The Canadian Security Intelligence Service warned cabinet ministers on Feb. 13 that invoking the Emergencies Act could push “Freedom Convoy” protesters toward violence, a public inquiry was told Monday, while the mayor of Windsor, Ont., testified he hoped it would act as a deterrent.
A record of the advice from CSIS was released to the media Monday through the Public Order Emergency Commission, which is examining the first-ever invocation of the act by the Liberal government to clear protests in Ottawa and at border crossings across the country.
The document shown in the public hearing suggests CSIS officials offered advice to cabinet the day before the act was invoked.
CSIS advised that invoking the act would help clear protesters out of Ottawa, but would “likely increase the number of Canadians who hold extreme anti-government views and push some toward the belief that violence is the only solution to what they perceive as a broken system and government.”
After the law was invoked, CSIS again warned more people would be pushed to violent ideologies.
The document, classified as “secret,” also showed that CSIS found no indications that ideologically motivated extremists were planning any violence as of Feb. 3.
The document was presented to the commission by a lawyer representing the organizers of the Ottawa protest, but was withdrawn after an objection by the City of Windsor’s lawyer.
CSIS director David Vigneault is expected to testify before the commission next week.
Earlier Monday, Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkens told the inquiry that he supported the federal government’s invocation of the Emergencies Act on Feb. 14, even though police had already cleared out the serious blockade at a local border crossing.
He told the commission he feared protesters would return to the Ambassador Bridge border crossing, which is the country’s busiest land port.
The government invoked the act to clear “Freedom Convoy’” protesters who began demonstrating and blockading streets in Ottawa and at several border crossings in late January and early February.
Dilkens said “slow-roll” convoys began disrupting traffic along the main road to the Ambassador Bridge in late January and by the evening of Feb. 7, the protest had completely blocked it.
Municipal officials in Windsor were watching carefully as protesters occupied Ottawa, Dilkens said, and they learned from that experience to prevent the protest from growing to the point it had in the capital city, where demonstrators had set up a bouncy castle and hot tub in the streets.
Dilkens described the protesters as threatening, as if they were “looking for a brawl.” At times there were as many as 600 people protesting at the bridge, he said.
The blockade sparked “a national economic emergency,” he said, halting cross-border trade and travel for days while the demonstrators protested COVID-19 mandates.
Hundreds of millions of dollars of trade are carried across the bridge daily, particularly for the automotive industry, which the city said suffered under the temporary closure.
On Feb. 11, the Automotive Parts Manufacturers’ Association successfully sought a court injunction to ban the demonstrators from blocking the border.
Windsor police asked for extra officers from Ontario Provincial Police, and the two police agencies quickly developed a plan in just two days.
Attempts to remove the protesters were stalled when several children were brought to the blockade, prompting police to delay their advance on the demonstration.
Police ultimately removed the protesters who refused to leave on Feb. 13, laid 44 charges, and the bridge reopened to traffic in the early hours of Feb. 14.
But Dilkens said he was worried the protesters would return, which is why he asked Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino if the government was going to use the Emergencies Act, and then offered his support for doing so.
“Anything that would send a signal to people contemplating coming to Windsor to start this over again, I thought from my chair, was extremely helpful,” Dilkens told the inquiry Monday.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau declared a public order emergency on the afternoon of Feb. 14.
Acting deputy police chief Jason Crowley, who also testified Monday, said Windsor police did not need to use the Emergencies Act powers to prevent protesters from returning, but speculated that it might have helped to dissuade people.
The commission also learned that Dilkens was in direct contact with Ontario Premier Doug Ford, who was facing pressure from businesses that relied on the bridge to transport goods and workers between the United States and Canada.
“We need to get that bridge open ASAP,” Ford texted Dilkens on Feb. 13 after police regained control over the bridge. “I have every major company all over me.”
Ford and then-solicitor general Sylvia Jones were asked to appear before the inquiry to give evidence about their response to the protests, but challenged the summons in Federal Court.
A Federal Court judge decided Monday the premier and his minister will not have to testify due to immunity provided to them by parliamentary privilege, though both witnesses “may have valuable evidence to offer.”
The Public Order Emergency Commission, which is required under the Emergencies Act, has scheduled public hearings in Ottawa through to Nov. 25.
Over the first three weeks of testimony the commission focused on the protest in Ottawa, and heard from residents, protest organizers, city staff and politicians, and Ottawa and Ontario police.
At the heart of the matter is whether the emergency declaration and the powers under the act were necessary to clear the protests which lasted for more than three weeks.
Among the special but temporary powers adopted under the act were the ability to freeze bank accounts of some participants, force the cancellation of insurance for vehicles parked in designated red zones and compel tow-truck companies to help remove the vehicles.
The evidence so far suggests chaos broke out in Ottawa last winter as organizers struggled to maintain control of the protest and police struggled to form an effective response.
—Laura Osman, David Fraser and Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press