“I would have worn that,” he continued. “A prime minister’s responsibility is to make the tough decisions and keep people safe.”
Trudeau’s testimony caps the six-week hearing at the public inquiry examining the Liberal government’s use of emergency legislation in February to clear Ottawa’s streets and discourage people from returning to blockades at the Canada-US border crossings. The hearings have given Canadians exceptional insight into the inner workings of government during the crisis that culminated in the February 14 invocation of the Emergency Act.
The law gave authorities sweeping new powers, which they used to freeze protesters’ bank accounts, ban travel to protest sites and force tow trucks to clear vehicles blocking Ottawa’s streets.
The inquiry must now determine whether Trudeau was entitled to use the law, which had never been used since it was passed in 1988. The conservative opposition, protest leaders and civil rights groups all claim the government has overstepped.
On Friday, Trudeau told the commission he did not take the decision to invoke emergency powers lightly, but said the act had proven effective.
“There was no loss of life. There was no serious violence. … Since then, this type of illegal occupation hasn’t happened again,” he said.
“I’m not going to pretend it’s the only thing it could have done, but it did. … These can be very different conversations and I am absolutely, absolutely calm and confident that I made the right choice.”
A major police operation ended the protests in Ottawa over the weekend of February 19. Police forces from across the country restricted access to downtown Ottawa and gradually blocked and dispersed the protesters, arresting about 200 people and towing away dozens of vehicles. About 280 bank accounts were frozen under the Emergency Law.
Border blockades, including the Ambassador Bridge linking Windsor and Detroit, have been ended without the use of federal emergency powers, the probe heard, although officials said the threat to freeze accounts helped deter people from returning. The law was repealed on February 23.
Trudeau said the occupation of the “Freedom Convoy” was different from ordinary protests. “They wanted to be obeyed,” Trudeau said of the protesters, whose demands ranged from an end to all pandemic public health measures to the overthrow of the government.
“It is a right to express concerns and disagreements about public policy positions,” Trudeau said. “But occupying and destabilizing and disrupting the lives of so many Canadians and refusing to uphold a lawful protest is not okay.”
In Ottawa, residents complained about incessant honking and diesel fumes from truckers and being harassed for wearing masks. The government estimates nearly CAD$4 billion worth of trade has been halted due to the border blockades. Trudeau pointed to instances where police have been swarmed by protesters and reports more blockades could emerge.
The prime minister said the “anger and hateful rhetoric” from some protesters was reminiscent of the 2021 federal election campaign. According to a synopsis of an interview Trudeau gave to hired lawyers prior to his public testimony during that campaign, “he and his political staff have a measure of Observed anger, violence, racism and misogyny expressed in public rhetoric that he felt was striking.”
At the start of the convoy protests, Trudeau told the inquiry that he and his associates were concerned there was a “disconnect” between the messages they saw on social media and the “reassurances” they received from police , “that this was just a normal style of protest.”
The prime minister also appears to have lost confidence in police efforts to contain the protests early on. By the second weekend of the Ottawa occupation, according to his testimony, “it was evident that the police were unable to bring the situation to a close.”
Police officials have said they didn’t need the emergency law to end the protest and that they had a plan to calm the protesters down. But on Friday, Trudeau scoffed at that claim. “We’ve heard over and over again that there’s a plan,” he said. “I would recommend people to look at this actual plan, which wasn’t a plan at all.”
Trudeau also faced questions about whether the government has reached the legal threshold to invoke the emergency law, a technical point that emerged as one of the key issues before the probe.
In order to declare a public order emergency, the federal cabinet must decide that there is a threat to Canada’s security, as described in the Canadian Security Intelligence Service Act, the law governing Canada’s national intelligence agency, CSIS.
The investigation has found that CSIS concluded that the protests did not meet the agency’s definition of a national security threat. But several of Trudeau’s top advisers have argued that the cabinet is not bound by a CSIS assessment and can assess the existence of a threat based on a broader range of inputs.
On Friday, Trudeau said CSIS has an “intentionally narrow framework” to assess security threats, while the cabinet can consider information from many branches of government, including the national police force and the prime minister’s national security adviser.
Trudeau’s testimony goes one step further. “CSIS has been challenged in recent years by the threat of domestic terrorism, which it was not designed to combat,” it said. “[The prime minister] observes that the CSIS is limited in its ability to conduct operations on or against Canadian soil.”
Ultimately, the Liberal government relied on a section of the CSIS law definition that refers to “threat.”[s] or use of serious acts of violence … for the purpose of achieving a political, religious or philosophical goal.”
Although there had been no serious violence up to that point, Trudeau said, “We cannot say that there is no potential for threats of serious violence in the coming days.”