OTTAWA—His political rivals called it a power grab but Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was unapologetic as he declared an end to the public order emergency he had invoked to give his government never-before-used powers to disband so-called “Freedom Convoy 2022” protests.
Trudeau promised two reviews, required by law, would shine light on what led to the unprecedented use of the Emergencies Act but denied his inaugural use of it set a low bar for future governments to invoke the law, insisting his government had not overreached.
The Emergencies Act was a “turning point,” Trudeau said, to ending threats to Canada’s public safety and economic security, pointing to trade stoppages at the border. At times, big trucks blocked traffic at Windsor-Detroit, Fort Erie, Coutts, Alta., Emerson, Man. and Surrey, B.C.
The powers were in force for 10 days, and Trudeau said it was a necessary and responsible move 18 days into a protest that had “implanted” in downtown Ottawa. Hundreds of semi rigs descended on Ottawa on Jan. 28, with copycat protests springing up across the country.
The prime minister said there are “many lessons” to be drawn from how things devolved into a crisis in the first place.
Trudeau pointed to the capacity of local police to deal with contemporary threats such as “mobilization through social media,” as well as the roles of “misinformation and disinformation” and foreign funding and influence to “undermine or even destabilize our democracy.”
Ottawa police warned throughout the convoy occupation that the protesters were raising significant funds from abroad, especially the United States, which a Star analysis of leaked donor data from one of the demonstration’s online fundraising efforts confirmed.
Trudeau said the special powers were required to confront what had become a national movement against the Liberal government and all COVID-19 pandemic health restrictions.
“We cannot shy away from using tools that are necessary to maintain the safety and security of citizens, and that’s exactly what we did in a responsible and proportionate way,” Trudeau said.
Asked about smaller encampments outside Ottawa where protesters retreated, Trudeau said “threats continue” but that law enforcement and public safety experts “assured” the government they can use existing laws and tools to “prevent” any future blockades or occupations.
Shortly after the prime minister’s announcement, Premier Doug Ford moved quickly to end Ontario’s state of emergency as of 5 p.m. Wednesday “in alignment with the federal government,” said a statement issued by his office.
The moves came four days after Ottawa’s downtown core was cleared of more than 400 semi-trucks, SUVs and pickups, thousands of posters and placards, and the remnants of an encampment that took hold Jan. 28, complete with fire pits, barbecues, hawkers selling protest merchandise and food and a makeshift stage that hosted prayers and songs and a dance party on weekends.
Ottawa police, Ontario Provincial Police and the RCMP said they used and needed the Emergencies Act to clear the blockade. They said they relied in particular on measures that allowed police to compel tow truck operators into service, to put limits on travel to and from the secured zone, to declare a huge part of downtown an “unlawful assembly” and to use financial measures that froze accounts and cut off funding to key organizers.
Nearly $8 million in 219 bank accounts and financial products like digital currencies were frozen as the RCMP passed names of convoy participants and organizers to banks and financial institutions.
Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland said the accounts were frozen “to convince people taking part in the occupation and illegal blockades to leave. And when they left, the RCMP began to unfreeze accounts.” She noted however that some accounts may still be subject to other court orders.
A court injunction has frozen the assets of certain key protest organizers to preserve the ability of a group of Ottawa residents and businesses to recover damages in a class-action lawsuit.
Winnipeg police on Wednesday gave orders to a similarly entrenched group of protesters to clear grounds in front of the Manitoba legislature but don’t anticipate needing federal emergency powers.
The RCMP also cleared blockades in Windsor at the Ambassador Bridge border crossing before the act took effect.
Protesters in Ottawa had espoused conspiracy theories about how COVID-19 restrictions would lead to “Communism” in Canada and compared vaccine mandates to “segregation” and the treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany.
A group called Canada Unity that helped organize the convoy demonstration in Ottawa also sought to replace the Trudeau government with an unelected committee of demonstrators, the Senate and the Governor General. The group later said it had withdrawn that effort.
The debate in the Commons over the Act saw the Bloc Québécois and Conservatives question and criticize the government for overreach.
But the emergency declaration received support from New Democrats, who backed the temporary measures “reluctantly” with a wary eye to any abuse.
On Wednesday, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said his party was “glad” to see the measures revoked after what he called a “sombre” period in Canadian history.
“There has been a clear failure to take the threats of extremism, radicalization, and white supremacy seriously. The flow of disinformation and foreign funding is contributing to this growing threat to the safety and security of Canadians, and it is long past time that the federal government address it,” Singh’s statement said.
Conservatives, meanwhile, saw in the revocation of the emergency declaration a prime minister buckling in the face of public outrage over its use against the convoy protesters.
Interim Conservative Leader Candice Bergen claimed Wednesday that the revocation was “proof” use of the Act was wrong from the start.
“Trudeau introduced it in the first place for his personal political gain. He revoked it now for the very same reason. He knows he’s losing support.”
The Senate had been on day two of its debate on a motion to confirm the emergency declaration, but the motion was withdrawn and debate ended shortly after Trudeau announced the emergency order would be revoked.
Under the Emergencies Act, Parliament must now create a committee of MPs and senators to review the events, but its meetings are in private. Trudeau said Wednesday its make-up would be a consensus decision with opposition parties, and that the committee could be established by the start of next week.
Cabinet must also strike an “inquiry” into the emergency within 60 days to report to Parliament, but there is no guarantee its deliberations will be public either.
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