Trudeau 'serene' about invoking Emergencies Act, says police plan to clear protest 'wasn't a plan at all'

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau today dismissed claims that police in Ottawa were on the verge of executing a plan to clear the anti-COVID-19 restrictions occupation last winter, arguing that the plan "wasn't a plan at all."

'What if, when I had an opportunity to do something, I had waited?' PM says of decision

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appears as a witness at the Public Order Emergency Commission in Ottawa, on Friday. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau today dismissed claims that police in Ottawa were on the verge of executing a plan to clear the anti-COVID-19 restrictions occupation last winter, arguing that the plan "wasn't a plan at all."

Multiple lawyers pushed back against Trudeau's claim, suggesting that he hadn't been properly briefed on plans to clear downtown Ottawa of the protesters who had blocked parts of the capital for weeks.

After six weeks of dramatic witness testimony, Trudeau made his own highly anticipated appearance before the Public Order Emergency Commission. He steadfastly defended his government's decision to invoke the Emergencies Act on Feb. 14 for the first time in the law's 34-year history.

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The commission has heard previously that after initial confusion and dysfunction, the Ottawa Police Service [OPS], the Ontario Provincial Police [OPP] and the RCMP had come together to craft an operational plan.

"We kept hearing there was a plan," Trudeau testified on Friday before a packed room.

A line of anti-mandate protesters stands face-to-face with a line of police officers in downtown Ottawa on Feb. 19. (Michael Charles Cole/CBC)

"I would recommend people take a look at that actual plan, which wasn't a plan at all" 

Trudeau said the document he heard about was largely about using liaison officers to shrink the footprint of the protest, with details on enforcement "to be determined later.' 

"It was not even in the most generous characterizations a plan for how they were going to end the occupation," Trudeau said. 

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Featured VideoDuring his testimony at the Emergencies Act inquiry, the prime minister highlights weak planning from Ottawa Police Services to end the convoy protests.

The question of whether police could have handled the crowds without the Emergencies Act has been raised multiple times at the inquiry, as Commissioner Paul Rouleau considers whether its invocation was truly a measure of last resort.

The night before the law was invoked, RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki told Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino's chief of staff that she felt police had not yet exhausted "all available tools," according to an email seen by the inquiry. In that email, she also listed a number of measures that could be helpful if the government moved forward.

Jody Thomas, Trudeau's national security intelligence adviser, testified last week that Lucki failed to pass that information on during a meeting with senior officials on Feb. 13.

"Individuals who are at that meeting are expected to provide information that is of use to decision makers ... the prime minister in his cabinet," Thomas said Thursday.

RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki steps out of a vehicle as she arrives at the Public Order Emergency Commission, Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2022 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Thomas also said she doubted the RCMP had firmed up a plan with the OPP.

"There was no evidence there was a plan," Thomas said. "We had been told there was a plan multiple times."

The Emergencies Act says a national emergency is an urgent and critical situation of a temporary nature that "cannot be effectively dealt with under any other law of Canada."

"That was part of the problem, that not all tools were being used," Trudeau said. 

Rebecca Jones, a lawyer for former Ottawa police chief Peter Sloly, showed Trudeau Lucki's testimony that she and the head of the OPP were briefed on a plan around Feb. 11.

"We were satisfied with the plan," Lucki testified last week.

Jones suggested to Trudeau that there was a disconnect between their testimonies.

"I'm going to suggest what happened is that Commissioner Lucki didn't brief you and your cabinet that there was complete plan on the 13th," she said.

"I can't comment on that," Trudeau said. 

Lawyers question how well Trudeau knew the plan

Jones wasn't the only lawyer to question Trudeau's assessment of the police plan.

Under cross examination by the Ottawa Police Service's lawyer, Jessica Barrow, Trudeau said he didn't have the capacity to do a line-by-line review of the police plan.

"I take you would agree with me that perhaps there was a little bit more substance to the plan than you were aware of on the 13th," she said.

"I am unable to speak to that," he said.

Sujit Choudhry, counsel for the Canadian Constitution Foundation, cited the Feb. 13 Ottawa Police plan and pointed out that eight of its pages have been fully redacted.

A man in a dark suit speaks into a microphone.
Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) Director David Vigneault has said a foreign agent registry would be a useful tool for combatting foreign election interference. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Choudhry asked that the pages be unredacted. The government declined.

"Prime minister, can I put it to you this way? You said we should read the plan but I think you'd agree we can't," he said.

"Indeed," said Trudeau. "I haven't read the plan."

OPS Supt. Robert Bernier, who helped design the force's plan to end the protest in downtown Ottawa last winter, told the commission last month he was already planning to carry out a police operation when the law was invoked.

When asked whether he thought the federal act was necessary to remove protesters, Bernier said it's hard for him to say.

"I did not get to do the operation without it," Bernier responded. "I don't know what complications I would have had had it not been in place and utilized the common law."

Ottawa police and representatives of the other police forces moved ahead with what they called the "February 17 plan", which methodically cleared the downtown core over a weekend. It was one of the largest police operations in Canadian history. 

Trudeau says CSIS isn't the decision-maker

With critics arguing the government did not meet the requirements of the legislation, the inquiry has been considering the legal definition of a public order emergency.

The Emergencies Act defines a national emergency as one that "arises from threats to the security of Canada that are so serious as to be a national emergency."

