Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has defended his decision to invoke emergency powers to disperse anti-vaccine protesters who earlier this year blocked Canada’s border crossings with the United States and occupied the capital.
Trudeau, who testified Friday before an independent commission of inquiry in Ottawa, said it was up to him and his cabinet to determine whether the threshold had been reached to declare a “public order emergency,” which is necessary to establish a “public order emergency.” to invoke the Emergency Act.
He said his administration considered whether the so-called Freedom Convoy posed a threat to Canada’s security and whether it engaged in activities that posed a “threat of serious violence” to further its political or ideological goals.
“There was no sense that things were going away,” Trudeau said, pointing to the presence of guns at an Alberta border blockade, the use of children as “human shields” at another protest site, and the “arming” of vehicles in the convoy.
“We couldn’t say there wasn’t the potential for serious violence threats, for serious violence,” Trudeau testified. “We saw things escalate, not get things under control.”
Friday marks the last day of the Public Order Emergency Commission hearings, which began last month. The panel has heard testimony from convoy organizers, Canadian politicians, residents of Ottawa, and police and national security officials.
The commission was tasked with investigating the circumstances that led Trudeau to invoke the Emergency Act on February 14 in response to the convoy organized by far-right activists.
Convoy participants converged in downtown Ottawa in late January to protest a vaccine 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.
Participants occupied the streets of downtown Ottawa for weeks, honking horns and disrupting daily life, while others set up blockades at border crossings in the provinces of Ontario and Alberta.
The decision to invoke the emergency law for the first time since the emergency law came into effect in 1988 raised concerns among civil rights groups and other observers who questioned whether Canada had passed the strict legal threshold necessary to invoke the measure.
Others have questioned whether it was necessary to use the law at all or whether authorities lacked the will to use other tools they already had at their disposal to end the protests.
The move gave the government extensive powers, including the ability to ban any public gathering “that could reasonably be expected to result in a breach of the peace” and restrict access to specific areas.
The head of Canada’s espionage agency, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, told the committee he supported the use of the emergency law and advised Trudeau to invoke it, Canadian media reported this week.
Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland also testified on Thursday that the Canadian government is concerned about the economic fallout from the convoy movement.
She said that a few days before the emergency law was invoked, US President Joe Biden’s economic adviser requested a phone call with her to discuss the border blockades between the US and Canada, Canadian media reported.
“That was a dangerous moment for Canada, I thought,” Freeland testified, as reported by CBC News. “That one conversation was an important conversation for me. And it was a moment when I realized that as a country we had to somehow find a way to put an end to this.”
But the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, which has expressed concern since the emergency measure was first invoked, said on Thursday that “‘economic damage’ is not grounds for invoking the emergency law.”
“We have real questions about why normal, pre-existing legal avenues weren’t used to deal with things instead of invoking the Emergency Act,” Cara Zwibel, director of the association’s fundamental freedoms program, told Al Jazeera ahead of the commission’s first hearing in October. .
On Friday, Trudeau said the use of the law was intended to strengthen authorities not only to lift the convoy blockades and occupation, but also to ensure that protesters did not return. He argued that it had potentially helped prevent violence and kept people safe.
“I am absolutely, absolutely serene and very confident that I made the right choice,” said Trudeau.
The commission has until February 6, 2023 to submit a final report to the Canadian government, including any recommendations.