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CSIS head says he told Trudeau invoking the Emergencies Act was required last winter

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The head of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) says he told Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that invoking the Emergencies Act last winter was necessary.

CSIS Director David Vigneault made the comments during an in-camera session of the Public Order Emergency Commission on Nov. 5. A summary of that hearing was entered into evidence Monday as Vigneault and other senior intelligence officials testify before Commissioner Paul Rouleau.

Vigneault told the in-camera hearing that Trudeau asked him for his advice at the end of a Feb. 13 meeting of the Incident Response Group where the act was discussed. By that point anti-COVID-19 mandate protests had gridlocked downtown Ottawa for weeks and had spread to border crossings.

“Vigneault explained that based on both his understanding that the Emergencies Act definition of threat to the security of Canada was broader than the CSIS Act, as well as based on his opinion of everything he had seen to that point, he advised the Prime Minister of his belief that it was indeed required to invoke the act,” said the summary.

Canadian Security Intelligence Service Director David Vigneault responds to a question from counsel as he testifies at the Public Order Emergency Commission, Monday, Nov. 21, 2022 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

The commission has previously heard that Vigneault did not believe the self-styled Freedom Convoy constituted a threat to national security under the CSIS Act.

On Monday Vigneault expanded on that, adding that the agency’s enabling legislation is narrow.

The commission has been seized with whether the federal government met the legal threshold to invoke the Emergencies Act.

Under the law, the federal cabinet must have reasonable grounds to believe a public order emergency exists — which the act defines as one that “arises from threats to the security of Canada that are so serious as to be a national emergency.”

The act then points back to CSIS’s definition of such a threat — which includes serious violence against people or property, espionage, foreign interference or an intent to overthrow the government by violence.

Vigneault “further explained that the [Emergencies Act] cannot be read in a manner that gives CSIS the exclusive authority to determine whether there exists a public order emergency, as this is the responsibility of the federal government,” said the interview summary.

“Vigneault explained that, although section 16 of the [Emergencies Act] references the definition of a threat to the national security of Canada set out in section of the CSIS Act, the two statutes are concerned with distinct issues.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau makes his way to an announcement in Ottawa on Friday, Oct. 7, 2022. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

The prime minister’s security and intelligence adviser, Jody Thomas, told the commission that she believes the definition “threat to the security of Canada” under the terms of the Emergencies Act should be reconsidered to better reflect the times.

The Clerk of the Privy Council Janice Charette, who recommended Prime Minister Justin Trudeau invoke the act, defended that advice during testimony on Friday.

She said she weighed CSIS’s assessment with other factors.

“My view was that it met the tests. Others may not share my view,” she told the commission inquiry Friday.

Vigneault and other intelligence officials are testifying before the Public Order Emergency Commission Monday as the inquiry enters its final week of hearings.

Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair will testify later today.

As the week goes on, the commission is also expected to hear from:

  • Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino.
  • Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc.
  • Justice Minister David Lametti.
  • Defense Minister Anita Anand.
  • Transport Minister Omar Alghabra.
  • Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland.
  • Prime Minister’s Office staffers Katie Telford, Brian Clow and John Brodhead.
  • Prime Minister Justin Trudeau

Trudeau has defended the decision to invoke the Emergencies Act, calling it a “measure of last resort.”

Here is what the commission has heard so far.

Testimony describes police dysfunction

The first two weeks of the commission focused on the police response to the protest. Multiple officers from the Ottawa Police Service (OPS) and the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) described chaos and confusion in Ottawa after protesters arrived the first weekend and parked big rigs and other vehicles on downtown streets.

Despite receiving several early warnings, Peter Sloly — OPS chief during the protests — told the commission that even in “hindsight,” he doesn’t think the intelligence he was getting before the protest convoy rolled into town suggested that protesters would dig in and remain .

The commission has heard how the OPP sent the Ottawa police intelligence reports warning of “fringe ideologies” active within the protest movement and noting that the organizers did not have an exit strategy to end the protest.

A man in a suit speaks into a microphone.
Former Ottawa police chief Peter Sloly appears for his second day of testimony at the Public Order Emergency Commission in Ottawa on Oct. 31, 2022. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Still, the Ottawa police planned for the protesters to stay for only one weekend. Instead, they stayed for nearly a month.

“I think we were floundering a little bit in terms of our staffing, in terms of our ability to really take stock of what was going on and then move forward and come up with a plan to get out of it,” Patricia Ferguson, acting deputy chief of the OPS, told the commission inquiry. (Slowly resigned as Ottawa’s police chief in mid-February.)

Both OPP and RCMP officials have testified that they had no idea how OPP planned to end the demonstrations.

“We couldn’t read their minds as to what their plan was because there was no plan,” said Supt. Craig Abrams of the OPP.

Trudeau’s national security adviser Jody Thomas also testified about the actions of the country’s top Mountie.

RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki told the commission inquiry that on the eve of the federal government invoking the Emergencies Act, she told Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino’s chief of staff that she felt the police had not exhausted all legal tools to end the protest.

But Thomas said Lucki failed to pass that information on during a meeting with senior officials on Feb. 13.

“If there is useful or critical information, it needs to be provided, whether you are on the speaking list or not,” said Thomas.

Thomas also said Lucki never gave notice to the federal cabinet that the police had firmed up an operational plan to end the blockades.

“I don’t recall the cabinet being informed of that,” she said. “We had been told there was a plan multiple times.”

Disputes between Ontario and the federal government

The commission also has heard of friction between the Ontario and federal governments over how to address the protests in Ottawa and the blockade at the Ambassador Bridge in Windsor, Ont.

The Emergencies Act is only supposed to be invoked when a national emergency “cannot be effectively dealt with under any other law of Canada.”

The inquiry heard that during a Feb. 8 private call with then-Ottawa mayor Jim Watson, Trudeau accused Ontario Premier Doug Ford of hiding from his responsibilities during the Freedom Convoy protests.

WATCH | What did the Emergencies Act inquiry learn last week?

What did the Emergencies Act inquiry learn this week?

National security expert Stephanie Carvin and national security law expert Leah West offer their insights on what the commission heard from top officials as it investigates the federal government’s use of the Emergencies Act.

“Doug Ford has been hiding from his responsibility on it for political reasons, as you highlighted,” Trudeau said according to a readout of the call, which is not an exact transcript of the conversation.

“Important we don’t let them get away from that.”

A few weeks later, the commission heard from a senior Ontario government bureaucrat who alleged the federal government was trying to force the province to take the lead on ending the blockades.

Mario Di Tommaso, Ontario’s deputy solicitor general, told the inquiry about a meeting during which Thomas asked whether the provincial government would take a more active role in the Ottawa protests if they were happening in Kingston, Ont.

A politician speaks at a lectern in front of a blue corporate backdrop while another listens behind him.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford looks on as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau responds to a question at Nokia’s Canadian headquarters on Oct. 17, 2022 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

“This question was all about, from my perception, the federal government wanting to wash its hands of this entire thing,” Di Tommaso said.

Ford has said he supported the federal government’s decision to invoke the Act.

What happens next

The commission began hearing testimony in mid-October and wraps up on Friday. The inquiry will then move into a policy phase, during which it will host roundtables and hear from experts and policy makers on issues related to its mandate.

Commissioner Paul Rouleau’s final report must be tabled in Parliament by Feb. 20.

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