The act points back to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service Act definition of such threats, which include harm caused for the purpose of achieving a "political, religious or ideological objective," espionage, foreign interference or the intent to overthrow the government by violence. It doesn't mention economic security.

The head of the spy agency has testified he doesn't believe the protest met the definition of a national security threat under the CSIS act, but was told the Emergencies Act offered a broader definition of such threats.

Tamara Lich, front left, returns following a break as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau waits for questioning to start as he appears as a witnesses at the Public Order Emergency Commission in Ottawa, on Friday, Nov 25, 2022. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

During her examination, commission lawyer Shantona Chaudhury suggested to Trudeau that the protests did "not constitute a threat to the security of Canada as defined in the CSIS Act."

"As defined for the CSIS Act," Trudeau responded.

"Those words in the CSIS Act are used for the purpose of CSIS determining that they have authority to act against an individual a group or a specific plot ... for example."

Trudeau said that cabinet — not CSIS — decides whether to invoke the Emergencies Act.

WATCH | Trudeau explains reasoning behind invoking Emergencies Act: 

Trudeau explains reasoning behind invoking Emergencies Act

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Featured VideoPrime Minister Justin Trudeau told the Commission's lawyer that the decision to invoke the Emergencies Act was taken based on the definition of it that states that there were 'activities supporting the threats or acts of serious violence, threat of serious violence, for political or ideological goals.'

"The purpose of it for this project was to be able to give us in special temporary measures as defined in the Public Order emergency act. That would put an end to this national emergency," he said. 

"There was the use of children as human shields, deliberately. Which was a real concern both at the Ambassador Bridge and 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."

The government has claimed solicitor-client privilege to shield the legal advice it received on interpreting the Emergencies Act.

Trudeau said he is "serene and confident" in the choice he made to invoke the act.

CSIS didn't have tools, mindset to deal with convoy: PM

In an interview with commission counsel in September, Trudeau said CSIS faced challenges during the convoy protests. A summary of that interview was made public Friday.

"He noted that CSIS does not necessarily have the right tools, mandate or even mindset to respond to the threat Canada faced at that moment," said the summary.

"He noted that CSIS has a very specific mandate, and that when they are determining whether there is a threat to the security of Canada, they are doing so for the purpose of obtaining a warrant, wire tap, or to authorize an investigation of a specific target."

CSIS's key mandate is to investigate activities suspected of constituting threats to the security of the country and to report to the government of Canada.

Commissioner Paul Rouleau presides over the Public Order Emergency Commission in Ottawa, on Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick (The Canadian Press)

"CSIS has been challenged in recent years by the threat of domestic terrorism, which it was not designed to address. He observed that CSIS is limited in its ability to conduct operations on Canadian soil or against Canadians," said Trudeau's interview summary.

Trudeau seized with 'what if' thoughts 

In his September interview, Trudeau said the Incident Response Group, a special committee made up of cabinet ministers and security officials, mused about bringing in legislation to clear the crowds, but felt passing a bill through Parliament would take too long.

"For example, the IRG looked at the possibility of special legislation to compel tow truck drivers to fulfil their government contracts. Ultimately, it was determined that the legislative process (up to and including royal assent) would have taken weeks," said the summary of Trudeau's interview.

"Therefore, the IRG determined that if the police needed new legal authorities, the response would require the Emergencies Act's invocation."

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Featured VideoPrime Minister Justin Trudeau explains the thought process behind signing the Emergencies Act into effect and the responsibilities that came with making that decision.

Trudeau testified Friday he had to pause a moment when his top public service adviser, Clerk of the Privy Council Janice Charette, sent him a memo advising him to invoke the act around 3:40 p.m. ET on Feb. 14.

"That was a moment that I took with the weight of the decision I was about to take," he said.

Trudeau would tell the public he was going to invoke the act within the hour.

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

Trudeau's testimony Friday marks the end of public hearing phase of the commission's work. 

Rouleau says writing report will be a challenge

The inquiry has heard testimony from dozens of witnesses, including Ottawa residents, local officials, police, protesters and senior federal ministers.

The inquiry has heard conflicting views from police and intelligence agency leaders about whether the Emergencies Act powers were needed.

Convoy participants were given a week to tell their side of the story.

Tamara Lich — perhaps the most recognizable of the convoy organizers — told the inquiry late Thursday that she joined the "Freedom Convoy" after failing to get a response from members of Parliament she emailed about ending COVID-19 restrictions.

After 31 days, 76 witnesses and more than 7,000 exhibits, the Emergencies Act inquiry now shifts gears. The commission is winding down its public hearings but will still hear opinions from academics and experts next week.

It will then be up to Commissioner Paul Rouleau to weigh the evidence as he drafts his final report, due to be tabled in Parliament in February.

"My difficult task is still in front of me," said the Ontario Appeal Court justice.

"I'm not going to shy away. It's very challenging to get this written. My hope is that once it is written and provided, there be enough there that even if you don't agree with me, the facts will be there."

WATCH | What we've learned from the Emergencies Act inquiry so far: 

What we've learned from the Emergencies Act inquiry so far

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Featured VideoAs the inquiry looking at the use of the Emergencies Act to end last winter's convoy protests enters a critical phase, David Common looks at what we've learned so far about what happened and where things went wrong.


Catharine Tunney is a reporter with CBC's Parliament Hill bureau, where she covers national security and the RCMP. She worked previously for CBC in Nova Scotia. You can reach her at catharine.tunney@cbc.ca

With files from Ben Andrews and The Canadian Press