Top RCMP officials doubted the Ottawa police convoy protest plans, Emergencies Act inquiry hears

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Top RCMP officials doubted the Ottawa police convoy protest plans, Emergencies Act inquiry hears

Inquiry into use of Emergencies Act underway in Ottawa

The history-making Public Order Emergency Commission, which is reviewing the federal government’s use of emergency powers last winter, is hearing testimony in Ottawa. The inquiry is expected to last six weeks.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s national security and intelligence adviser believed that the convey protesters posed a “threat to democracy,” according to a document tabled at the Emergencies Act inquiry.

The comments offer a glimpse of the advice cabinet was receiving as it invoked the Emergencies Act for the very first time in the legislation’s history to end the convoy protests that blocked two trade corridors and gridlocked downtown Ottawa last winter.

In an email presented at the Public Order Emergency Commission Tuesday, Jody Thomas, Trudeau’s national security intelligence adviser, writes that she’s looking for a threat assessment.

The email was sent just before noon on Feb. 14 – the day the government announced it was invoking the Emergencies Act and around the time the prime minister was briefing premiers.

“The characters involved. The weapons. The motivation. Clearly this isn’t just COVID and is a threat to democracy and rule of law,” wrote Thomas, whose title is often shortened to ‘NSIA’.

“Could I get an assessment please … It’s a very short fuse.”

Workers use heavy equipment to remove temporary fencing and supplies from the Parliament Hill area in Ottawa Feb. 23, 2022. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

A few minutes later, Thomas wrote an email to senior government officials warning that “this is about a national threat to national interest and institutions.

“By people who do not care about or understand democracy. Who are preparing to be violent. Who are motivated by anti-government sentiment.”

The request for a threat assessment made its way to the RCMP’s Adriana Poloz, executive director of intelligence and international policing.

Her assessment said that ideologically motivated violent extremism “adherents” had been linked to the convoy. She pointed to a Three Percenters flag spotted on a truck taking part in the Ottawa protest and said that Diagolon members also attended that protest.

The Three Percenters are members of a listed terrorist entity in Canada. While members of the Diagolon online community claim the organization is satirical, the RCMP’s assessment said prominent members have “espoused increasingly violent rhetoric opposing vaccine mandates.”

The report also noted that the majority of protesters had been peaceful.

RCMP questioned on chain of command

Commission lawyer Gordon Cameron raised the emails Tuesday as part of his questions to RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki and Deputy Commissioner Michael Duheme.

“How does it happen that when the NSIA wants a security threat [analysis], it doesn’t go through one of you, but goes directly to somebody in an intelligence directorate that frankly none of us had seen before we saw this email?” he asked.

Duheme said that while it isn’t ideal, sometimes people in government reach out for information directly if they have a relationship with the person providing it.

Cameron pointed out that the NSIA was advising government on whether to use extraordinary emergency powers 

“This was a very time-pressured situation. It might be understandable that corners were cut or direct contact was used,” said Cameron.

“Were you alert to the fact this was a threat assessment going from your people to the Privy Council Office in connection with the invocation of the Emergencies Act?”

Duheme said he wasn’t sure if he was briefed beforehand and said it’s possible Poloz’s response to Thomas relied on assessments the RCMP had written already.

Brendan Miller, a lawyer for some convoy organizers, asked Rob Stewart, the deputy minister of the federal Public Safety department during the protests, about the advice the federal cabinet was getting about the convoy at the time.

Miller showed Stewart a document that showed the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) didn’t believe the self-styled Freedom Convoy constituted a threat to national security, according to the definition in its enabling law.

CSIS didn’t see convoy as a threat: docs

The document, a summary of an interview CSIS Director David Vigneault gave the commission, showed the intelligence agency had concerns about invoking the Emergencies Act.

“[Vigneault] felt an obligation to clearly convey the service’s position that there did not exist a threat to the security of Canada as defined by the service’s legal mandate,” said the document.

Stewart said the government would have a broader interpretation of what constitutes a national security threat.

Jody Thomas, national security and intelligence advisor to the prime minister, arrives at the west block on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, May 10, 2022. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

“The cabinet is making that decision and their interpretation of the law is what governs here,” said Stewart.

“And their decision was, evidently, the threshold was met.”

“You have the RCMP, you have CSIS, you have the entire intelligence apparatus in the federal government and none of them said that this threshold was met, did they?” Miller asked Stewart.

“They weren’t asked,” Stewart said.

The Public Order Emergency Commission is assessing whether the federal government met the legal threshold to invoke the Emergencies Act to clear Ottawa of protesters last winter.

Under the Emergencies Act, a public order emergency “arises from threats to the security of Canada that are so serious as to be a national emergency.” 

The act refers to CSIS’s definition of threats, including serious violence against persons or property, espionage, foreign interference or an intent to overthrow the government by violence.

RCMP Deputy Commissioner Mike Duheme looks on as Commissioner Brenda Lucki responds to a question as they appear as witnesses at the Public Order Emergency Commission, Tuesday, November 15, 2022 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau cited issues with police enforcement when he announced his decision.

“It is now clear that there are serious challenges to law enforcement’s ability to effectively enforce the law,” he told a news conference. 

Under the Emergencies Act, a national emergency is “an urgent, temporary and critical situation that seriously endangers the health and safety of Canadians that cannot be effectively dealt with by the provinces or territories.”

“It must be a situation that cannot be effectively dealt with by any other law of Canada.”

Lucki and Duheme said they quickly became worried that the Ottawa police did not have a plan to end the convoy protest that occupied the capital last winter.

The pair also sat for an interview with commission lawyers in September. A summary of that conversation was entered into evidence Tuesday. 

During that interview, Lucki said the RCMP became concerned during the week of Jan. 31 —  the week after the first weekend of protest — that the Ottawa Police Service (OPS) did not have an overall operational plan to end the occupation of Ottawa.

WATCH | Lucki says local police requests ‘caught us off guard’ during protests

Lucki says local police requests ‘caught us off guard’ during protests

RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki details concerns with Ottawa Police Service resources during the convoy protests as she testifies at the Emergencies Act Inquiry.

Both Mounties said they needed to see a plan before committing more resources to Ottawa as similar anti-COVID-19 restrictions protests began to sprout in Western Canada and at the Windsor, Ont., border crossing. 

Duheme told the commission lawyers that he joined a call with Ottawa officers on Jan. 31, where OPS indicated it wanted to launch an aggressive enforcement operation from Feb. 3-6.

“Duheme said he felt that OPS lacked the resources to conduct these operations and had neither the resources nor the plans to sustain them over the long term,” said the interview summary.

“Lucki became concerned that OPS lacked a plan to use the RCMP and OPP resources that were then assisting OPS.”

Lucki and Duheme said they never saw an overall operational plan prepared by the Ottawa police.

“It was not clear to them whether OPS lacked such a plan or was unwilling to share it with the RCMP,” said their interview summary.

Lucki also said it would have been inappropriate for her to interfere in Ottawa police Chief Peter Sloly’s planning and intelligence assessment processes.