Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s decision to invoke the Emergencies Act last year resulted from a failure of federalism, a failure of populism and a failure of inclusiveness.
In his report released Friday, Justice Paul Rouleau, as commissioner of the inquiry into the use of the legislation, concluded that Mr. Trudeau’s choice was justified. The so-called freedom convoy entrenched in downtown Ottawa was growing more belligerent. Protests were proliferating across the country. The RCMP and many other police services were stretched to the breaking point, and the situation “was worsening and at risk of becoming dangerous and unmanageable.”
Nonetheless, invoking the act was regrettable, Justice Rouleau concluded, “because in my view, it could have been avoided.”
It was clear to everyone that the Ottawa Police Service had failed in its duty to anticipate and control the protests. But what’s revealing is why the OPS failed.
Then-chief Peter Sloly was appointed to be “an agent of change to address racism, misogyny, and a lack of community trust” in the service, the report states. In Mr. Sloly’s efforts, “he faced substantial resistance” resulting in a profound loss of trust between the chief and other officers. He “was heading the OPS at a time when the senior ranks had been depleted and expertise had been lost.”
Efforts to promote diversity and inclusion within any organization are essential. But when those efforts undermine the core purpose of that organization, they can become destructive. In this case, they contributed to the failures of the OPS. (As The Globe and Mail’s Shannon Proudfoot reports, the National Gallery is facing a similar problem.)
But “the failures were not only in policing,” Justice Rouleau concludes. “The events of January and February 2022 can also be seen as a failure of federalism.” In particular, Premier Doug Ford’s Ontario government did not live up to its obligations to the citizens of the province’s second largest city.
“it was incumbent on the Province to become visibly, publicly, and wholeheartedly engaged from the outset,” wrote Justice Rouleau. Instead, “the Ontario Government was content to sit back and let the Federal Government ‘wear’ the problem.” That’s how Mr. Trudeau and then-Ottawa mayor Jim Watson viewed the situation, and the inquiry commissioner clearly agrees.
The report also explores the troubling intersection between rising populism and social media. Many of those in the freedom convoy genuinely believed that vaccine mandates and masking rules were attacks on their social and economic freedom by an autocratic Prime Minister.
“Historically, it is common for pandemics to be accompanied by a decline in social cohesion and a surge in civil unrest. This one has been no exception,” Justice Rouleau observed.
But in this pandemic, social media spread misinformation and disinformation that some people who were upset with restrictions latched onto. And Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre stoked those resentments during the occupation – and again on Friday.
“The only reason that we had this emergency is because Justin Trudeau wanted it to happen, because he wanted to distract and divide Canadians,” Mr. Poilievre told reporters, in part “by imposing unnecessary and unscientific rules that brought an end to the livelihood of countless heroes.”
Mr. Trudeau did stoke tensions through his rhetoric, and Justice Rouleau chastised him. The report also notes that many of the protesters wanted to demonstrate peacefully, as was their right.
But there were also bad apples. In supporting the freedom convoy, Mr. Poillievre threw his lot in with them, whether he wanted to or not. And to accuse the Prime Minister of fomenting the occupation in a deliberate effort to divide society seriously undermines the Conservative Leader’s credibility.
On the same day the Rouleau report came out, The Globe’s Robert Fife and Steven Chase reported on top-secret Canadian Security Intelligence Service documents that revealed the Chinese government actively interfered in the 2021 federal election, attempting to defeat Conservative candidates because Beijing wanted the Liberals to remain a minority government.
Mr. Poilievre was on much firmer ground when he accused the Prime Minister of hiding this information, and demanded the creation of a registry of paid agents of foreign governments.
While Mr. Trudeau was justified in imposing the Emergencies Act, that does not mean he has been governing well since the last election. Mr. Poilievre has the right and duty to hold the Liberals to account over inflation, interest rates, housing costs and more.
But he shouldn’t have sided with the convoy protesters last year. He shouldn’t be siding with them now.