Trudeau says he's 'absolutely serene' about invoking Emergencies Act

OTTAWA — Before Justin Trudeau became the first prime minister to sign off on invoking the Emergencies Act, he says he took a brief moment to think: "What if I don't sign it?"

Trudeau detailed some of his thinking in the moments leading up to that final call as he testified Friday before the Public Order Emergency Commission, which is examining his decision to declare a public order emergency to clear last winter's "Freedom Convoy" protest blockades.

The prime minister said the moment of reflection happened on Feb. 14 at precisely 3:41 p.m., not long before he announced his decision to Canadians.

That's when Trudeau received a note from the government's top public servant recommending that he invoke the legislation, which had never been used in its 34-year history, the commission heard. Now it was being viewed as the solution to end the weeks-long protest on the streets around Parliament Hill and at several border crossings.

"That was a moment that I took with the weight of the decision I was about to take," Trudeau recalled Friday.

But the prime minister said he was reassured by fact the top public servant was making the recommendation, and that one day before, a group of cabinet ministers and other top officials he assembled to respond to the blockades also supported the move.

He also said he thought about the alternative.

"What if the worst had happened in those following days? What if someone had gotten hurt? What if a police officer had been put in a hospital? What if, when I had an opportunity to do something, I had waited?"

Ultimately, Trudeau testified, he agreed to make the declaration because he felt it was the right call to make and was comforted by the backing of those in his government.

"My own inclination was that this was a moment to do something that we needed to do to keep Canadians safe," he said. "I am absolutely, absolutely serene and confident that I made the right choice."

Trudeau spent much of his earlier testimony painting a picture of Canada teetering on the edge of violence — a threat that he believed was very real amid the angry protests in Ottawa and other parts of the country.

That was a key consideration in turning to the emergency powers, the inquiry heard.

"We were seeing things escalate, not things get under control."

Thousands of protesters opposed to COVID-19 vaccine mandates and other pandemic-related restrictions, as well as his Liberal government, had by that point occupied downtown Ottawa for more than two weeks, while several border crossings with the United States had been blocked.

Trudeau said officials had seen the "weaponization" of vehicles, with a report of demonstrators trying to ram police officers at protest sites in Alberta and British Columbia, and "the use of children as human shields" in Ottawa.

"The fact that there were kids on Wellington Street, that people didn't know what was in the trucks — whether it was kids, whether it was weapons, whether it was both. Police had no way of knowing," Trudeau said.

Wellington Street, which has since been shut down to vehicular traffic, runs in front of Parliament Hill and was the scene of the main protest in Ottawa.

The prime minister also recalled reports of police being swarmed, and said there were concerns about violence between protesters and angry counter-protesters.

And while police by then had come up with plans and were moving to clear blockades from the Ambassador Bridge in Windsor, Ont., as well as Coutts, Alta., Trudeau said there were reports of new protests springing up in other places.

"Every input we were getting on that weekend … was that things were not getting better," he said. "Things were getting worse."

He also said there was concern about the need to keep the borders open once they were cleared.

The Emergencies Act identifies a public order emergency as a threat to Canada's security, as defined in the Canadian Security Intelligence Service Act.

That definition includes espionage or sabotage of Canada's interests, foreign influence, acts of serious violence against people or property with political, religious or ideological objectives, or the violent overthrow of the Canadian government.

Canadian Security Intelligence Service director David Vigneault testified on Monday that while no such threat materialized during the protests, he told the prime minister he supported the decision to invoke the Emergencies Act.

Trudeau defended the government's decision on Friday, saying CSIS's "deliberately narrow" definition of what constitutes a threat to Canada's security was intended to frame the spy agency's activities and not constrain the government.

The prime minister added the government is allowed to accept input from other sources beyond CSIS, including the RCMP and other federal departments and agencies, and that the decision ultimately rests with cabinet.

However, whatever legal analysis the government received before its decision to invoke the act will remain a mystery, given that it has refused to waive solicitor-client privilege. The issue arose again on Friday when Trudeau was asked to release that advice under cross-examination, before a federal lawyer shut down the request.

In his testimony, Trudeau accused Ottawa Police Service of not having a real understanding of the protests — and not having what he considered to be a plan to deal with them.

Trudeau started his testimony by saying the early days of the convoy reminded him of the anger expressed during the 2021 election campaign.

Speaking in French, Trudeau said that when he heard the demonstrators were travelling to Ottawa, he and his staff thought back to people protesting COVID-19 mandates who had followed him on the campaign trail last year.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 25, 2022.

Stephanie Taylor, Lee Berthiaume and Cindy Tran, The Canadian Press