Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has defended his decision to deploy emergency powers to disperse anti-vaccination protesters who blocked Canada’s border crossings with the United States and occupied the capital earlier this year.
Trudeau, who testified before an independent commission of inquiry in Ottawa on Friday, said it was up to him and his cabinet to determine whether the threshold had been reached to declare a “public order emergency” necessary to respond to the to invoke an emergency law.
He said his government is considering whether the so-called Freedom Convoy poses a threat to Canada’s security and whether it is engaged in activities that pose a “threat of serious violence” to further its political or ideological goals.
“There wasn’t a feeling that things were unraveling,” Trudeau said, pointing to the presence of guns at a border blockade in Alberta, the use of children as “human shields” at another protest site, and the “arming” of vehicles in the convoy.
“We couldn’t say that there wasn’t a potential for a threat of serious violence, that serious violence could happen,” Trudeau testified. “We’ve seen things escalate, not things get under control.”
Friday marks the final day of Public Order Emergency Commission hearings, which began last month. The panel heard testimony from convoy organizers, Canadian politicians, Ottawa residents, and law enforcement and national security officials.
The commission was tasked with investigating the circumstances that led Trudeau to invoke the emergency law on February 14 in response to the convoy organized by far-right activists.
Convoy participants gathered in downtown Ottawa in late January to protest a vaccination mandate for truckers crossing the Canada-US border. The anti-vaccine truckers and their supporters also called for an end to all COVID-19 restrictions and for Trudeau to resign.
For several weeks, participants occupied the streets of downtown Ottawa, honking and disrupting daily life while others set up blockades at border crossings in the provinces of Ontario and Alberta.
The decision to invoke the Emergencies Act for the first time since it came into force in 1988 raised concern from civil rights groups and other observers, who questioned whether Canada had met the strict legal thresholds required to invoke the measure were.
Others have questioned whether it was even necessary to apply the law, or whether the authorities lacked the will to use other tools at their disposal to end the protests.
The move gave the government sweeping powers, including the ability to ban any public gathering “which may reasonably be expected to result in a breach of the peace” and restrict access to certain areas.
The head of Canada’s spy agency, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, told the commission he supports the use of the emergency law and advised Trudeau to invoke it, Canadian media reported this week.
Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland also said on Thursday that the Canadian government was concerned about the economic impact of the convoy movement.
She said US President Joe Biden’s economic adviser requested a call with her to discuss the US-Canada border blockades just days before the Emergencies Act was invoked, Canadian media reported.
“That was a dangerous moment for Canada in my opinion,” Freeland testified, as reported by CBC News. “That one conversation was groundbreaking for me. And it was a moment when I realized that somehow, as a country, we had to find a way to end this.”
But the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, which has raised concerns since the emergency measure was first invoked, said Thursday that “‘economic damage’ is not grounds for invoking the emergency law.”
“We have real questions about why normal legal avenues already in place weren’t used to deal with things instead of invoking the emergency law,” Cara Zwibel, director of the association’s civil liberties program, told Al Jazeera ahead of the commission’s first hearing in October .
On Friday, Trudeau said the law’s application was aimed at boosting the authorities’ ability not only to clear the convoy’s blockades and occupation, but also to ensure protesters did not return. He argued that this helped prevent potential violence and kept people safe.
“I’m absolutely, absolutely calm and confident that I made the right choice,” Trudeau said.
The Commission has until February 6, 2023 to submit a final report, including any recommendations, to the Canadian government.