The RCMP never used the sweeping powers of the federal Emergencies Act to clear protests choking key border crossings in regions where it is the lead police force, evidence presented at the Emergencies Act inquiry shows.
The Public Order Emergencies Commission is studying whether the government’s unprecedented invocation of the Emergencies Act last winter was justified. When the government invoked the act on Feb. 14, it argued it could not be limited to Ontario because it was also required to end blockades at several border crossings.
Yet testimony and documents presented at the inquiry show police cleared several anti-government, anti-vaccine mandate border blockades without using its powers, while others ended the same day the act was invoked or earlier.
And on Tuesday, RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki told reporters after her testimony that within RCMP jurisdiction, the Emergencies Act wasn’t used because the service “used existing tools.” The RCMP has jurisdiction in vast swaths of the country – with the exception of Ontario and Quebec – through contracts with provinces, municipalities and some Indigenous communities.
The Mounties had jurisdiction at the border blockades in Coutts, Alta., Emerson, Man., and at the Pacific Highway blockade in British Columbia, according to a document produced by the commission.
Witness testimony has shown that the blockade of the Ambassador Bridge in Windsor, Ont., was cleared on Feb. 13, without use of the act. The blockade in Coutts, meanwhile, was cleared on Feb. 15, also without direct use of the act, witnesses have said. Documents tabled with the commission also suggest that the blockade in Emerson did not require the act’s powers when protesters dispersed on Feb. 16.
In an e-mail on Feb. 14, Michael Richards, a senior bureaucrat in the Manitoba government, told a federal counterpart that a negotiated end to the Emerson border blockade was likely “imminent.”
Two days later, he followed up that a peaceful resolution had been reached and it appeared that the Emergencies Act had “nothing” to do with the RCMP’s operations.
Moreover, Mr. Richards said the act’s invocation “complicated those efforts, and actually delayed this outcome by at least one day.” He added that Manitoba’s justice department didn’t believe that the legal threshold for the federal act had been met.
Several witnesses have testified, however, that they thought the invocation of the act – and its powers to freeze bank accounts without a court order – influenced protesters to leave the blockade in Coutts, and helped to deter protesters from returning to protest at the Ambassador Bridge.
When the government invoked the act, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said its use would “strengthen and support law enforcement agencies at all levels across the country.” The government also argued that even though the two most contentious border blockades had been cleared without the act, the emergency declaration was needed to ensure the crossings stayed open.
Documents presented to the inquiry also show confusion about when the Ambassador Bridge would open to traffic after the police operation to move protesters. According to Commissioner Lucki’s speaking notes for the government on Feb. 13, plans were being finalized for it reopen that same evening.
However, when Commissioner Lucki attended high-level meetings that day, which were chaired by the Prime Minister, she did not share her information. Minutes for one of the meetings shows Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino said there was no “definitive timeline” for the Ambassador Bridge reopening – in contrast to Commissioner Lucki’s speaking notes.
Meanwhile, in Emerson, the Commissioner’s notes show, protesters were meeting the following day to decide whether to leave, but that an enforcement plan was “ready to execute”; in Coutts, the service was “on the cusp of enforcement”; and in B.C., the RCMP was being deployed to clear the protests.
Commissioner Lucki e-mailed her points to Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino and Mr. Trudeau’s national security and intelligence adviser, Jody Thomas.
Similarly, Commissioner Lucki’s notes included her assessment that there were still tools other than the Emergencies Act available for police to use. That message also was not delivered to cabinet but she e-mailed it to Mr. Mendicino’s chief of staff.
Evidence presented at the inquiry shows the powers available under the act were used to respond to protests in Ottawa, including to get tow trucks and to freeze bank accounts of protesters without due process.
In testimony on Wednesday, Transport Canada deputy minister Michael Keenan disputed previous testimony from members of the Ottawa Police Service and Ontario Provincial Police in which they argued that they could have secured tow trucks without the act.
Mr. Keenan said officials tried at length to find a way to get tow truck operators to co-operate to no avail. He said that changed after the act was invoked.
In separate testimony on Wednesday, John Ossowski, who was president of the Canada Border Services Agency during the protests, said the agency made little use of the powers under the Emergencies Act. In all, he said the CBSA used the powers under the act to deny two individuals entry into Canada.
Senior commission counsel Gordon Cameron also asked Mr. Ossowski about a change in CBSA’s situational assessment between the morning and evening of Feb. 14 – when the federal government invoked the act. The later assessment included a new warning of a “threat to Canada’s economic security and prosperity.” Another CBSA assessment on Feb. 15 also had new language warning of ideologically motivated violent extremism.
The new assessments closely mirrored language used by the government in its legally required justification for the emergency declaration.
Mr. Cameron asked whether it was a coincidence.
Mr. Ossowski said that it was and he was “satisfied” that the person who added the language was not attempting to create “tacit or implied support” for the act’s use.