Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has defended his decision to invoke emergency powers to disperse anti-vaccine protesters who blocked Canada’s border crossings with the United States and occupied the capital earlier this year.
Trudeau, in evidence on Friday before an independent commission of inquiry in Ottawa, said it was up to him and his cabinet to determine whether the threshold for declaring a “public order emergency” had been reached, 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 engaged in activities that posed a “threat of serious violence” to further its political or ideological goals.
“There wasn’t a sense that things were winding down,” Trudeau said, pointing to the presence of weapons at one Alberta border blockade, the use of children as “human shields” at another protest site and the “weaponry” of the vehicles in the convoy.
“We couldn’t say there wasn’t the potential for threats of serious violence, for serious violence to occur,” Trudeau testified. “We were seeing things escalate, not things get under control.”
Friday marks the last day of hearings for the Public Order Emergency Commission, which started last month. The panel has heard testimony from convoy organizers, Canadian politicians, Ottawa residents, and police and homeland security officials.
The commission was in charge of examining the circumstances that led Trudeau to invoke the Emergencies Act on February 14 in response to the convoy, organized by far-right activists.
Convoy participants gathered in downtown Ottawa in late January to protest a vaccination mandate for truckers crossing the Canada-US border. Anti-vaccine truckers and their supporters are also calling on them to end the all COVID-19 restrictions and for Trudeau to step down.
The participants occupied the streets of downtown Ottawa for several weeks, honking their horns and disrupting daily life while others erected roadblocks at border crossings in the provinces of Ontario and Alberta.
The decision of invoke the law of emergencies for the first time since it went into effect in 1988, it raised concerns among civil rights groups and other observers who questioned whether Canada had reached the strict legal threshold necessary to invoke the measure.
Others have questioned whether it was necessary to use the law or whether the authorities lacked the will to use other tools already at their disposal to end the protests.
The measure gave the government sweeping powers, including the ability to ban any public gatherings “that could 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 supported the use of the Emergencies Act and advised Trudeau to invoke it, according to Canadian media. reported this week.
Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland also proved on Thursday that the Canadian government was concerned about the economic effects of the convoy’s movement.
She said US President Joe Biden’s economic adviser requested a call with her just days before the Emergencies Act was to be invoked to discuss the US-Canada border blockades, Canadian media reported.
“That was a dangerous time for Canada, I felt it,” Freeland tried, while reported by CBC News. “That conversation was fundamental for me. And it was a moment where I realized as a country, somehow, we had to find a way to end this.”
But the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, which has raised concerns since the emergency measure was first invoked, said on Thursday that “‘economic damage’ is not grounds for invoking the Emergency Law.”
“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 program, told Al Jazeera ahead of the first hearing. of the commission in October. .
On Friday, Trudeau said the use of the law was aimed at bolstering the authorities’ ability not only to remove blockades and convoy occupations, but also to make sure protesters did not return. He would argue that it had helped prevent potential violence and keep people safe.
“I am absolutely, absolutely calm and confident that I made the right decision,” Trudeau said.
The commission has until February 6, 2023 to submit a final report to the Canadian government, including recommendations.
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