Rouleau's report redeems the Emergencies Act — but it's not the end of the story

What will be officially known as the “Report of the Public Inquiry into the 2022 Public Order Emergency” is still not the last word on the story of the freedom convoy and what it symbolised or meant for this country and its politics. That story is still being written. 

We're still hearing the echoes of that event in our politics

Two small toy trucks on the rim of a ceremonial firepit.
Toy trucks sit next to the Centennial Flame as demonstrators mark the one year anniversary of the self-styled 'Freedom Convoy' in Ottawa on Jan. 28, 2023. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Justice Paul Rouleau's commission heard from 76 witnesses and 50 experts, received more than 8.900 exhibits into evidence, and had rare access to government documents that normally would be classified or withheld because of cabinet confidence.

The five-volume, 2,092-page report tabled in Parliament on Friday is likely the most comprehensive account that will ever be produced of last year's unrest and it provides an authoritative and objective verdict on Justin Trudeau's historic decision to invoke the Emergencies Act.

"The decision to invoke the Act was appropriate," Rouleau wrote.

But what will be known officially as the "Report of the Public Inquiry into the 2022 Public Order Emergency" won't be the last word on the convoy story. That story is still being written.

"The Freedom Convoy was a singular moment in history, in which simmering social, political, and economic grievances were exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, shaped by a complex online landscape rife with misinformation and disinformation, and unleashed in a torrent of political protest and social unrest," Rouleau said near the end of his 249-page executive summary, packing a tsunami into a single sentence.

While Rouleau found the Trudeau government's invocation of the Emergencies Act was warranted — and while the commissioner found failures at the municipal and provincial level — he also questioned the prime minister's rhetoric. Specifically, Rouleau singled out Trudeau's statement about a "small fringe minority … who are holding unacceptable views."

Trudeau is contrite, Poilievre is unapologetic

Even if Trudeau was referring to the most unsavoury elements of the convoy, and even if his comments were subsequently taken out of context, Rouleau still concludes that "more of an effort should have been made by government leaders at all levels during the protests to acknowledge that the majority of protesters were exercising their fundamental democratic rights."

Speaking to reporters in Ottawa on Friday, Trudeau conceded that he could have chosen his words more carefully. In his prepared remarks, he said that "many people came to Ottawa because they were hurting and wanted to be heard."

WATCH: Trudeau says he regrets comment about protesters

PM says he regrets comment he made about protesters

4 months ago
Duration 1:28
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau responds to reporters’ questions about whether he regrets referring to some protesters as a ‘fringe minority.' Rouleau’s report said those comments likely inflamed the situation.

Pierre Poilievre was uncontrite when he appeared before reporters a half-hour later at a news conference in Calgary. The Conservative leader leaned hard on the idea that the protests were driven by a divisive prime minister.

Rouleau described the situation in Ottawa as "unsafe and chaotic" and said he "did not accept the organizers' descriptions of the protests in Ottawa as lawful, calm, peaceful, or something resembling a celebration." But when a CBC reporter asked Poilievre whether, in light of those findings, he regretted his endorsement of the freedom convoy, Poilievre verbally attacked the reporter.

Maybe it's not surprising that Poilievre is unwilling to completely disown the protest that effectively launched his campaign for the Conservative leadership.

When the convoy rolled into Ottawa a year ago, Poilievre proudly stood on a highway overpass and celebrated its arrival. Then-leader Erin O'Toole, who was noticeably less enthusiastic about the convoy, was pushed aside by Conservative MPs a few days later. Having hitched his wagon to the convoy, Poilievre rode the momentum to the leadership of His Majesty's Loyal Opposition.

O'Toole, who has publicly fretted about the direction of his party, can at least say he was not the last conservative leader in this country to fall in the pandemic's wake — or the only one to be replaced by a more populist successor.

Amid much internal dissent about his own government's pandemic policies, Jason Kenney won only a lacklustre endorsement from his party in May 2022 and was forced to step aside as premier of Alberta. Danielle Smith, a louder opponent of vaccine mandates, replaced him. Earlier this week, Smith joined Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe in publicly vowing to fight a non-existent federal threat to their citizens' personal health information.

The convoy was foreseeable

While describing the convoy as a "singular moment," Rouleau also argued that it was "not entirely unpredictable."

"Historically, it is common for pandemics to be accompanied by a decline in social cohesion and a surge in civil unrest. This one has been no exception," he writes.

According to this reading of the past, the COVID-19 pandemic was never going to be a moment that simply brought Canadians together, never going to be seen as a shared struggle that ended neatly or triumphantly. So maybe some amount of tumult — notwithstanding the prime minister's rhetoric or the case for mandating vaccination — was inevitable.

In hindsight, the convoy seems to have heralded the beginning of a more difficult end to the pandemic than anyone had predicted — from inflation to clogged airports, long lines at passport offices and choked hospitals. But the convoy also brought fresh anger closer to the very centre — both literally and figuratively — of Canadian politics.

The federal government's immediate response — the invocation of the Emergencies Act — was freighted with heavy symbolism and seriousness. Perhaps the best that can be said about it is that it had to be done and that the inquiry that followed was thorough and transparent.

But Canadian politics now seems to be contested at an even higher pitch. And the direction and shape of Canada's post-pandemic politics seems to be very much up for grabs.

Looking for a unifying note to end on Friday, Trudeau noted that Canada celebrated Flag Day this week. He talked about the values — hope, hard work, overcoming challenges — he sees when he looks at the red maple leaf. 

"There is a reason why Canada is one of the most successful democracies in the world. It's because we work at it," he said, as if he felt a need to describe Canada that way.

On that, at least, there might be widespread agreement. In the wake of the pandemic and the convoy, the work of democracy is as important as it has ever been.


Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.