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Demonstrators protesting vaccine mandates and other pandemic restrictions gather as part of a truck convoy blocking the highway at the busy U.S. border crossing near Coutts, Alta. on Jan. 31.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

The RCMP requested help from more than 100 tow truck companies in Canada and the United States to dismantle the Coutts, Alta., border blockade but they all refused, says an RCMP report tabled with the inquiry examining the federal government’s invocation of the Emergencies Act.

The inquiry has heard extensively about issues securing tow trucks to help dismantle convoy protests in Ottawa, as well as the blockade in Coutts. Many tow truck operators refused to co-operate because they were receiving threats.

The inquiry has also heard that the Emergencies Act provided legal protection from personal liability to operators who did agree to tow vehicles. Companies that ultimately agreed to tow trucks wanted the province to cover the cost of any damage to their trucks and indemnity from possible claims lodged by protesters.

The Public Order Emergency Commission, which is led by Justice Paul Rouleau, is examining whether the federal government erred when it invoked the Emergencies Act in response to the Ottawa protests and related border blockades. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau invoked the act on Feb. 14 – marking its first use in history. The government used the temporary powers to crack down on the protesters, including to freeze bank accounts without a court order and disallow assembly in certain designated areas.

Editorial: Was the Emergencies Act necessary?

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Protesters opposed to COVID-19 restrictions began blocking the crucial international border crossing in Coutts on Jan. 29 – just one day after convoys of similarly motivated protesters arrived in Ottawa.

In Coutts, the RCMP planned to take enforcement action and remove the blockading vehicles on Feb. 1, but local tow truck companies that initially agreed to help withdrew their assistance because they were concerned about negative attention and comments on social media, the RCMP report details.

The RCMP received information that some blockade members or their supporters were paying tow truck companies not to help the police enforcement, the report says.

The service then reached out to more than 80 tow truck companies in Alberta, British Columbia and Saskatchewan, as well as more than 25 companies in the United States, but they all refused to help remove vehicles, the report adds.

On Feb. 13, Alberta informed the RCMP that it was procuring six tow trucks to use in Coutts, though they ultimately weren’t needed. On Feb. 14, the RCMP carried out raids at the blockade, resulting in the seizure of weapons and 13 arrests, and it ended shortly after.

In Ottawa, tow truck operators also received threats if they agreed to help remove the big rigs, pickup trucks and other vehicles entrenched in the city’s downtown core. There were also concerns in Windsor around the security of tow truck operators after the Ambassador Bridge was blockaded by protesters.

Soon after that blockade began, Mr. Trudeau and Ontario Premier Doug Ford discussed the issue of tow trucks on a call. “We’ll all have to figure out what to do with these tow trucks who are not doing their job and fulfilling their duties with the city – there has to be a serious reckoning afterward,” said Mr. Trudeau, according to a record tabled with the commission.

Ontario Provincial Police Commissioner Thomas Carrique has told the commission that the Emergencies Act was used to indemnify tow truck operators, but was not used to compel them to provide service.

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Demonstrators gather at the border crossing in Coutts, Alta., on Feb. 1. An RCMP report says the Mounties received information that some blockade members or their supporters were paying tow truck companies not to help the police enforcement.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

Asked by commission counsel about documentation that appears to show the service had, in fact, compelled the operators’ service, Commissioner Carrique said there were concerns that those who’d agree to help would back out. “Did we provide them with information in writing that would insinuate they were compelled? Quite likely. But did we actually have to direct them? No, they had willingly agreed to assist,” he testified.

Ian Freeman, an assistant deputy minister with Ontario’s Ministry of Transportation (MTO), also testified on Wednesday. He said that at the request of the OPP, the provincial ministry sourced 10 heavy tow trucks to use in Ottawa. He said he understood those tow truck operators were not forced into service through the Emergencies Act but that the indemnification the act provided was “helpful.”

He did not think that the provincial declaration of emergency – which was made on Feb. 11 – assisted in efforts to source operators, he said. “I even know when some names did leak out, they were inundated with calls and threats. And I believe some backed out as a result of that,” he testified.

MTO e-mails, which were tabled with the commission, show that indemnification provided through the Emergencies Act was critical in getting those 10 trucks to Ottawa. On Feb. 16, an MTO director named Jasan Boparai e-mailed the OPP to say that 11 heavy tow trucks had been confirmed, so far, but that all three companies involved had requested letters saying that the province would cover costs from any damage to their trucks by protesters and would also indemnify them from any claims related to the vehicles they towed.

“The letter above is critical as their insurance companies have specifically told them that they will not cover these risks,” Mr. Boparai told the OPP.

A few hours later, Mr. Boparai followed up, noting that one company had since dropped out, but they still had 10 trucks ready. The trucks were travelling that night based on a commitment that the letters were coming the next day, he wrote.

The massive police operation to remove protesters from Ottawa’s downtown core began on Feb. 18.

In a letter dated Feb. 22, Commissioner Carrique told Ontario’s Deputy Solicitor-General Mario Di Tommaso that the vendors’ demand for “an unusually broad and high risk indemnification” would have been time-consuming to offer through the OPP’s processes. He noted the Emergencies Act ultimately provided it.

The Ottawa Police Service struggled to locate heavy tow trucks during the protests, even as officers reached out to more than three dozen companies, as well as the surrounding municipalities, additional e-mails show.

In Windsor, tow operators were also targeted by protesters. A document dated Feb. 8, tabled with the commission, says Windsor police had attempted to tow a vehicle the day before, “but drivers exited their vehicles with tire irons and threatened to assault the tow truck drivers.”

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