Canada’s use of emergency powers during ‘Freedom Convoy’ has reached threshold, says commissioner

By Anna Mehler Paperny

TORONTO (Reuters) – Canada’s government hit the threshold for invoking emergency powers in early 2022 when it did so to deal with border blockades and an occupation that has brought parts of the capital to a standstill against vaccination mandates but the need for such emergency powers could have been avoided, the commissioner of an independent investigation said on Friday.

For weeks this past January and early February, the “Freedom Convoy” demonstrations against a variety of government measures, including COVID-19 vaccine mandates, closed Ottawa and blocked some border crossings, prompting the federal government to use emergency powers to end the protests.

A commission mandated by law to review invocations of the law has concluded that the government has reached the very high threshold for invocations, Commissioner and Judge Paul Rouleau wrote in his report tabled in Canada’s Parliament on Friday.

But, he added, he reached that conclusion “with reluctance.”

Rouleau told reporters the situation didn’t have to get to a point where those emergency powers were needed.

Invoking the emergency law gave police additional powers to remove and arrest protesters, allowed the government to freeze the assets of people suspected of funding the blockades, and allowed tow trucks to be confiscated.

“The response to the Freedom Convoy included a number of police errors,” Rouleau said, adding that better preparation “could have avoided the need to invoke the emergency law.”

In his report he also criticized a “failure of federalism” because different levels of government did not cooperate sufficiently.

Ottawa police, in particular, came under fire for failing to act faster to disperse protesters. Police said they initially expected protesters to leave after the first weekend of protests.

While these contingency measures “were, for the most part, appropriate and effective … these measures were deficient in many ways,” Rouleau told reporters.

Among other things, he said, the asset freeze lacked discretion and a clear way for individuals to unfreeze their assets.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Friday his government would provide a full public response to the report’s recommendations within a year.

“Our job as government is always to keep people safe, and invoking the Emergency Act was what was necessary to remove the threat and keep people safe,” Trudeau told reporters, adding that invoking it a measure of last resort.

“It was unfortunate. It was undesirable. We didn’t want to do it.”

The Emergencies Act “might be necessary on rare occasions, but it wasn’t warranted last winter and it’s a dangerous force for any current or future government,” Canadian Civil Liberties Association executive director Noa Mendelsohn Aviv told reporters on Friday.

This was the first time the emergency law had been used since it was created in its current form in the 1980s. The commission heard from elected officials, police officers, protesters and Ottawa residents who said they felt harassed by convoy participants.

(Reporting by Anna Mehler Paperny; Editing by Deepa Babington and Josie Kao)


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