Concern about political interference with RCMP spotlighted at Emergencies Act inquiry

OTTAWA — A few hours after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made the history-making decision to invoke the Emergencies Act, his national security adviser reached out to the RCMP for a threat assessment of the protests that had blockaded downtown Ottawa and several border crossings.

Jody Thomas did not go through official channels when she asked for that assessment, and prefaced it with her own description of the protest.

She told the RCMP in a Feb. 14 email the protests were a threat to democracy and the rule of law.

"This is about a national threat to national interests and institutions. By people who do not care about or understand democracy. Who are preparing to be violent. Who are motivated by anti-government sentiment," Thomas wrote in the email released Tuesday through a public inquiry.

Trudeau invoked the Emergencies Act on Feb. 14 for the first time since the legislation became law in 1988, when he told Canadians extraordinary powers had to be granted to police and the government to quell countrywide protests against COVID-19 public health restrictions.

The Public Order Emergency Commission is tasked with determining whether the government was justified in triggering the legislation. It is holding public hearings in Ottawa until Nov. 25.

The emails were shown to RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki and her deputy, Mike Duheme, who appeared as witnesses before the commission Tuesday. The idea of political interference with police was brought up repeatedly throughout their testimony, though Lucki denied that the federal government ever exerted undue pressure on the RCMP.

"Were you alert to the fact that this was a threat assessment going from your people to the Privy Council Office in connection with the invocation of the Emergencies Act?" commission lawyer Gordon Cameronasked the two highest-ranking officers in the RCMP.

Neither answered him directly because they said they could not remember if they were briefed. The RCMP produced an intelligence report in response to the request, and made reference to the noted presence of ideologically motivated violent extremists in the protest.

Lucki first raised the spectre that the government would invoke the Emergencies Act on Feb. 5 in a private exchange of text messages with Ontario Provincial Police Commissioner Thomas Carrique, after telling him the federal government had lost confidence in the Ottawa police.

Lucki told the commission on Tuesday she came to that conclusion based on the questions she fielded daily about what was going on in Ottawa at the time.

"I could hear the impatience. I could hear the frustration," she testified.

Brendan Miller, the lawyer for several organizers of the Ottawa protest, pointed to notes Duheme took during the protest about federal officials calling for more action from the RCMP.

On Feb. 9, Duheme wrote that the country's top public servant, clerk of the Privy Council Janice Charette, told him "we need to take this over," according to notes presented into evidence at the inquiry.

Duheme also noted a comment by the prime minister on Feb. 12, writing that Trudeau said the RCMP "haven't done anything" on border blockades.

"They were not happy," Duheme said during his testimony Tuesday, about "how we were handling" demonstrations.

Federal politicians can issue administrative directives to the RCMP commissioner, who is appointed by the government, but they aren't allowed to interfere with police operations.

No one in the government has tried to cross that line, Lucki said, but perhaps it could be more clear.

"I think it's time that we put something to writing that outlines the what you can and cannot do from both the commissioner's perspective and the politicians'," she told the commission.

When federal ministers sat down to formally deliberate on the invocation of the Emergencies Act on Feb. 13, Lucki told the commission that she was in the room but did not get a chance to speak.

That meant she did not get an opportunity to tell ministers that Ottawa police finally had a plan to deal with protest that had gridlocked the city for weeks. The new plan would not have relied on any new powers for law enforcement.

"I guess in hindsight, that might have been something significant," Lucki said of not being able to deliver the information during that crucial meeting.

The report she intended to deliver to ministers also included her opinion that police hadn't exhausted all the "tools" that were available to them through existing legislation.

Lucki did brief Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino prior to the meeting, she said, but she couldn't say whether the information was passed along to the rest of cabinet.

But ultimately, she told the commission she's not sure it would have changed anything. And in any case, the Emergencies Act powers proved useful in shrinking the protest before police moved in to remove the crowds and trucks from the streets, she said.

A document from a Feb. 23 cabinet meeting, in which cabinet opted to revoke the emergency powers, offers insight into how the powers were actually used.

The document, tabled with the commission, shows police used the powers to compel the co-operation of two tow truck companies and deny two "known" foreign nationals from entering Canada.

There were "no specific arrests" made under the new Emergencies Act authorities in Ottawa, it says, and the local police service was able to secure the perimeter downtown without needing to use any of the designations in the legislation.

The document also shows that police agencies and banks worked together to freeze hundreds of bank accounts to limit funding to the protest.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 15, 2022.

Laura Osman and David Fraser, The Canadian Press