Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has defended his decision to invoke emergency powers to disperse anti-vaccine protesters who blocked Canadian border crossings with the United States and occupied the capital earlier this year.
Trudeau, testifying on Friday before an independent commission of inquiry in Ottawa, said it was up to him and his cabinet to determine whether the threshold had been met to declare a “public order emergency”, which is necessary to invoke the Emergencies Act.
He said his government considered whether the so-called Freedom Convoy constituted a threat to the security of Canada and whether it was involved in activities that posed a “threat of serious violence” to further its political or ideological goals.
“There wasn’t a sense that things were dissipating,” Trudeau said, pointing to the presence of weapons at an Alberta border blockade, the use of children as “human shields” at another protest site and the “weaponisation” of vehicles in the convoy.
“We could not say that there was no potential for threats of serious violence, for serious violence to happen,” Trudeau testified. “We were seeing things escalate, not things get under control.”
Friday marks the final day of Public Order Emergency Commission hearings, which began last month. The panel has heard testimony from convoy organisers, Canadian politicians, Ottawa residents, and police and national security officials.
The commission was tasked with examining the circumstances that led Trudeau to invoke the Emergencies Act on February 14 in response to the convoy, organised by far-right activists.
Convoy participants converged on downtown Ottawa in late January to protest a vaccine mandate for truckers crossing the Canada-US border. The anti-vaccine truckers and their supporters also called for an end to all COVID-19 restrictions and for Trudeau to step down.
Participants occupied the streets of downtown Ottawa for several weeks, blaring their horns and disrupting daily life while others erected blockades at border crossings in the provinces of Ontario and Alberta.
The decision to invoke the Emergencies Act for the first time since it came into force in 1988 drew concern from civil rights groups and other observers who questioned whether Canada had met the strict legal threshold needed to invoke the measure.
Others have asked whether it was necessary to use the act at all or if authorities lacked the will to use other tools already at their disposal to end the protests.
The move gave the government sweeping powers, including the ability to bar any public assembly “that may reasonably be expected to lead to a breach of the peace” and restrict access to specific areas.
The head of Canada’s spy agency, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, told the commission that he backed the use of the Emergencies Act and advised Trudeau to invoke it, Canadian media reported this week.
Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland also testified on Thursday that the Canadian government was concerned about the economic effects of the convoy movement.
She said US President Joe Biden’s economic adviser requested a call with her just days before the Emergencies Act was invoked to talk about the US-Canada border blockades, Canadian media reported.
“That was a dangerous moment for Canada, I felt,” Freeland testified, as reported by CBC News. “That one conversation was a seminal one for me. And it was a moment when I realised as a country, somehow, we had to find a way to bring this to an end.”
But the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, which has raised concerns since the emergency measure was first invoked, said on Thursday that “‘economic harm’ is not grounds for the invocation of the Emergencies Act”.
“We have real questions about why normal, pre-existing legal avenues were not used to address things instead of invoking the Emergencies Act,” Cara Zwibel, director of the association’s fundamental freedoms programme, told Al Jazeera ahead of the commission’s first hearing in October.
On Friday, Trudeau said use of the act was aimed at bolstering the authorities’ ability not only to clear the convoy blockades and occupation but also to make sure protesters did not return. He argued that it had helped prevent potential violence and keep people safe.
“I am absolutely, absolutely serene and confident that I made the right choice,” Trudeau said.
The commission has until February 6, 2023, to submit a final report to the Canadian government, including any recommendations.