Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino arrives at the Public Order Emergency Commission, Tuesday, November 22, 2022 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Coutts blockade top of mind for Mendicino on eve of invoking Emergencies Act

The night before the federal government took the drastic step of invoking the Emergencies Act, the head of the RCMP wrote an email to the public safety minister’s office that included a caution.

She told them police hadn’t exhausted “all available tools” to deal with the protests that had blockaded downtown Ottawa and several border crossings across the country.

But the minister told a public inquiry Tuesday that Commissioner Brenda Lucki never brought that up with him directly.

As the minister responsible for public safety, Marco Mendicino took the lead on the federal government’s response to the “Freedom Convoy” protest last winter.

In a one-on-one call before a historic cabinet meeting on Feb. 13, he said Lucki expressed “very grave concerns” about the blockade at the international border crossing in Coutts, Alta.

“She underlined for me that the situation in Coutts involved a hardened cell of individuals who were armed to the teeth, with lethal firearms who possessed a willingness to go down with the cause,” Mendicino testified before the Public Order Emergency Commission Tuesday.

“This was a threshold moment for me.”

Based on their conversation, he said he “could not have drawn any other inference” other than her support for invoking the Emergencies Act.

Cabinet met later that evening, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau declared a federal emergency the next day, on Feb. 14.

Mendicino said he doesn’t believe the information in Lucki’s email was ever raised at that cabinet meeting.

The commission is investigating the events that led to that decision and is tasked with determining whether the government was justified in invoking the act for the first time since it replaced the War Measures Act in 1988.

A formal inquiry is mandatory any time the legislation is used to grant extraordinary powers to police, governments and banks, as it was during the protests that blockaded downtown Ottawa and several border crossings last winter.

RCMP were able to arrest several protesters in Coutts and end the blockade without using the additional powers afforded to them under the Emergencies Act.

Even before hundreds of big rigs and thousands of protesters descended on the parliamentary precinct, Mendicino believed the protest had the potential to be violent, although RCMP briefed him that “the majority of information” showed the organizers were planning a peaceful event.

He said he felt that videos like the one posted by controversial convoy leader Pat King that referred to the protest ending in bullets were a “signal of intent.”

“There were many thousands of Canadians who participated in these demonstrations and in the blockade who were there for entirely legitimate and lawful purposes, but some were prepared to become violent,” Mendicino said.

Several federal cabinet ministers, including Dominic LeBlanc, were worried about their personal safety from the outset of the protest in Ottawa because some demonstrators had posted online about targeting their homes, the inquiry heard.

Notes from a Jan. 26 ministerial briefing show RCMP were aware of protesters trying to gather the home addresses of MPs, including the prime minister, and were concerned the protest could break apart to include several locations close to politicians’ homes.

LeBlanc, the minister of intergovernmental affairs, was also scheduled to testify late Tuesday afternoon.

RCMP increased security around several ministers and Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, because the protests were focused on COVID-19 public health restrictions, Mendicino explained.

As the protest unfolded in the days and weeks to follow in Ottawa, at provincial legislatures and at several border crossings, Mendicino said the situation was on the “brink of being completely ungovernable.”

The commission has held weeks of mild-mannered hearings, but tensions boiled over Tuesday after a terse exchange between the commissioner and the lawyer for the protest organizers, which ended with the lawyer being escorted out of the building.

Brendan Miller, who represents some protest organizers including Tamara Lich, interrupted Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino’s testimony Tuesday to ask that the minister’s director of communications, Alex Cohen, be called to testify.

Justice Paul Rouleau, the commissioner presiding over the inquiry, asked security to remove Miller from the hearing room after Miller spoke over the commissioner and accused him of refusing to rule on similar applications.

“I’m trying to do my job,” Miller told reporters outside of the Library and Archives building in Ottawa where the hearings are being held.

Miller later apologized and was allowed to return to the hearing.

 

Security escort Freedom Corp. counsel Brendan Miller out of the hearing room at the Public Order Emergency Commission, in Ottawa, Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2022. Justice Paul Rouleau, the inquiry's commissioner, asked security to remove Miller from the hearing after Miller spoke over the commissioner and accused him of refusing to rule on similar applications. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld