'No idea too crazy': Cabinet given suite of options before invoking Emergencies Act

OTTAWA — Cabinet ministers did not exhaust every option they had to resolve the protests blockading Ottawa streets and border crossings across the country last winter before turning to the Emergencies Act, a federal inquiry heard Friday.

Thousands of protesters rolled into Ottawa in big rigs and other vehicles to voice their opposition to COVID-19 public health restrictions and the Liberal government. After the first weekend, it became clear the protesters did not plan to leave downtown Ottawa, where they set up camps in the middle of city streets.

That's when cabinet ministers convened to review what the federal government could do to end the protests, said Jacqueline Bogden, the government's deputy secretary on emergency preparedness.

"It wasn't perfect, but it was there to kind of stimulate conversation on the range of options within federal jurisdiction of things that ministers and departments might be able to think about," Bogden said Friday.

Bodgen testified at a hearing of the Public Order Emergency Commission, which is scrutinizing the events and advice that led to the Liberals' mid-February decision to invoke the Emergencies Act.

The act is a last resort, meant to be used when an urgent, critical and temporary situation threatens the lives, health or safety of Canadians, the provinces are thought to lack the capacity or authority to respond and the crisis cannot be handled effectively with existing laws.

Among the options for cabinet ministers was a "national listening exercise," like the French government undertook during the 2019 yellow vest protests in that country, though the response to those demonstrations also included violent police action.

Stiffer penalties were also considered, such as banning trucks and trucking companies taking part in the "Freedom Convoy" from being awarded government contracts.

For weeks, the protests did not dissipate.

"The situation is becoming increasingly concerning, you know, it's getting worse and not getting better," Bogden said of her impressions at that time.

On Feb. 9, the clerk of the Privy Council asked deputy ministers to come up with more options to stop the protests.

"We have to leave no stone unturned. We have to make sure that we are looking at every power, duty, every authority we have, every resource we have to make sure we are bringing the full power of the federal government," Janice Charette said of her orders to deputy ministers during her testimony Friday.

"I would have been saying 'all hands on deck, no idea too crazy, let's look at absolutely everything.'"

The Emergencies Act was listed as a potential "plan B" on the final list of options that was considered by cabinet ministers the following day.

Federal officials had already been thinking about the legislation for years at that point, because there was discussion about the possibility of invoking it due to the COVID-19 pandemic, deputy clerk Nathalie Drouin told the commission Friday.

It wasn't until Feb. 9 that deputy ministers started considering using it in the context of the protest.

When such a serious option was brought to the table, Charette recommended ministers move the discussions to an incident response committee of cabinet ministers with decision-making powers.

Minutes from a Feb. 12 meeting of that incident response group shows a list of options using the existing authorities of the government, and second list of options that would involve granting new powers to the government and police.

Charette said not every option was exhausted before cabinet decided to move ahead with the Emergencies Act.

"But the question was whether or not (the other options) were going to be adequate to be able to deal with the totality of this situation. That, I think, was the matter before ministers," she said.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau declared a public order emergency under the legislation on Feb. 14, making the first time it was invoked since it replaced the War Measures Act in 1988.

The Public Order Emergency Commission, led by Justice Paul Rouleau, is tasked with investigating the basis the government used to invoke the act, and how appropriate and effective the measures were. The commission is holding six weeks of hearings, which are expected to end on Nov. 25.

The commission will hear from the director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and seven federal ministers during the final week of testimony.

The prime minister's chief of staff, deputy chief of staff and director of policy were recently added to the list of witnesses for next week.

Trudeau is expected to be the commission's final witness next Friday.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 18, 2022.

Laura Osman and David Fraser, The Canadian Press