OTTAWA — The public safety minister says the judge tasked with leading a public inquiry into the government’s decision to invoke the Emergencies Act will have access to information that “could” include cabinet secrets.
Marco Mendicino has told reporters and the House of Commons that Justice Paul Rouleau will have access to what he calls “classified information,” but has stopped short of defining what that means.
He said it could include information that’s covered by cabinet confidentiality, which is in place to foster vigorous debate as governments make decisions.
But the minister said ultimately Rouleau will decide what information he needs to conduct the inquiry, and that he has the experience to balance the competing interests of transparency with national security and public safety.
Mendicino said he and Justice Minister David Lametti shared “additional facts” with a special committee Tuesday evening about the basis of the decision to invoke the act for the first time.
Mendicino told the committee that law enforcement had asked for the act to be used.
“We invoked the act because it was the advice of non-partisan professional law enforcement that the existing authorities were ineffective at the time to restore public safety at all of the ports of entry,” he told the committee, adding, “And it worked.”
The emergency declaration on Feb. 14 granted police extraordinary, time-limited powers to end blockades at border crossings across the country, as well as the ongoing occupation of downtown Ottawa.
Many have raised questions about the lack of enforcement action by police during nearly three weeks of noisy blockades in downtown Ottawa, where officials described a state of “lawlessness.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told the House of Commons Wednesday that police told government they did not have the tools to deal with blockades in Ottawa and at border crossings.
“It was only after we got advice from law enforcement that we invoked the Emergencies Act,” he said. “The Canadian Police Association, Canadian and Ontario Associations of Chiefs of Police all agreed this is how the legislation should be used: for emergencies.”
While many people involved in the “Freedom Convoy” said they were there to demand an end to COVID-19 restrictions, some, including many of the most vocal organizers, also wanted the Liberal government overthrown. Downtown residents reported vandalism and harassment.
MPs and senators on the special joint committee pressed the two ministers for details about what informed the decision to invoke the Emergencies Act.
Mendicino said it helped “smooth over differences in jurisdiction” among police forces and governments, and that he hoped the committee will provide advice about how to deal with that in the future.
Lametti repeatedly prefaced his responses to questions by saying he “would not betray cabinet confidence” or that he was bound by solicitor-client privilege.
He said the government has tabled documents with the committee that give a clear picture of the decision making.
“I think Canadians will understand that cabinet confidence is a critical part of our cabinet governance system,” Lametti told the committee.
“So the waiving of cabinet confidence is extremely rare.”
NDP MP Matthew Green challenged Lametti, saying he had “an opportunity to be honest with Canadians” about the evidence and facts around the decision. He called on the minister to be more co-operative and forthcoming.
“You’re certainly impeding the process through which we can get clarity,” Green said.
The committee and inquiry are both required under the Emergencies Act as a measure to ensure there is a robust examination of the government’s decision to use it.
Meanwhile, another protest, this one on motorcycles, is due to arrive in Ottawa this weekend.
Ottawa police say they have already called in reinforcements from other police services.
The City of Ottawa said in a statement Tuesday that all bylaws will be enforced during the “Rolling Thunder” rally, as will a vehicle exclusion zone in the downtown area. Streets will be open but vehicles that are part of the rally will not be allowed.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 27, 2022.
Sarah Ritchie, The Canadian Press