OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau defended his decision to invoke the Emergencies Act to a public inquiry Friday, displaying moments of introspection while acknowledging the seriousness of declaring a public order emergency and insisting it was the right thing to do for Canada.
The prime minister was the final witness at the Public Order Emergency Commission, which has spent six weeks examining Trudeau's emergency declaration in February in response to “Freedom Convoy” protests in Ottawa and elsewhere.
"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."
Before a packed room at the Library and Archives Canada, which has hosted the public hearings since October, Trudeau described some of the key moments leading up to the moment on Feb. 14 when he ultimately signed off on the order.
The prime minister painted a grim picture of the situation at the time, describing Canada as teetering on the edge of violence — a threat he believed was very real amid the angry protests in the capital and other parts of the country.
Trudeau also detailed some of the closed-door discussion between cabinet ministers and national security officials before he says they all agreed on the need to use the act. And he spoke of a moment before signing the order when he stopped to ask himself: “What if I don’t sign it?”
But Trudeau was unapologetic as he explained why he signed the order, the first time the Emergencies Act has been used since it became law in 1988, giving police and financial institutions extraordinary powers to end the protests.
“When there's a national emergency and serious threats of violence to Canadians, and you have a tool that you should use, how would I explain it to the family of a police officer who was killed or a grandmother who got run over trying to stop a truck or a protester who was killed?”
Friday marked the first time Canadians have heard directly from the prime minister about his version of events surrounding the convoy protests.
The inquiry has been focused on the question of whether Trudeau was justified in declaring a public order emergency, which the Emergencies Act identifies 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 previously testified 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 that decision Friday by 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 government is allowed to accept input from other sources beyond CSIS, including the RCMP and other federal departments and agencies, and that ultimately, the decision rests with cabinet, he added.
However, whatever legal analysis the government received before invoking the act remains a mystery as it has refused to waive solicitor-client privilege. A federal lawyer repeated that position Friday when Trudeau was asked to release that advice under cross-examination.
Trudeau did note that he waived cabinet privileges over many sensitive documents and other records to allow Canadians see some of what the government was learning during the convoy.
Throughout his testimony Trudeau said the threat of serious violence as the protests entered their third week was a key factor in deciding to invoke the Emergencies Act.
"We were seeing things escalate, not things get under control."
Officials by then had seen the "weaponization" of vehicles, with a report of demonstrators trying to ram police officers at protest sites in Alberta and British Columbia, he added, and "the use of children as human shields" in Ottawa.
"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.
He also recalled reports of police being swarmed, concerns about violence between protesters and counter-protesters, and reports of new protests springing up in other places after blockades in Windsor, Ont., and Coutts, Alta., were cleared by police.
Some of the hundreds of Canadians who participated in those blockades in downtown Ottawa and at border crossings with the U.S. were present at the hearing.
The prime minister defended his government’s decision to impose vaccine requirements, saying they were needed to protect Canadians’ health. He also stood by his refusal to meet with protesters, who were demanding an end to vaccine mandates and pandemic restrictions and demonstrating against the Trudeau government.
“We heard them, we knew exactly what they were asking for,” he said. “But it was clear that it wasn't that they just wanted to be heard. They wanted to be obeyed.”
Hearing that, some of the former protesters in the crowd scoffed and groaned.
Recounting his consultation with premiers on the morning the Emergencies Actwas invoked, Trudeau said he heard numerous plans to deal with the blockades but no convincing solutions.
He also dismissed arguments from some provinces that the act wasn’t necessary and said the federal government didn't have time for longer consultations.
"The reality is there were pop-ups and troubling reports right across the country," he said. "There was financing of these convoys coming from every corner of the country and internationally. These were things that were generalized across the country."
"These were exigent circumstances."
Trudeau also recalled the moment at 3:41 p.m. on Feb. 14 when he received a note from the government's top public servant, clerk of the Privy Council Janice Charette, recommending that he declare a public order emergency.
The prime minister acknowledged the seriousness of that moment, which he said he reflected upon before signing the order. But he said he was confident in his decision due to the work done by ministers and officials — and fears of the alternative should the protests drag on.
"Politics was not the motivation at all in the invocation of the Emergencies Act," he said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 25, 2022.
Stephanie Taylor, Lee Berthiaume and Cindy Tran, The Canadian Press