Justice Paul Rouleau has released his long-awaited report on the government’s use of the Emergencies Act to quell the anti-vaccine mandate convoy protests in Ottawa and in the border communities of Windsor, Ont. and Coutts, Alta.
The five-volume, 2,000-page report is a deep dive into the demonstrations that gripped some parts of the country for more than a month in the winter of 2022.
After six weeks of public testimony, and with unprecedented access to cabinet documents, Rouleau detailed everything from the genesis of the convoy movement to the disruptive and sometimes dangerous nature of the demonstrations. He described an extraordinary police and government response that ultimately brought the protests to an end.
While Rouleau, a justice of the Court of Appeal for Ontario, made 56 recommendations to better manage future large-scale protests — including a call for major reforms to how police work these events — his main conclusion was that the federal government met the legal threshold for invoking the Emergencies Act.
Here’s a look at the highlights:
1. Federal government was justified in using the Emergencies Act
Rouleau found it was reasonable for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his cabinet to invoke the Emergencies Act and its powers to bring the protests to an end.
While some critics have said it was a heavy-handed approach to a protest against an infringement on fundamental rights, Rouleau concluded “the very high threshold for invocation was met.”
He said the ongoing disruptions to daily life in Ottawa, the reports of harassment, the potential for life-threatening violence, the calls to overthrow the government and the damage to Canada’s economy and reputation were all rightly cited to justify the law’s use.
“In my view, there was credible and compelling information supporting a reasonable belief that the definition of a threat to the security of Canada was met,” Rouleau said in his report.
Government met ‘very high’ threshold to invoke Emergencies Act: Rouleau
In his final report, Justice Paul Rouleau concluded that the government’s decision to use the act was ‘appropriate’ and pointed to a series of failures in the police response to the convoy protests.
He said cabinet was not obliged to adhere to the strict definition of a national security threat in the CSIS Act, refuting a claim made by some experts and convoy lawyers in their presentations before Rouleau.
Rouleau said Trudeau and his ministers acted in good faith when they invoked the act and cabinet was “reasonably concerned that the situation it was facing was worsening and at risk of becoming dangerous and unmanageable.”
He said the act granted cabinet extraordinary powers and, for the most part, they were appropriately and effectively deployed to bring the disruptive protests to an end.
He said the Emergencies Act powers were used by the RCMP and other police services to compel towing companies to remove trucks and other vehicles that were assembled in Ottawa’s downtown core.
He concluded that the Emergencies Act-related prohibition on providing “material support” to the protesters ended the flow of cash and starved the demonstration of the funds it needed to continue.
That prohibition, in combination with a freeze on some other assets, had “a significant impact in encouraging protesters to leave unlawful protests” and “had at least some impact on the footprint of the protests prior to police enforcement action,” Rouleau wrote.
Importantly, the Emergencies Act also allowed out-of-jurisdiction police officers like those working for the RCMP to enforce provincial and municipal by-laws in Ottawa and elsewhere.
Without the act in place, city police would have had to swear in every individual out-of-town officer before they could assist with police operations.
“This allowed for rapid deployment of RCMP and officers from other provinces to assist the Ottawa Police Service and the Ontario Provincial Police,” Rouleau said.
Justice Paul Rouleau releases his report on the Liberal government’s use of the Emergencies Act in Ottawa on Feb.17, 2023. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)
Other Emergency Act powers weren’t all that useful, Rouleau said. Extraordinary border measures weren’t necessary to stop foreign nationals from joining the convoy protests, he wrote — the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) already had exclusion powers.
Speaking to reporters after the report was tabled Friday, the prime minister said he was pleased the inquiry concluded the threshold to invoke the act had been met.
“Let’s be clear. We didn’t want to have to invoke the Emergencies Act. It’s a measure of last resort,” Trudeau said.
“The risk to personal safety, the risk to livelihoods and, equally, the risk of people losing faith in the rule of law that upholds our society and our freedoms — those risks were real. Responsible leadership required us to restore peace and order.”
2. There was ‘a failure of federalism’
Rouleau said the various levels of government did not work well together during the protests.
The events of January and February 2022 can be seen “as a failure of federalism,” he said.
Rouleau said Canada’s system demands that “governments at all levels, and those who lead them … rise above politics and collaborate for the common good.
“This did not always happen.”
