Emergencies Act investigation underway in Ottawa
Eight months after COVID-19 vaccine mandate protesters blocked parts of downtown Ottawa, a public inquiry has opened its public hearings as it investigates the federal government’s unprecedented use emergency powers to clean up the capital.
The official launch of the commission this morning kicks off what is expected to be a politically tense six weeks as the inquest hears from federal government officials explaining why they felt they had to invoke the Measures Act. never used before, and of those who think it was a step too far.
Ontario Court of Appeal Judge Paul Rouleau was chosen to lead the investigation. He started the morning by reviewing the mandate of the commission.
The commission – officially titled the Public Order Emergency Commission – will also submit thousands of documents over the next six weeks.
Lawyer Paul Champ, who represents a coalition of community associations and business improvement areas in downtown Ottawa, has seen some of these documents before. Although he is forbidden to speak about their content, he said they do not flatter the various levels of government and law enforcement involved.
« I think there’s going to be a very disturbing story to tell, » he said.
« I think we’re going to see where some of the balls are dropped. We’re going to see there’s been a lot of disagreements, there’s been a lot of arguments and dysfunctions between the key players. And it’s going to be quite a story. »
Champ said his clients would not take a position on invoking the Emergencies Act. He said they wanted to make sure the official toll reflects what Ottawa residents have been through over the three weeks protesters used trucks and other vehicles to block some of Ottawa’s main thoroughfares and neighborhoods. the city.
« I don’t think people really understand how traumatized and frankly terrorized the people of Ottawa were, » he said.
“Public services have been completely interrupted. Ambulances struggled to get downtown. Buses were stopped, Para Transpo was stopped. The elderly, people with disabilities have been strongly impacted.
« People were hostages in their own homes. And we want to make sure that story is told. »
Trudeau defends decision to invoke Emergencies Act
The commission is the first of its kind in Canada and is a legal requirement under the Emergencies Act. By decree, the commission was instructed to examine the circumstances that led to the declaration of a public state of emergency and to examine the following questions:
- The evolution and objectives of the convoy and blockades, their direction, organization and participants.
- The impact of domestic and foreign funding on protests, including money from crowdsourcing platforms.
- The impact, role and sources of misinformation and disinformation associated with the protests, including the role played by social media.
- The impact of blockades, including their economic impact.
- And the actions of the police and other responders before and after the statement.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau continued to defend his government’s decision to invoke the Emergencies Act on February 14, saying it was necessary « to regain control of the situation. »
Invoking the law has given authorities new powers, including the power to ban travel to protest areas, ban people from bringing minors to unlawful gatherings and commandeering tow trucks.
« That’s exactly what we did, » Trudeau said at a news conference Wednesday.
“Last winter’s convoy blockades massively disrupted the lives of Ottawa residents, people who depend on supply chains that cross borders. This is something that Canadians have experienced with real concern, which is why we have moved forward with measures that should not be taken lightly. »
Hatim Kheir, a lawyer at the Justice Center for Constitutional Liberties, said he believed the government had failed to meet the legal threshold to invoke the law, rendering such measures enforced under the law illegitimate.
« The government’s invocation of the Emergencies Act is a threat to our very system of government, » he said.
The Justice Center for Constitutional Freedom is one of many organizations that have status with the commission. Standing gives these organizations certain privileges in the investigative process, such as the ability to suggest or cross-examine witnesses. It also means that they are informed in advance of the documents presented in evidence.
Commission accesses high-level documents
While the commission’s eventual recommendations don’t carry much legal weight, Kheir said the testimony of witnesses and the evidence that will be entered into the record – coupled with the fact that it will be livestreamed daily – will add value. clarity on what happened last February. .
« The government is going to have to face the reality of trying to justify its actions, » he said.
« It won’t have the force of law, but it can have a persuasive effect. It’s also going to be informative for the public. »
At Rouleau’s request, the Liberal government waived Cabinet secrecy on documents related to its invocation of the law. This is only the fourth time in Canadian history that a public inquiry has had access to such important documents.
A lawyer for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, which is suing the government over its use of the Emergencies Act, said she fears the sensitive documents will be made public.
“We come into the commission with an open mind but, in our view, the government has yet to prove that the legal threshold to invoke the law has been met,” Cara Zwibel said at a press conference on Wednesday.
« And the burden is on them. Not the other way around. »
The commission is expected to hear from 65 witnesses over the next six weeks, including Trudeau, cabinet ministers, government officials from Ontario and Alberta and convoy organizers including Tamara Lich, who was in the room for the opening Thursday, and Pat King.
The commission will also hear from a number of police and security officials, including former Ottawa Police Chief Peter Sloly, RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki, Canada Spy Agency chief David Vigneault and the head of the government’s Integrated Threat Assessment Center.
Rouleau kicked off the proceedings with an opening statement, which will be followed by presentations and overview reports from commission counsel summarizing the preliminary facts.
During its first phase, which is due to end on November 25, the commission will meet for six weeks. After the end of the first phase, the commission will begin a political phase during which it will organize round tables with political experts.
Rouleau’s final report is due in February — a commitment the commission acknowledges will be trying.
« The commission is not aware of any precedent for a public inquiry of this magnitude conducted in such a short period of time, » reads a document on the commission’s website.
« The commission recognizes this challenge. »