OTTAWA — One of the biggest political issues in Canada in recent years has been whether Prime Minister Justin Trudeau abused his authority by imposing never before used emergency powers to end protests against Covid regulations that had paralyzed the capital and shut down a border crossing that disrupted billions in trade.
On Friday, a public inquiry concluded that Mr. Trudeau was justified in imposing the sweeping measures because it was the only way to restore order and safety and protect the country’s economy.
At the same time, the judge who oversaw the inquiry said the need to apply such drastic action was the result of a breakdown in policing and a failure of coordination among politicians across various levels of government.
“It is a tool of last resort,’’ the judge, Justice Paul Rouleau of the Ontario Court of Appeal, told reporters following the release of his five-volume report. “But that circumstances evolved to the point where cabinet reasonably considered it necessary to invoke the act is regrettable because, in my view, the situation that led to its use could likely have been avoided.”
The judge’s finding, which followed hundreds of hours of testimony over 36 days last year, is a vindication for Mr. Trudeau, a Liberal, who has been widely criticized for using the law by conservative opponents who considered it constitutional overreach.
Mr. Trudeau, on Friday, said the government would examine the report’s findings and acknowledged that using the act had not been an ideal solution.
“It was unfortunate, it was undesirable, we didn’t want to do it,” he told reporters, “but we had gotten to a place where there was no other choice to keep Canadians safe.”
The Emergencies Act, which was adopted in 1988 to address security emergencies as well as natural disasters, gave Mr. Trudeau’s government broad powers, including freezing the bank accounts of protesters without a court order, banning certain public protests and freeing resources to help the police remove demonstrators.
In late January 2022, the streets in the heart of Ottawa, the capital, began filling with trucks, cars, farm tractors, tents and even a bouncy castle and an inflatable hot tub.
Many truckers who participated were angered by regulations requiring that drivers crossing into Canada from the United States be vaccinated against Covid-19. Their numbers were swelled by protesters angry over other government Covid measures. The demonstrations also attracted right-wing separatists and extremists from Western Canada who shared anti-government sentiments.
The protesters were finally driven away on Feb. 20 following a two day effort by police officers from across Canada. More than 190 people were ultimately arrested, 500 charges were filed and dozens of vehicles used by demonstrators were confiscated by the police.
The protesters and their supporters characterized the blockade as a peaceful celebration of freedom and condemned the use the of the Emergencies Act as an assault on constitutional freedoms and an unnecessary government overreach.
Justice Rouleau found that the protest grew in magnitude because it reflected the hardships that many people believed Covid rules were causing.
“While public health measures had impacted each of them differently, their common frustration brought the organizers together and attracted supporters,” he wrote.
But the judge disputed testimony from protesters who said that their actions were protected by Canada’s constitution.
“The charter provides a robust protection for protest activities,’’ he wrote in the report. “But like all rights in Canada, protest rights are subject to reasonable limits.”
During the inquiry, Ottawa residents described sleepless nights from round the clock blowing of truck air horns, being harassed for wearing face masks and deep frustration at being denied access to their streets.
Downtown businesses, including a shopping mall that serves the city and surrounding region, were forced to close for four weeks after being swarmed by protesters and cut off by blocked roads.
A smaller blockade of truckers shut down North America’s busiest border crossing — between Windsor, Ontario, and Detroit — a move that affected about $4 billion in trade.
In Western Canada, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police conducting searches of trailers in Coutts, Alberta, linked to a border blockade there seized 13 long guns, handguns and a large quantity of ammunition.
Testimony during the inquiry revealed that Mr. Trudeau and his cabinet received conflicting views about invoking the law.
The Ottawa Police Service, whose officers had allowed the trucks into the city center but then became overwhelmed when they would not leave, supported taking the step. But senior officers from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Ontario Provincial Police testified that they had sufficient force to clear the streets without the emergency powers.
Mr. Trudeau, who testified for several hours during the inquiry, firmly defended invoking the act, saying that the government was concerned about violence or that demonstrations would erupt in other parts of the country.
“I am absolutely, absolutely serene and confident that I made the right choice,” Mr. Trudeau testified in November.
The Emergencies Act replaced a previous law used in 1970 by Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, the father of the current prime minister, after a terrorist group in Quebec kidnapped a British diplomat and a provincial cabinet minister, who was later assassinated.
Under the new law, a public hearing must be held after its use, one of several measures meant to ensure that it does not unreasonably limit civil liberties.
The inquiry also showed widespread rifts among politicians and law enforcement officials. Some elected leaders expressed exasperation over the seeming inability or unwillingness of the police to clear Ottawa’s streets.
As the demonstrations grew, the Ottawa Police Service, whose chief resigned during the blockade, failed to “develop an overall operational plan to resolve the protests,” Justice Rouleau wrote.
The inquiry also included testimony from protest organizers and supporters showing that the blockade lacked any clear coordination or common goals. During the protest, one organizer, James Bauder, championed a plan to remove Mr. Trudeau from office for "treason and crimes against humanity.”
Mr. Bauder, who along with other organizers faces several criminal charges stemming from the protests, emphasized that none of the convoy members were calling for violence.
Throughout the report, Justice Rouleau paints the blockade as a low point in Canada’s history.
“It is regrettable that this situation across Canada deteriorated to the point where its cabinet reasonably believed that the use of the act was necessary,” he told reporters on Friday. “We can all hope that such an exceptional confluence of events and circumstances does not occur again.’
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