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A member of the public wearing a hat bearing the Confederate flag looks on as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as he testifies at the Public Order Emergency Commission in Ottawa on Nov. 25.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Convoy den mother Tamara Lich sat where she always does, in the front row of public seating right behind the lawyers stacked three tables deep.

Two seats over was convoy lawyer Keith Wilson. When the trucks rolled into Ottawa last winter, he was the one who introduced Ms. Lich to Canadians at a press conference, describing her as “the spark that lit this fire.”

On Friday morning, everyone in the packed hearing room behind them was waiting for the man they figured had poured gasoline on the flames. It was the final day of the inquiry into his government’s use of the Emergencies Act, and it was Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s turn to testify.

Outside the building where the Public Order Emergency Commission was taking place, protesters brandished convoy flags and placards calling Mr. Trudeau and his Finance Minister, Chrystia Freeland, “psychopaths,” while latecomers waited in security screening lines to nab the last few available seats. Inside, if it were possible for a mood to vibrate between the last day of school and a bar fight, the hearing room crackled along that frequency.

When the proceedings came to order and a commission lawyer announced Mr. Trudeau as the first witness, most people turned expectantly toward the double doors at the back where the other witnesses had entered.

Nothing happened. Ten seconds went by, then half a minute.

“This is maybe a bit anticlimactic,” Commissioner Paul Rouleau said drily. The awkward tension in the room deflated in a burst of laughter.

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But still, no Prime Minister. “I think we’ll take five minutes then,” Justice Rouleau decided. Then, the moment a clerk announced the recess, Mr. Trudeau materialized through a side door like some understated magician.

There was a weird weight to the day, and only a little bit of it was about the government’s final chance to explain itself. It was as though the animosity and distrust between Mr. Trudeau and the protesters had been smouldering, but now that everyone was in the same room, that resentment was combustible.

As Mr. Trudeau’s testimony went on, the watchful silence of the early going started to crumble into edgy audience participation.

At one point, in talking about worries that invoking the act could inflame tensions further, Mr. Trudeau said it was not martial law and didn’t suspend fundamental rights. The crowd rippled and muttered, and a few people rolled their eyes incredulously at each other.

The crescendo of Mr. Trudeau’s political argument was an alternate-reality scenario: What if he had said no or decided to wait a few days, and the worst had happened?

“How would I explain it to the family of a police officer who was killed or a grandmother who got run over trying to stop a truck?” he said, referencing a moment of citizen resistance that became well-known in Ottawa. A low thunder of revulsion rolled across the room, and several people stuck their arms up like they wanted a ruling from a referee.

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Later, when a commission lawyer asked Mr. Trudeau about the frustrations and worries that protesters wanted heard, he replied, “It was clear that it wasn’t that they just wanted to be heard. They wanted to be obeyed.” That, too, the crowd hated.

Justice Rouleau had to issue a few warnings, but the room never quite erupted into the angry electricity that ran just below the surface.

Late in Mr. Trudeau’s cross-examination, a lawyer representing convoy organizers called up a hefty document of testimonials from protest supporters detailing how pandemic rules had harmed them and how the convoy felt like hope distilled. None of it would be new to anyone who had paid attention over the past year, and the lawyer wasn’t trying to do anything especially artful with it, but it was strangely, starkly, illuminating.

Mr. Trudeau and any of the people who wrote those statements could have sat in a quiet room and talked for a solid week, and at no point would they have been standing on the same ground: One side sees the vaccines as safe and necessary, the other as dangerous and forced on citizens; people can have real concerns that you don’t understand and feel judged to the point of explosion, or the only people who throw national-scale tantrums are hateful rednecks; the government is here to keep you safe and help you prosper, or it hates you and will yank everything away the moment your head is turned.

When the commission broke for lunch, Mr. Trudeau spirited himself out the side door again, leaving the audience to mill around.

“Is this your human shield?” one convoy supporter said to another with a child in tow, obviously making an acerbic joke about one of the most incendiary justifications for breaking up the protests. Then he introduced his own child: “This is my human shield.”

The man talked to his friend about how it was good to bring the next generation along to see this. Then he turned to the kids: This is your country, he told them, and you have to protect it.