Judge: Trudeau right to invoke emergency act in Canadian truck protest

TORONTO — A public commission announced Feb. 17 that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government met the “very high threshold” for invoking the Emergencies Act to quell the protests by truckers and others angry over Canada’s COVID-19 restrictions last winter.

For weeks, hundreds — and sometimes thousands — of protesters in trucks and other vehicles clogged the streets of Ottawa, the nation’s capital, and besieged Parliament Hill, railing against vaccine mandates for truckers and other COVID-19 precautions and condemning Trudeau’s Liberal government.

Members of the self-styled Freedom Convoy also blockaded various U.S.-Canadian border crossings. Police arrested 11 people at the blockaded border crossing at Coutts, Alberta, opposite Montana, after learning of a cache of guns and ammunition.

Justice Paul Rouleau concluded that most of the emergency measures were appropriate, and said he does not accept the testimony of protest organizers who described the demonstrations as “lawful and peaceful.”

“The measures taken by the federal government were, for the most part, appropriate and effective, and contributed to bringing a return to order without loss of life or serious injury to people or property,” Rouleau said.

Rouleau said the Cabinet had reasonable grounds to believe there was a national emergency.

The Public Emergency Commission examined the basis for the decision to declare the public emergency order, the circumstances that led to it and the the appropriateness and effectiveness of the measures. Trudeau, Cabinet ministers, protesters and others testified last fall.

Trudeau noted that guns were found at the border blockade in Alberta.

“There was a real risk that people promoting ideologically motivated extremism could act, or that they could inspire others,” Trudeau said. “The situation was volatile and out of control.”

Trudeau said he regrets calling the protestors a “fringe minority.”

“I wish I had said it differently,” Trudeau said. “If I had chosen my words more carefully or been more specific, I think things might have been a bit easier.”

He said it is important to speak out against a very small number of people who deliberately spread misinformation and disinformation.

The emergencies act allowed authorities to declare certain areas as “no-go zones.” It also allowed police to freeze truckers’ personal and corporate bank accounts and compel tow truck companies to haul away vehicles.

Rouleau said there was a failure to provide a clear way to unfreeze the assets of those who had assets frozen, once they were no longer engaged in illegal conduct. But, he concluded, freezing assets was an appropriate measure to prevent the protests from being financially sustained over the long term.

“It was a powerful tool to discourage participation and to incentivise protesters to leave. I am satisfied that it played a meaningful role in shrinking the footprint of the protests, and in doing so, made a meaningful contribution to resolving the Public Order Emergency,” he wrote.

The trucker protest grew until it closed a handful of Canada-U.S. border posts and shut down key parts of Ottowa for more than three weeks. The border blockades eventually ended and the streets around the Canadian Parliament were cleared after authorities launched the largest police operation in Canadian history.

The protests, which were first aimed at a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for cross-border truckers but also encompassed fury over the range of COVID-19 restrictions and dislike of Trudeau, reflected the spread of disinformation in Canada and simmering populist and right-wing anger.

Officials say the Freedom Convoy shook Canada’s reputation for civility, inspired convoys in France, New Zealand and the Netherlands and interrupted trade, causing economic damage on both sides of the border. Hundreds of trucks eventually occupied the streets around Parliament, a display that was part protest and part carnival.

For almost a week the busiest U.S.-Canada border crossing, the Ambassador Bridge between Windsor, Ontario, and Detroit, was blocked. The crossing sees more than 25% of the trade between the two countries.

Rouleau said a series of police failures contributed to a “situation that spun out of control,” adding that governments and police forces should have better anticipated the events, especially in an environment where misinformation and disinformation is so prevalent today.

The commission’s 2,000-page report calls the “Freedom Convoy” a “singular moment in history” exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic as well as online misinformation and disinformation.

“We live in a Banana Republic — Officially. Today, Canadians were robbed of Accountability,” Tom Marazzo, one of the leaders of the protests, tweeted.

Nelson Wiseman, a political science professor at the University of Toronto, says the federal government had overwhelming support to invoke the Emergencies Act.

“The public didn’t care about whether the technical criteria were met,” Wiseman said. “What most people wanted was an end to the lawlessness and it only occurred after the Liberals invoked the act.”