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A protester stands on top of his vehicle to watch Surete du Quebec police officers as they surround vehicles in a blockade on Rideau Street in Ottawa on Feb. 18.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

The formal inquiry into the government’s use of the Emergencies Act will begin public hearings on Sept. 19 in Ottawa, Commissioner Paul Rouleau announced Monday. They are expected to continue until Oct. 28.

The federal government invoked the Emergencies Act on Feb. 14, 2022, for the first time ever, in response to country-wide protests and blockades that disrupted border crossings and effectively shut down Ottawa’s downtown core near Parliament Hill. Its powers allowed police to designate certain geographical areas as restricted, and empowered financial institutions to freeze bank assets that were suspected of supporting illegal blockades.

The commission says it intends to call protest participants, police representatives and officials from federal, provincial and municipal governments to appear, as well as individuals and businesses affected by the protests. Hearings will take place at Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa on Wellington Street, just steps away from where protesters had blocked city streets for weeks earlier this year using large trucks.

The emergency measures were ended on Feb. 23 after the main protest sites were cleared by police.

Adopted in 1988, the Emergencies Act replaced the 1914 War Measures Act, in part by requiring that the use of special powers comply with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The act requires the government to set up a public inquiry in the event that the powers are used. It also requires the establishment of a joint Parliamentary Review Committee, which has already held 11 meetings between March and June.

The public inquiry is called the Public Order Emergency Commission and is led by Justice Paul S. Rouleau of the Ontario Court of Appeal.

In June, the commission said the government had agreed not to claim cabinet privilege, meaning the commission would be given access to cabinet documents that are normally kept secret. However, the government is now being accused of lacking transparency.

The government imposed heavy redactions on such cabinet-level documents before they were released last week in Federal Court, where the government is facing an application for a judicial review of its use of the act.

The unredacted portions of the documents revealed that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s national security and intelligence adviser, Jody Thomas, had told cabinet on the night of Feb. 13 that there was a potential for a breakthrough with the protesters in Ottawa.

A government spokesperson said last week that the comment was in reference to talks that were in the news that day between protest organizers and the City of Ottawa. It was ultimately determined that those talks would not succeed.

The unredacted sections also provide a window into how the Prime Minister and his ministers were assessing the situation at the time.

Minutes of a Feb. 12 meeting said the Prime Minister had been speaking with a number of international partners “and they are all expressing concern about Canada and our ability to handle it.”

While protest organizers portrayed the events as a show of peaceful opposition to pandemic-related restrictions, minutes of that same Feb. 12 meeting show Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino told colleagues there were two distinct types of protesters.

“The first is relatively harmless and happy with a strong relationship to faith communities. The second is more concerning and comprised of harder extremists trying to undermine government institutions and law enforcement,” he said, according to the minutes.

Monday’s statement from the commission says the public hearings will be supplemented by written reports and other documents.

“One of the Commission’s primary responsibilities is to hold the Government of Canada to account for its decision to declare a public order emergency under the Emergencies Act,” Justice Rouleau said in a statement. “I intend to conduct the hearings in as open and transparent a manner as possible to help Canadians gain a better understanding of the events of February 2022 and their impact across the country.”

Members of the public will be given an option to submit their views on the government’s use of the act. The inquiry has a Feb. 6, 2023, deadline to submit a final report to the government.

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