Trudeau Defends Use of Emergencies Act During Trucker Protest

He strongly defended the decision at a public inquiry into the government’s use of an emergency law to shut down the blockade.

Police officers clearing demonstrators from near the Canadian capital in Ottawa in February.
Credit...Ian Willms for The New York Times

OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada on Friday firmly defended his decision in February to invoke Canada’s Emergencies Act for the first time in the nation’s history, after convoys of truckers protesting Covid vaccine mandates blockaded and paralyzed the streets of downtown Ottawa, the capital, and shut down border crossings.

Mr. Trudeau’s statements closed six weeks of testimony in a public inquiry that is mandatory when the Emergencies Act is invoked.

To some Canadians, invoking the act was an overreach and an abuse of the government’s powers. For others, it was an overdue measure to end a protest that had shut down Ottawa, left residents feeling threatened and disrupted billions of dollars in trade.

“I am absolutely, absolutely serene and confident that I made the right choice,” Mr. Trudeau testified at the inquiry.

Acknowledging that invoking the act was a significant move that raised civil liberties concerns, Mr. Trudeau said that it had led to a restoration of order without any deaths or serious injuries and had stopped the breakout of new protests elsewhere.

He also said that not bringing in the special powers might have extended the blockade and led to violence and conflict.

“What if the worst had happened in those following days, what if someone had gotten hurt?” he said, referring to a scenario in which he had not acted. “The responsibility of a prime minister is to make the tough calls and keep people safe.”

The decision came after 17 days of blockades and other solidarity demonstrations closed three border crossings, including a key bridge from Detroit. The act empowered authorities to take drastic steps to quell the protests.

The federal government froze the bank accounts of about 280 protesters, banned public gatherings in specific places, forced reluctant tow truck operators to work with the police and enabled the federal police to help provincial and municipal forces to clear the streets.

It’s unclear what the outcome of the inquiry will be, beyond its examination of the events that led Mr. Trudeau’s government to invoke the act, which is all the law calls for.

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Credit...Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press, via Associated Press

But Justice Paul Rouleau of the Ontario Court of Appeal, who is overseeing the inquiry and is required to produce his findings by Feb. 20, made clear during the first day of hearings that he was not there to judge the prime minister or anyone else.

“While inquiries seek to uncover the truth, they are not trials,” he said. “Questions of civil and criminal liability are decided by courts and not commissions.”

As in a Parliamentary committee hearing that came before this inquiry, no significant revelations have emerged from the testimony of 75 witnesses, demonstrators and public officials, or the 7,388 documents made public by the commission in recent weeks — though they have confirmed much that was suspected, or obvious, in February.

The 15 organizers and supporters who testified, many of whom will appear in court next year on criminal charges, described their mutual suspicions of each other’s motives and a protest that lacked any obvious coordination or common goals.

Police officers, including the head of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, recounted a widespread lack of faith in Ottawa’s Police Department, the force in charge of policing the city’s streets, and Peter Sloly, the city’s police chief who resigned in the middle of the blockade.

Ottawa residents spoke about sleeplessness from the constant blaring of truck air horns, harassment by convoy members and lost business. And documents showed a pattern of finger-pointing between members of the federal government and the provinces, which were responsible for policing, with each accusing the other of inaction as frustration grew among politicians over the protracted standoff.

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Credit...Brett Gundlock for The New York Times

James Bauder, the head of a group called Canada Unity, testified that he had hoped to persuade the governor general, Queen Elizabeth II’s representative as head of state at the time, and the Senate, an appointed body, to remove Mr. Trudeau from office for “committing treason and crimes against humanity.”

Mr. Bauder, who faces several criminal charges, also repeatedly emphasized that none of the convoy members were calling for violence, saying the blockade was an act of “love and unity.”

The inquiry also showed how relations between governments became fractious as frustration grew among politicians who, under the Canadian system, are not allowed to direct the police.

In notes of a telephone conversation between Mr. Trudeau and Ottawa’s mayor at the time, the prime minister is quoted as saying that Doug Ford, the premier of Ontario, the government ultimately in charge of policing the city’s streets, “has been hiding from his responsibility on it for political reasons.”

According to the notes, Mr. Trudeau added: “Important we don’t let them get away from that.”

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Credit...Blair Gable/Reuters

But Mario Di Tommaso, Ontario’s deputy solicitor general, told the inquiry that it was the province’s view that Mr. Trudeau’s federal government was shirking responsibility.

“This question was all about, from my perception, the federal government wanting to wash its hands of this entire thing,” he testified. (Mr. Ford successfully argued in court that he could use parliamentary privilege to not testify. Mr. Trudeau voluntarily waived that right.)

The Emergencies Act was brought in to replace a previous law that was used in 1970 by Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, the father of the current prime minister, after a terrorist group in Quebec kidnapped a British diplomat and a provincial cabinet minister, who was subsequently assassinated.

In what was widely seen an abuse of human rights, Pierre Elliott Trudeau quashed the extremists by sending troops into several Canadian cities and clamping down on some civil liberties. Nearly 500 people were arrested and detained without charges.

Civil liberties groups argue that Justin Trudeau’s use of the Emergencies Act was also an abuse of the government’s powers. The takeover of downtown Ottawa by several hundred trucks and other vehicles effectively closed downtown Ottawa for 25 days, shuttering offices and businesses, including a major regional shopping mall. Many members of Parliament received threats, including one to “put a bullet” in the head of Chrystia Freeland, the deputy prime minister.

The inquiry heard that the blockade in Windsor, Ontario, interfered with about 4 billion Canadian dollars in trade with the United States and almost derailed negotiations that ultimately led to multibillion-dollar investments in manufacturing in Canada.

The current law states that the government can invoke the measure only when there is a “public order emergency,” as defined in another law.

Mr. Trudeau said that he did not make the final decision to invoke the act on Feb. 14 until he had received a formal recommendation to do so from Janice Charette, the nonpartisan head of the public service.

“It’s not something that had ever been done in Canada before,” he said. “It was certainly not something that we undertook to do lightly.”