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An OPP tactical officer looks on from the top hatch of an armoured vehicle near the Ambassador Bridge in Windsor, Ont., on Feb. 12, 2022.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told Ontario Premier Doug Ford that the provincial leader did not need additional legal tools to clear a blockade of Canada’s busiest commercial crossing to the United States – five days before Mr. Trudeau gave the government sweeping legal powers using the Emergencies Act.

Meeting minutes of the leaders’ Feb. 9 call were tabled with the Emergencies Act inquiry on Tuesday. During the call, Mr. Ford said he had asked Ontario’s Attorney-General to look for legal ways to give police more tools, “because the police are a little shy and I can’t direct them.” Mr. Trudeau replied that the Premier “shouldn’t need more tools – legal tools – they are barricading the ON economy and doing millions of damage a day and harming people’s lives.”

At the time of their call, the Ambassador Bridge in Windsor, Ont., had been blocked for three days by people demonstrating against COVID-19 restrictions, preventing the flow of international trade, while similarly motivated protests in downtown Ottawa had already stretched on for almost two weeks.

At a press conference on Tuesday, Mr. Trudeau was asked why his position on the need for additional legal tools changed between Feb. 9 and Feb. 14. Mr. Trudeau did not directly answer the question. He said that the Emergencies Act commission is important for transparency and openness, adding, “that’s why we called the commission.” It is mandatory under Canadian law to hold a commission after any invocation of the act and was therefore not a decision of Mr. Trudeau’s government.

The Public Order Emergency Commission, which is led by Justice Paul Rouleau, is set to decide whether the federal government erred when it invoked the Emergencies Act in response to the Ottawa protests and related border blockades. Mr. Trudeau invoked the act on Feb. 14 – marking its first use in history. So far, the commission has largely heard from city and police leaders about the protests in Ottawa, though it turned its focus on Monday to the Ambassador Bridge blockade.

During the Feb. 9 call, Mr. Trudeau urged Mr. Ford that the police of jurisdiction needed to “do their job” – lest Ontario become a “laughing stock.”

“At a time [when] we’re trying to draw in investments, a whole bunch of people are looking at this and saying we can’t even clear up a protest on a bridge,” Mr. Trudeau said.

Mr. Ford told the Prime Minister that he couldn’t direct police, to which Mr. Trudeau asked, “Are you saying the OPP can’t help?” Mr. Ford repeated that he can’t direct police, adding, “I can’t call them and say get your asses in there and kicking ass.”

The Prime Minister also asked whether Windsor had already requested support from the Ontario Provincial Police. Mr. Ford relayed it had and that the request was going forward. “They can’t talk this out for three weeks, they need to act immediately,” Mr. Trudeau said, asking the Premier whether the OPP understood the “urgency.”

Mr. Ford attempted to reassure the Prime Minister that the OPP would have a plan, and added, in strong language, that he would be following up.

The blockade of the Ambassador Bridge began on Feb. 7. Two days later, the Windsor Police Service made a formal request to the provincial and federal governments for additional resources, including officers. The bridge was ultimately reopened on the morning of Feb. 14 and several witnesses have testified that police did not use the Emergencies Act in removing protesters.

During the call between Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Ford, the Ontario Premier emphasized the importance of ending the blockade in Windsor. Referencing the protests in Ottawa, he said that the “bigger one for us and the country is the Ambassador Bridge.” He noted that the total cost to trade of that blockade would be up to $3.1-billion after four days.

OPP Superintendent Dana Earley, who served as the OPP’s critical incident commander in response to the bridge blockade, also testified on Tuesday.

After referencing the leaders’ Feb. 9 conversation, Alan Honner, a lawyer with the the Democracy Fund, asked Supt. Earley whether she encountered any political interference during the blockade. She said she had not, though she did later acknowledge that it was “stressed” on her by OPP leadership that dealing with the situation in Windsor was a priority.

“Superintendent Earley understood that resolution was urgent because the bridge closure was having massive economic impacts, including job layoffs, on Windsor, Ontario, and Canada,” reads a summary of an interview the superintendent had with commission lawyers.

Supt. Earley praised the OPP’s partnership with Windsor police. According to her interview summary, she arrived in Windsor on the morning of Feb. 10. A senior commander with the Windsor police told her that the local service welcomed the OPP’s assistance and understood that all operational decisions needed to come through her. An integrated command was created with the OPP in the lead role, she indicated.

The collaboration between the OPP and Windsor police stands in contrast to that between the Ottawa Police Service and provincial service, as convoy protests dragged on in the capital. The commission has heard that then-Ottawa police chief Peter Sloly seemed suspicious and hostile toward an OPP-led team of experts sent to assist his service – a characterization he denied. Yet in his testimony, Mr. Sloly dismissed the idea the OPP should have taken over the response and confirmed he felt that other police services had to work underneath Ottawa police command.

The inquiry also heard on Tuesday from its first witness who was involved in the blockade in Coutts, Alta. Marco Van Huigenbos is a Fort Macleod town councillor and is facing a charge of mischief in relation to that blockade.

Truckers, farmers and others opposing COVID-19 measures blocked the Coutts border crossing intermittently from Jan. 29 until mid-February. It ended after the RCMP carried out raids, seizing weapons and making a series of arrests. Mr. Van Huigenbos testified that he joined the protest because of provincial and federal COVID-19 restrictions.

“It was never my intention to block the border, it was always our intention to create an inconvenience at the border in the afternoon of January the 29th,” he said.

The mayor of Coutts and Ontario’s deputy solicitor-general are scheduled to testify on Wednesday.