OTTAWA — Conservative MPs allege it is suspicious that top cops in the RCMP and Ottawa police say they did not ask the federal government to invoke the Emergencies Act to deal with the so-called Freedom Convoy protests this winter.
Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino has said in recent weeks there was agreement among law enforcement agencies that the unprecedented use of the act was necessary. But asked repeatedly at a parliamentary committee on Tuesday to say which agency requested the invocation of the act, Mendicino would only say there was a “very strong consensus among law enforcement” that the act — which granted police a host of emergency powers — was needed.
He also pointed to a letter to federal ministers from the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, sent five days after the act was invoked, expressing support for the move to deal with the convoy’s occupation around Parliament Hill and blockades at border crossings across Canada.
It was the first time the act, which became law in 1988, has ever been used.
“We had robust exchanges with law enforcement, including the RCMP, on the very prescribed measures under the Emergencies Act, which were used responsibly to restore public safety,” Mendicino said.
Conservative MP Andrew Scheer, a former Tory leader who has voiced support for the convoy, expressed surprise that Mendicino did not name a single police force that asked for the act. His questions came after Steve Bell, the interim chief of the Ottawa police, told the committee his agency did not make a “direct request” for the invocation.
The invocation of the act on Feb. 14 created special police powers to declare no-go zones, proclaim protests “unlawful,” and compel tow truck drivers to help clear vehicles involved in the demonstrations. It also gave financial institutions the ability to freeze bank accounts and suspend insurance coverage for people involved in the protests.
“Surely, the minister should be able to tell us which law enforcement agency requested the invocation,” Scheer said Tuesday, prompting Liberals on the committee to argue his questions were irrelevant to their study of whether to expand the jurisdiction of parliamentary security across the street from the Hill.
“It’s very telling that the Liberals got very squirrelly when I asked these lines of questioning,” he said.
On Monday, during question period, Conservative MP Dane Lloyd raised the same question to Mendicino, referring to how RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki said during committee testimony last week that the Mounties — like Ottawa police — did not ask for the Emergencies Act to be invoked. Lucki also said she was not aware of any other police force that requested it, though she said the RCMP was consulted on its use and that it helped resolve the situation.
The political wrangling is part of the ongoing reckoning over the government’s use of the Emergencies Act.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his Liberals argue the law was needed to deal with the convoy crisis that harmed the Canadian economy and endangered national security. While the protests were billed as a demonstration against vaccine mandates and health measures to slow the spread of COVID-19, Mendicino has pointed to threats of violence linked with the protests, including a group that was arrested with a cache of weapons near a convoy blockade in southern Alberta and accused of conspiracy to commit murder.
David Vigneault, the director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, also told MPs at a committee last week that the agency monitored unspecified “known” participants who posed an alleged risk of violent extremism, and was concerned about the prospect of violence from “lone actors” during the protests.
But the Conservatives, as well as groups like the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, argue the government went too far in invoking the Emergencies Act to deal with the situation. The civil liberties association has applied for a judicial review of the decision, arguing the government failed to meet the high bar for triggering the act, which includes a requirement that a crisis cannot be addressed through any other existing law.
The decision to use the act is now subject to two formal reviews: one by a special joint committee of MPs and senators, and another through a public inquiry under Ontario judge Paul Rouleau.
Rouleau has until February 2023 to report on any lessons learned around the use of the act, and the “appropriateness and effectiveness of the measures taken.”
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