OTTAWA – An Ontario appeal court judge will oversee an inquiry into the government’s use of the Emergencies Act, with the power to compel testimony and demand documents on why the Liberals invoked the act for the first time in Canada’s history.
Ontario appeal court judge Paul Rouleau has been announced as commissioner for what the government is calling the Public Order Emergency Commission. He will have until February 20, 2023 to submit a report to Parliament.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau invoked the Emergencies Act on February 14 after three weeks of protests in downtown Ottawa that blocked streets, along with several other blockades at border crossings across the country.
The act gave the government the power to freeze bank accounts to cut off the convoy’s funds and to force tow truck drivers to remove vehicles. The act was revoked nine days later on Feb. 23.
The government was legally required to announce an inquiry within 60 days of the revocation of the act, a clock that ran out on Monday. The inquiry is in addition to the parliamentary committee studying the invocation, which will hear from Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino and Justice Minister David Lametti on Tuesday night.
In a statement, Rouleau said he was honoured to be picked for the job and looked forward to the work.
“I am committed to ensuring that the process is as open and transparent as possible, recognizing the tight timelines for reporting imposed by the Emergencies Act.”
The official cabinet orders give Rouleau a mandate to look into the circumstances of why the act was declared, the evolution of the convoy, police response, the economic impact of the blockades, the funding of the protests and the disinformation that may have fuelled them.
Mendicino said the government wants to ensure this type of long-running blockade doesn’t happen again in the future and they want a thorough review of their actions.
“This is not just about checking a box off. This is healthy for our democracy, and we want to thank the commissioner ahead of his important work,” he said.
He said the government stands by its decision to invoke the act and welcomes the scrutiny.
“It was a necessary decision. It was a responsible decision. It was the right thing to do. And we are certainly looking forward to cooperating with Justice Rouleau.”
Rouleau can have people testify in public and demand the government provide documents. The invocation of the act has been challenged in several lawsuits and the government has relied on cabinet confidence to refuse document requests.
Cabinet confidence is a long-standing part of Canadian law that prevents ministers from talking about discussions around the cabinet table in order to allow for free debates. It also protects any documents presented during cabinet meetings from being shared publicly.
Mendicino said the lawsuits and the inquiry are distinct and Rouleau would have access to documents he needs to do his work, but didn’t specifically rule out waiving cabinet confidence for the inquiry.
“The judge will have broad access, including to classified documents. Our intent is to collaborate with the judge so that he has a fulsome record, so that he can do his job,” he said.
In Question Period, Conservative MP Glen Motz said the government should be completely transparent about why it invoked the act, but suggested it won’t because the extraordinary power was never required.
“This government has yet to make a compelling argument that the invocation of the sct actually met the high, incredibly high national security threshold,” he said. “Will this government finally be transparent and accountable to Canadians by sharing the information and documents relied upon for invoking the Emergencies Act?”
Rouleau has wide latitude to decide who will testify and under what circumstances. He can also allow other groups to participate in the inquiry and have the government provide them funds to do so.
Mendicino said most of the decisions about how the inquiry runs are in the hands of Rouleau.
“One of the hallmarks of this public inquiry is that he will have the capacity to function independently, impartially, from the government, and it’s one of the reasons why the government chose to make this a full-blown public inquiry.”
As in most public inquiries, the process is designed more as a fact-finding mission and Rouleau is prohibited from finding that any criminal laws were broken or ruling on any civil liabilities.
Approximately 200 people were arrested in a massive police operation in downtown Ottawa after the act was invoked.