Senior civil servants from Alberta and Ontario gave the impression in a public inquiry on Thursday that Ottawa was not keen to help them deal with protest lockdowns last winter — at least until the Emergencies Act was invoked. so.
Officials in none of those provinces saw the need to use the legislation, and in Alberta, the investigation has learned, the legislation is useless at all.
Evidence and testimony from the Public Order Emergency Committee on Thursday shed light on the provincial response to the lockdown and the interaction of federal and provincial officials in response to the protests.
The task of the public inquiry was to determine whether the federal government justified the legislation for the first time since it became law in 1988.
A convoy of 1,000 vehicles of all types drove to Coots, Alberta on Jan. 29 to protest provincial and federal COVID-19 health restrictions, blocking highways in both directions and halting trade.
The Liberal government invoked the Emergencies Act on February 14, the same day Alberta’s RCMP began arresting Coutts protesters. The prime minister has argued that temporary and extraordinary powers are needed to end the blockade of Ottawa and border crossings, including the closure of the Ambassador Bridge in Windsor.
Justin Trudeau consulted with premiers before invoking the bill, and notes taken by political staff and submitted to the public inquiry detail their comments and concerns.
A handwritten note from an aide to the prime minister’s office and the Saskatchewan government said former Alberta premier Jason Kenney feared triggering the emergency legislation would be “very seriously provocative” and a “net negative,” the RCMP examined. The station has become a protest “magnet” for sympathizers.
The notes also appear to indicate that Kenny said that while he had serious concerns about the Emergencies Act, he would not use “quibble” over it if necessary. But after Ottawa acted later in the day, Kenney publicly declared his opposition, saying the bill should be “used with caution and as a last resort.”
Other governors have also voiced their concerns. The notes quoted Northwest Territories Gov. Caroline Cochran, who didn’t want blood on her hands, “I really don’t want to see bloodshed.”
The note also said she supported emergency measures but wanted more consultations if the military were involved, to which Trudeau responded that the military was a “last resort.” Alberta had requested military help related to the Coots blockade, but the federal government refused.
Marlin Degrand, assistant undersecretary in the Alberta Attorney General’s Office, told the committee earlier Thursday that the RCMP had the authority to move the convoy off the border, but didn’t have the cooperation needed to do the job.
“If we’re going to clear all the protesters and clear the blockage, if the RCMP are doing that, then (towing capacity) absolutely has to be in place,” De Grande said in his testimony.
Alberta searched across the province, British Columbia and Saskatchewan, and even the US, but two towing companies refused to help. Some were sympathetic to the protests, while others were paid by protesters to stay out of it, DeGrand said.
The province opted not to declare a state of emergency in an attempt to force tow truck operators to help, and instead asked the federal government to help in a formal letter dated Feb. 5.
The committee heard the Liberal government never formally responded to the request, but did draft a February 12 letter rejecting Alberta. The undelivered letter said the province has all the legal powers it needs to deal with the protests.
DeGrand said he agrees that Alberta no longer needs any legal authorization; what it lacks is a tow truck to pull it off.
Finally, on February 12, the federal government formed a task force focused on protecting trailers. But by then, Alberta was already buying used trailers online.
Text messages released Thursday also show Alberta Municipal Affairs Minister Ric McIver accusing federal Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair of lying about whether to use the Emergency Act to eventually clear the lockdown.
On February 21, Blair texted McIver to tell him that the Emergencies Act had been effective in addressing the “trailer problem”.
“You came too late and did the wrong thing,” McIver responded, telling ministers that Coutts’ lockdown had ended when the state of emergency was activated.
“It’s better to say nothing now than not to tell the truth.”
A spokesman for Blair said in an email that the lockdown posed a serious threat to critical infrastructure and the economy, and lifting Coutts’ lockdown “does not remove the threat from Alberta or anywhere else in Canada.” It added that this means the bill is “necessary to provide law enforcement with additional resources where threats persist.”
Meanwhile, Ontario’s top public safety official believes the federal government wants to “wash hands” with protests in Ottawa that have gridlocked downtown streets for nearly a month.
His impression came at a meeting of city, provincial and federal representatives on February 6, when Jody Thomas, the prime minister’s national security adviser, asked if the province would turn to the federal government for help if the protests were not in the capital.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate at all,” Ontario Deputy Attorney General Mario Di Tommaso said in testimony Thursday.
“They’re at the gates of Parliament. They’re in the National Capital Region.”
Di Tommaso said the protests in Ottawa could have been handled using the powers granted by the Ontario emergency declaration, although the powers of the federal government were helpful and used in Ottawa.
When asked by a committee lawyer whether the federal government should do more, he simply said: “No.”
PMO staff records also show that Ontario Premier Doug Ford strongly supported the use of the bill during consultations with the prime minister.
Laura Osman and Marie-Danielle Smith, Canadian Press
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