Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shot down the idea of negotiating changes to government policy and referred to an “armed insurrection” during discussions about convoy protests, according to notes tabled with the Emergencies Act inquiry on Thursday.
During a Feb. 3 meeting with his national security and intelligence adviser Jody Thomas and others, Mr. Trudeau said: “No. No to changing government policy.” It is unclear exactly what the Prime Minister was responding to because the section in the notes above his comment is redacted.
At the time, anti-government, anti-vaccine-mandate protesters had already spent a week entrenched in downtown Ottawa with big rigs, pickup trucks and other vehicles. Convoy protesters were demanding an end to public health restrictions related to COVID-19, particularly federal requirements related to crossing the border.
The notes, which are handwritten, were authored by Mr. Trudeau’s deputy chief of staff Brian Clow and do not depict an exact transcript of what was said.
“Their goal is to disrupt and undermine government institutions,” the Prime Minister continued, according to Mr. Clow’s notes. “Talking, sure, but this doesn’t get resolved this way. They can’t undermine democracy by terrorizing populations. This is bigger than neighbourhoods in Ottawa.”
“They can’t barricade our capital city,” Mr. Trudeau added. The Prime Minister also said that if the Ottawa Police Service cannot solve the protests, the mayor and Premier “need to call for fed.” He then said “this is serious” and made a reference to an “armed insurrection,” the notes indicate.
The Public Order Emergency Commission, which is led by Justice Paul Rouleau, is examining whether the federal government erred when it invoked the Emergencies Act in response to the Ottawa protests and related border blockades in Coutts, Alta., and Windsor, Ont. Mr. Trudeau invoked the act on Feb. 14 and it stayed in effect for 10 days. Canadian law requires a commission be struck to examine the circumstances of its invocation any time it is used.
The question of whether the federal government would speak with protesters has been raised during the inquiry. On Feb. 10, then-deputy minister of public safety Rob Stewart reached out to the OPP to look at the option of federal engagement with protesters in Ottawa. A proposal was quickly developed but was ultimately dropped. “The deal would be: leave the protest and denounce unlawful activity and you will be heard,” the proposal said, a copy of which was tabled with the commission last month.
During the convoy protests last winter, both Mr. Ford and Mr. Trudeau flatly rejected negotiating with demonstrators. “I will never, ever negotiate [with] people that break the law, [with] people that are in there illegally and occupying cities,” the Premier said on Feb. 11.
There was a split among Canada’s premiers about whether the Emergencies Act should be used, with some harbouring concerns about its potential to inflame protesters, Mr. Clow’s notes show. At a morning meeting on Feb. 14 – just hours before the act was invoked – Mr. Trudeau shared with the premiers how it would work, saying that it was not a military action and was “compliant with Charter.”
Ontario Premier Doug Ford is listed as “strongly supports,” according to Mr. Clow’s notes. The premiers from Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland and Labrador, and British Columbia also expressed support.
Someone identified as “Carolyn,” who would be Northwest Territories Premier Caroline Cochrane, expressed significant concern, saying, “I don’t want blood on my hands,” the notes say.
She said she was glad the army would not be called in, adding, “I support the emergency measures, but if you’re thinking army consult us again,” the notes indicate.
Mr. Trudeau affirmed that the military was a “last resort.”
Yukon Premier Sandy Silver asked whether the act has come up with opposition leaders, but it is not clear whether he was in support. Mr. Trudeau replied the opposition leaders would be spoken to later that day.
The notes show that, meanwhile, Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe thought the act would “inflame” protesters and he opposed it, as did someone listed as “MB,” which would represent Manitoba. Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston is listed in the notes as: “he’s worried. Inflammation.”
The notes show that Quebec Premier François Legault “strongly opposes in QC,” while New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs said, “Oppose Nationally,” while then-Alberta premier Jason Kenney said that “With respect to Coutts – declaring would be very problematic. Federal declaration could turn this into a magnet,” but also said he didn’t “quibble” with the use of the act.
Hours before the premiers’ call, the RCMP had raided the border blockade in Coutts, where police seized firearms and made 13 arrests. The blockade ended soon afterward.
Ontario’s deputy solicitor-general Mario Di Tommaso testified before the inquiry on Thursday. Mr. Di Tommaso’s view was that the federal government’s use of the Emergences Act was “helpful, but not necessary,” according to a summary of an interview he had with inquiry lawyers which was tabled with the commission.
Mr. Di Tommaso said Ontario showed its ability to deal with the blockade in Windsor through the provincial emergency order, and other legal tools such as an injunction. “The emergency orders under the Emergencies Act were nonetheless used by and useful to the policing sector once available,” he told the commission.
The interview summary also showed some squabbling between officials over whether different levels of government were providing adequate support to end the protests.
On Feb. 6, for instance, Mr. Di Tommaso was on a call with officials from the City of Ottawa and the federal government. He recalled that Ms. Thomas, Mr. Trudeau’s security adviser, suggested that “Ontario should be dealing with the occupation in Ottawa instead of the federal government.” He said his response was that protesters were protesting a federal vaccine mandate in Ottawa and believed the federal government had “a significant role to play in achieving a resolution.”
Mr. Di Tommaso floated a number of suggestions the federal government could consider – including changing its vaccine policy.
“Moreover, it was open to the federal government to consider a number of possible policy or operational responses to the protests: they could meet with protesters, modify federal vaccine mandates or provide necessary resources for a police response,” his interview summary reads.
Mr. Di Tommaso also told inquiry lawyers that, on Feb. 11, then-solicitor-general Sylvia Jones communicated to OPP Commissioner Thomas Carrique that she would be willing to meet with protest leadership in Windsor on the condition that they agree to end the demonstration.
He told the commission on Thursday that Ms. Jones was also willing to speak with protesters in Ottawa but that federal ministers needed to be there as well.
Mr. Di Tommaso is the highest-profile Ontario government official the inquiry is scheduled to hear from. Mr. Ford and Ms. Jones, were summoned to testify but won their legal challenge against doing so earlier this week. Mr. Ford said in June that he would testify but then reversed his position.
MARSHA MCLEOD AND JANICE DICKSON
The Globe and Mail, November 10, 2022