The public inquiry into the first-ever use of the federal Emergencies Act by the Liberal government of Justin Trudeau is only beginning its six-week saga. Some 65 witnesses are scheduled to testify before it is over and thousands of pages of documents are being collected. It will be another three months before the final report is tabled.
Obviously a great deal of new information is likely to surface during the hearings, although much of it will no doubt be of the superficial “who said what and when” variety. But even before this inquiry officially was launched several crucial facts were well-known, facts that appear to provide ample justification for the government’s decision.
First, it should be obvious to every citizen with even a smattering of knowledge of Canada’s modern history that this Liberal prime minister is the last person in the country, and possibly on the planet, who would want to invoke the Emergencies Act. He told us so repeatedly. And when he finally did take that difficult decision, it was only with great reluctance. This was not the act of some power-hungry autocrat, (as Conservative MP Rachel Thomas so shamelessly claimed in the House of Commons[i]), but of someone who felt he had no other choice. It was, as he himself said, a last resort, and one he revoked at the earliest possible moment he felt it was safe to do so.
Second, this prime minister knew only too well that there would be a public inquiry shortly after the crisis was over. Surely that made both him and his cabinet even more reluctant to invoke the act, and even more determined that they would need compelling evidence to justify their decision. (One might assume, for example, that they asked the Justice Department for a legal opinion and that it backed them up.)
Third, it is important to keep squarely in mind the distinction between ‘necessary in theory’ and ‘necessary in reality’. It is certainly possible, if all of the other relevant players in this drama had done their job, that the federal government would not have had to take this step. But that was simply not the case. In fact, it was primarily due to the abdication of responsibility, and in some instances outright incompetence, on the part of several of these other players, that the federal government was forced to take action.
Long before this inquiry began, for example, the public had been presented with overwhelming evidence that both the Ottawa city council and the Ottawa Police Service were hopelessly out of their depth. There is every reason to believe a more competent set of actors could have prevented the so-called Trucker Convoy from ever getting a foothold in the city, thereby averting the chaos that ensued.
Similarly, there is every reason to believe that if Ontario premier Doug Ford’s government had intervened — something they were theoretically bound to do since municipalities are the creature of the provinces — the illegal occupation of Ottawa could have been averted or at the very least derailed in the early stages. Yet despite his statement that he fully supported the prime minister’s use of the Act, we know that Ford flatly refused to participate in the ongoing discussions between municipal and federal players, despite repeated invitations to do so. Nor did he implement several measures in the area of provincial jurisdiction that would have been helpful, such as revoking truckers’ licenses or imposing fines for blocking infrastructure,[ii] and he did not declare a provincial state of emergency until February 11th, long after the crises in Ottawa and the Ontario border at Windsor had become intractable.
Fourth, it is important to note that the federal decision to invoke the Emergencies Act was, and is, supported by Ford, along with the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, the Commissioner of the RCMP and the federal NDP led by Jagmeet Singh, as well as nearly 70% of Canadians.[iii]
Finally, it must surely be seen as the height of political partisanship and hypocrisy for the provincial governments of Alberta and Saskatchewan — self-declared enemies of the Trudeau government – to cry foul over the federal decision to invoke the Act, even though those provinces were both directly impacted by critical border blockades at the time. (Interestingly, several prominent federal and provincial conservatives have criticized the Ontario premier for his staunch support of the Trudeau government’s use of the act, apparently confirming the reality that they view this as primarily a partisan issue.)
In short, while the public inquiry will undoubtedly provide more nuanced explanations and context to our understanding of the issues involved, and the factors motivating the federal government to invoke the act, we already know a great deal. Given the compelling evidence already in the public domain, that decision is likely one that will easily stand up to the scrutiny of a public inquiry.
[iii] https://nationalpost.com/news/politics/two-thirds-of-canadians-support-use-of-emergencies-act-and-want-freedom-convoy-cleared-out-poll and https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/trudeau-emergencies-act-vote-1.6359243