History is being made on Thursday with the kickoff of the Public Order Emergency Commission’s public hearings into the federal government’s use of the Emergencies Act to bring last winter’s ‘Freedom Convoy’ protests to an end.
What started in late January as a weekend of planned protests against COVID-19 restrictions and the government evolved quickly into a weeks-long occupation of downtown Ottawa and the blockading of key Canada-U.S. border crossings.
After weeks of business closures, cross-border strains, incessant horn honking, and concerns about threats or acts of “serious violence… for the purpose of achieving a political or ideological objective,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took the unprecedented step on Feb. 14 of invoking the Emergencies Act for the first time since it became law in 1988.
In declaring a national public order emergency, officials were granted new powers that allowed officials to crack down on protesters’ access to funds; enabled the RCMP to have the jurisdiction to enforce local laws; designated critical infrastructure and services such as tow-truck operators; and imposed fines and imprisonment on participants who refused to leave the protest zone.
On Feb. 23—once large-scale police operations took place resulting in numerous arrests, the laying of hundreds of charges, and the clearing of blockades and rows of transport trucks in the capital—Trudeau announced the revocation of the extraordinary national powers, saying that the situation was “no longer an emergency.”
This national inquiry was mandated under the federal Emergencies Act. The law explicitly stipulates that an inquiry had to be struck 60 days after the declaration of national emergency was revoked, or expired.
On April 25—right at the deadline prescribed under the law— the commission was established to conduct this independent public inquiry. That day, Trudeau announced that long-time judge and former Ontario Superior Court justice Paul Rouleau would lead the inquiry as commissioner.
“This critical phase will shed light on the events that led to the declaration of the public order emergency and fully explore the reasons advanced for the declaration,” said Rouleau in a statement unveiling the “anticipated” witness list earlier this week.
From the inquiry’s progress to date, to who is expected to testify, and when the entire process is slated to conclude, CTVNews.ca breaks down everything you need to know.
WHAT IS THE GOAL OF THE NATIONAL INQUIRY?
The commission’s mandate is to examine the circumstances that led to the use of the Emergencies Act and the measures taken through it to deal with the emergency situation, and come away with findings regarding the “appropriateness and effectiveness” of the measures taken by the government.
More specifically, this means the commission is examining:
the “evolution and goals” of the protests, the organizers, and participants;
the role domestic and foreign funding, including crowdsourcing, played;
the use of social media and impact of sources of misinformation and disinformation;
the economic and international impact of the blockades; and
the “efforts of police and other responders” in the lead up to and following the declaration of an emergency.
The expectation is that the final report to Parliament will inform how to prevent similar events from happening again, and will advise on whether the Emergencies Act and connected regulatory framework need amendments.
In what the commission viewed as a win, on June 28 it was announced the federal government agreed to turn over sensitive cabinet documents related to the deliberations around invoking and implementing the act.
Over the last few months, in preparation for the public hearings, the commissioner and his officials have decided which stakeholders have been granted standing to participate and potentially cross-examine witnesses, have collected documents, and conducted pre-interviews.
The commission has also commissioned and published papers on a range of key policy topics pertinent to the inquiry, from cryptocurrency and disinformation online, to freedom of assembly and governing in emergencies.
In addition to Rouleau other officials are involved in the commission, including co-lead counsel; senior, regional and research counsels; and senior policy advisers. Biographical details about each member are available on the commission’s website.
While Trudeau has defended his government’s “measured” but “necessary” use of the act, saying the inquiry will provide an important layer of accountability and oversight, critics of the invocation of the national emergency powers have raised concerns that the inquiry may focus too much on the actions of the protesters rather than the responsibility of federal, provincial, and municipal governments.
WHO IS SET TO TESTIFY, AND WHEN?
There are 65 “anticipated” witnesses on the commission’s list.
Among them are several leaders and organizers of the convoy protests, including some currently facing criminal charges; departmental and government officials; local residents and representatives; and law enforcement officers.
The commission has the power of subpoena witnesses, but among those expected to appear voluntarily are Trudeau, Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland, Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair, and several other cabinet ministers and senior government officials such as RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki.
Also slated to appear are outgoing Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson, some key Ottawa police officials including former chief Peter Sloly, as well as the mayors of Coutts, Alta. and Windsor, Ont., where convoy supporters blockaded key U.S. borders.
While the commission won’t comment on whether everyone on the expected list has been, or will be, pre-interviewed by commission lawyers, Ottawa city councilor and mayoral hopeful Catherine McKenney told CTV News that they did have a lengthy pre-interview.
According to commission spokesperson Michael Tansey, counsel for the parties will have the opportunity to make short opening remarks, and witnesses will be asked to respond to questions from the commission and counsel for the parties. Expect these hearings to run more like a courtroom rather than a parliamentary committee meeting, with the intention of keeping partisanship out of the proceedings.
As for the schedule, at the end of each week the commission will release a list of witnesses that it expects will testify the following week. The schedule for the coming days of hearings is expected imminently.
For more on the full witness list, and their connection to the convoy, CTVNews.ca has pulled together a comprehensive breakdown of who’s who and why their testimony is being sought.
HOW LONG WILL INQUIRY LAST?
The inquiry’s hearings were delayed by a month after commissioner Rouleau required surgery for a recently arisen health issue, but he has committed to completing the commission’s work “in a timely manner,” noting that as of September he had already made “significant progress” obtaining and reviewing documents, conducting interviews, and preparing for the start of the public hearings.
Six weeks of “factual hearings” will take place between Oct. 13 and Nov. 25. The hearings will begin each weekday at 9:30 a.m. ET.
Taking place in a room inside Library and Archives Canada on Wellington Street—which was the ground zero for convoy trucks and protests—members of the public are able to attend the hearings in-person or watch live online.
The commission is also seeking submissions from members of the public until Oct. 31, and has published a series of guidelines to help inform this input on how the invocation of the Emergencies Act impacted Canadians.
Once the public hearings conclude, the Commission counsel—the panel of legal advisers—will make presentations and submit overview reports that will include summaries of the preliminary facts to be placed into evidence and provide context for more evidence to follow.
The policy phase of the commission’s work will begin on Nov. 28, and will continue for one week. This phase of the inquiry will consist of a series of round-table panel discussions with experts in various fields. Each panel will focus on a common theme or set of questions, with input from the groups and individuals who have been granted standing.
The inquiry is required to submit its final report to the government with all of its findings and recommendations in both official languages by Feb. 6, 2023. It then must be tabled in the House of Commons and Senate by Feb. 20, 2023.
With files from CTV News’ Judy Trinh, Glen McGregor, and Spencer Van Dyk