for the inaction of the Ottawa Police Service for more than three weeks.
But the parliamentary review should offer a more timely airing of the key questions: what powers were used, and how, and what made it necessary to use them.
In theory that is supposed to be done in seven sitting days – by March 22, because of breaks – but the special committee hasn’t been formed yet because of disagreement over how many MPs and senators from each party or Senate grouping will be on it.
The previous Commons debate on approving the use of the Act also included a fair bit of knee-jerk partisanship, but also some refreshing thoughtfulness.
Anyone looking for reasoned analysis can go online to look for the 10-minute speech made by Conservative MP Michael Chong. He argued that Mr. Trudeau’s government can make the case that there was a threat, and that it exceeded provincial capacity – Mr. Ford supported the use of the Emergencies Act, after all – but not that the situation could not be dealt with under other laws. The problem, he argued, was there was a lack of law enforcement.
Was there? That’s an important question for Mr. Ford, in particular.
It is true, as Mr. Ford said repeatedly as trucker-convoy protests took shape, that politicians like him and Mr. Trudeau aren’t supposed to give day-to-day orders to police. Ontario delegates local police powers to local forces and police boards. But the provincial government is still ultimately responsible for ensuring the system works.
When there is a big emergency, Ontario is supposed to have a ladder of possible responses. An overwhelmed police chief can turn to the Ontario Provincial Police commissioner, and an OPP commissioner who is at a loss should notify the solicitor-general, a provincial cabinet minister. Did anyone on that ladder affirm there was nothing they could do without more powers? Without something that could only be done under the Emergencies Act?
Those are critical questions that need to be answered. They can’t be properly answered by any review committee or inquiry until they hear from Mr. Ford.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this column incorrectly spelled Raquel Dancho's first name.
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