With Trudeau set to speak last, Emergencies Act inquiry’s upcoming week enters grand finale
The prime minister is the last witness who will appear Friday before Justice Paul Rouleau after six weeks of hearings.
Nov. 21, 2022
No one in Justin Trudeau’s government ever did agree to negotiate with the convoy protesters who blockaded Ottawa and key border points across Canada last winter.
So this is a big week at the public hearings into the convoy -- the final, most political week, when the lawyers for the convoy protesters get to put questions to ministers and of course, on Friday, Trudeau himself.
The prime minister is the last witness who will appear before Justice Paul Rouleau after six weeks of hearings, but on the way to that testimony on Friday, the inquiry will also hear from some of the most senior political people around the PM -- everyone from his Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, to Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino, to chief of staff Katie Telford.
Essentially, the stage is set this week for the face-to-face confrontation that never happened last winter: convoy organizers versus the government. It will probably be one of the most-watched political spectacles in some time.
Trudeau has been much criticized, especially from Conservatives, for steadfastly refusing to have any discussions with the protesters. Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre has said repeatedly that the situation would not have escalated as it did if Trudeau had only given the dissenters a hearing, as he did.
One thing we have learned over the past couple of weeks, however, is that negotiation actually was an option on the table for Trudeau’s government and Ontario too. It’s a side story that hasn’t received as much attention among the torrent of news and revelations in these hearings, but it may come up this week again when Trudeau and his ministers get a chance to explain why they decided not to talk to the protesters.
The hearings have definitely shone a light on the tension between negotiation and confrontation when it comes to law enforcement with protests. You could call it the carrot-stick conundrum or, if you prefer, the hawks versus the doves.
All the way through the convoy protest, it seems, police at all levels were trying to figure out whether this standoff was going to end peacefully (the preferred outcome) or with a major crackdown and lots of arrests.
The hearings, in fact, have been a fascinating education into the work of police liaison teams (PLT is now an oft-used acronym at the hearings) and how they complement the work that we normally associate with police work: surveillance and arrests and so on.
Politicians wade into this whole business at their peril. Conservatives, for instance, may have won affection from the protesters for meeting with them, but Canadians are just as likely to take a dim view of encouraging illegal demonstrations.
Former Ottawa mayor Jim Watson got some blowback too when he got into a back-and-forth with the protesters -- with mediation services from former Doug Ford aide Dean French -- on trying to relieve the truck blockades in residential neighbourhoods in Ottawa.
Nevertheless, the hearings have revealed that the governments of Ford and Trudeau did flirt with the idea of negotiating with the convoy, right up to the days and hours leading up to the emergency declarations from the Ontario government and then the federal government in mid-February.
Several witnesses have talked about this “engagement proposal,” as it was called, and it is referenced in several high-level documents deposited with the commission of inquiry.
John Stewart, who was then the federal deputy minister for public safety, told of how he had been notified that the Ontario Attorney General was going to offer a meeting of some type with the protesters doing the blockade in Windsor at the Ambassador Bridge.
“They were going to adopt this idea of offering a meeting and that Minister Jones, Sylvia Jones, was interested in making that offer and would the federal government join the Ontario government in making that offer?” Stewart said.
The idea, it seemed, was to assure some of the protesters that they would get a meeting with some unspecified figures from government after the blockades went away. The Windsor effort was unsuccessful -- probably because it came at the same weekend the police were cracking down there with enforcement.
Still, a similar idea would eventually be floated by Stewart before Trudeau convened a pivotal meeting of cabinet (the “incident response group” or IRG, as it’s called) on Feb. 12. A memo that same day from the Ontario Provincial Police, deposited with the Rouleau commission, said the principle of this engagement was to “provide an avenue for airing of grievances without compromising the government’s position.”
Two of Trudeau’s most senior officials -- his intelligence and security adviser Jody Thomas, as well as Privy Council Clerk Janice Charette -- also confirmed the government did entertain the idea of negotiation with the protesters, though with varying degrees of skepticism about success.
All we know now is that the negotiation proposal died after that meeting of Trudeau’s incident response group on Feb. 12 and the emergency declaration was invoked.
The prime minister may well be asked this week what made him reject the idea of negotiation with the convoy. Was it that the idea was doomed? Or was it that there was no one, coherent set of leaders or demands? Or was Trudeau just loathe to sit down with people who were flying “f -- Trudeau” flags and calling for him to be deposed or worse?
This is the week when those questions may be answered. At the very least, it’s the chance to see what happens when the government finally does goes face to face with that convoy protest. Much of Ottawa has already been riveted for the past five weeks; this week is shaping up to be a grand, even more riveting finale.