June 1, 2022. Public inquiry into the federal government’s unprecedented use of the Emergencies Act seeks access to cabinet secrets.
The public inquiry into the federal government’s unprecedented use of the Emergencies Act wants access to cabinet secrets as it warns it will be hard to complete its work by next February, as required under a legally-mandated timeline.
In its first substantial move since Ontario judge Paul Rouleau was appointed in April to lead the inquiry, the Public Order Emergency Commission said Wednesday that it has asked the Liberal government to provide all information — including material covered by cabinet confidence and other principles of secrecy — that prompted Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his ministers to invoke the Emergencies Act.
The controversial Feb. 14 decision was the first-ever use of the act, which gave police and financial institutions special powers to deal with the so-called “Freedom Convoy” protests that paralyzed the streets around Parliament Hill and blockaded border crossings across the country this winter.
In a series of documents published online Wednesday, Rouleau’s inquiry said it is starting its study by asking Trudeau’s cabinet to explain why it declared a public order emergency under the act.
“It is the government that must explain its decision,” the documents say. “In light of this, the commission has asked the government to disclose to the commissioner the information, including advice and information that may be protected by cabinet confidence or any applicable privilege, that led to cabinet’s decision to declare an emergency.”
Asked by the Star about the inquiry’s request Wednesday, Trudeau was noncommittal. “We’re going to continue to work to provide the information necessary to the commission,” Trudeau said as he entered the House of Commons, adding that the government is committed to transparency. “We’ll make decisions based on the questions and the conditions being asked.”
Opposition parties have urged the government to waive cabinet confidence to make public all information it used to trigger the act, but it has not so far done so. Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino has said the inquiry would be able to access “classified” information that may overlap with cabinet secrets. He also told the Star’s “It’s Political” podcast that “there needs to be transparency and we’re going to do what we can absolutely do to co-operate.”
The inquiry also said Wednesday that it will be difficult to finish its work and submit a final report to the government by next February. That deadline is embedded in the Emergencies Act, which requires a joint parliamentary committee and a public inquiry to study what happened whenever it is used.
Short of a legislative amendment to give the inquiry more time, Wednesday’s documents made clear it will be challenging to complete the study over the next eight months. The inquiry plans to hold public hearings this fall, and finish its “fact-finding” work by the end of October.
“The commission is not aware of any Canadian precedent for a public inquiry of this breadth being conducted over this short a period of time,” the inquiry said in a statement.
Speaking to the Star this week, New Democrat MP Matthew Green said he is worried the public inquiry will be “heavily legalistic” and the five weeks that have already elapsed since Rouleau was appointed show the importance of the parliamentary committee’s work. The committee has held several hearings since it was created in March.
“The joint committee is the only place that offers true political accountability to the government to come clean,” said Green, who is co-chair of the committee. “This whole process has made me really give credence to, and respect the idea, that we are the grand inquisitor of the nation, as the House of Commons and the Senate. Our responsibility is on par with the judiciary and the executive branch,” he said.
Green also pointed to how ministers testifying at the committee have already appealed to cabinet confidence when refusing to answer questions.
The government has used the same principle — an established part of the Westminster parliamentary tradition — in refusing to disclose material sought in federal court by the Canadian Constitution Foundation, which is challenging the use of the Emergencies Act.
Bloc Québécois MP Rhéal Fortin agreed the government should waive cabinet confidence so at least one of the venues — either the committee or the inquiry — is able to study the full breadth of the Liberals’ decision to invoke the act.
In a statement to the Star, Conservative MP Dane Lloyd also said “Canadians need to be reassured that the Trudeau government won’t cover up the truth and that Canadians will get the answers they deserve from this inquiry.”
The so-called “Freedom Convoy” demonstrations occupied the streets around Parliament Hill with hundreds of semis for three weeks, as parallel protests blockaded border crossings across the country. The protests generally denounced the federal government for COVID-19 health restrictions, including vaccine requirements, that they claimed were an overreach into people’s lives.
The Emergencies Act gave police the ability to declare protests “unlawful,” create no-go zones around key infrastructure, and compel banks to freeze assets of protest participants, among other temporary powers that were available from Feb. 15 to 23.
The inquiry studying the episode said it is now hiring lawyers and other staff as it accepts applications for participants until June 15. It will decide who has standing and funding to take part by June 27.