He concluded that Ontario Premier Doug Ford and his government essentially washed their hands of their duty to protect the people of Ottawa, and erroneously claimed that the protests were a federal problem because the activity was largely concentrated in the parliamentary precinct and the surrounding area.
Rouleau found that Ford did not become meaningfully involved in ending the protests until the Ambassador Bridge in Windsor, Ont. — a key conduit for cross-border trade — was blocked by anti-mandate protesters.
The Ottawa occupation had a “striking” effect on residents of the city core, Rouleau said.
He pointed to the protest’s impacts on residents’ physical and psychological health, “assaultive behaviour,” overwhelmed police services that created an overall “safety risk” to residents, fire hazards, constant noise and diesel fumes, and the consequences for housebound seniors and other vulnerable people.
Rouleau said the people of Ottawa had every reason to expect that Ford and his government would do more to help federal and local officials bring the protest to an end.
Protesters take part in the trucker convoy that gripped Ottawa for weeks during the winter of 2022. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)
“Ottawa is a municipality created by the province of Ontario and subject to its jurisdiction. The province is ultimately responsible for effective policing in Ottawa. Given that the city and its police services were clearly overwhelmed, it was incumbent on the province to become visibly, publicly and wholeheartedly engaged from the outset,” Rouleau said.
He said Ford and his government should have assured the people of Ottawa that they “had not been abandoned by their provincial government during a time of crisis.”
“Had there been greater collaboration at the political level from the start, it could well have assisted in ironing out the communication, jurisdictional and resourcing issues that plagued the early response to the protests,” Rouleau said.
He said while there was “dysfunction” and “deficiencies” in the policing response, former police chief Peter Sloly doesn’t deserve all the blame.
Rouleau said there was some “scapegoating” of Sloly by politicians and others, and his role was “unduly enlarged.”
3. Cross-border vaccine mandates, Trudeau’s comments
Rouleau concluded that the federal government’s vaccine mandate for cross-border workers — coupled with Trudeau’s controversial remark that only “a small fringe minority of people” were opposed to these COVID-related restrictions — provided the spark for the trucker convoy.
Trudeau’s “fringe minority” comment “served to energize the protesters, hardening their resolve and further embittering them toward government authorities,” Rouleau said.
Trudeau said Friday he wished he had “phrased it differently.”
Trudeau said people were “worried” and “wanting to be heard” at the time, and his comments were a bit careless.
Rouleau said Trudeau and other government leaders should have made more of an effort to “acknowledge that the majority of protesters were exercising their fundamental democratic rights” and that many felt genuine frustration about “perceived” government “overreach.”
A trucker shovels snow off the top of a big rig’s trailer during the anti-vaccine mandate protest in Ottawa in the winter of 2022. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)
“Messaging by politicians, public officials and, to some extent, the media should have been more balanced, and drawn a clearer distinction between those who were protesting peacefully and those who were not,” Rouleau said.
Rouleau said that, after two years of COVID restrictions, the government’s move to follow the U.S. and impose new cross-border restrictions at that stage of the pandemic was “the spark” for the convoy protests.
Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre, who supported some aspects of the convoy, said Friday “the only reason we had this emergency is because Justin Trudeau wanted it to happen.”
He said Trudeau divided Canadians during the pandemic through name-calling to distract from his mismanagement.
4. A call for reform
Among Rouleau’s 56 recommendations is an urgent call to review how policing is carried out in Ottawa.
Rouleau said Ottawa is a “complex” jurisdiction with four police services — the Parliamentary Protective Service (PPS), the Ottawa Police Service, the Ontario Provincial Police and the RCMP — responsible for various aspects of protecting the nation’s capital. He said there may need to be a change.
The PPS is generally responsible for security inside buildings in the parliamentary precinct. The RCMP has a role to play in protecting the grounds of Parliament Hill. Local police have jurisdiction over Wellington St., which runs in front of buildings like West Block and Centre Block. And the OPP is the police force charged with gathering intelligence.
He said the federal government should convene an urgent meeting to discuss “whether changes should be made to the division of responsibilities for policing and security” in Ottawa.
Rouleau said that, given how the convoy protests were national in nature, it was problematic that the OPP was the force largely tasked with collecting and disseminating intelligence about how the demonstrations would unfold.
He said the federal government should establish “a single national coordinator for major events” so that the country is better prepared for future episodes like this.
He also said Ontario, which is often at the centre of major protests, should also consider establishing “a major event management coordinator” to help the police services better deal with protests that cross jurisdictions.