Rouleau Commission testimony provided a closer look at what we already knew

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The Public Order Emergency Commission may have been the biggest political yawn in commission history.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on November 28, 2022.

OTTAWA—The Public Order Emergency Commission has come to a close. 

It may have been the biggest political yawn in commission history.

Most inquiries dig into the background of political decisions that reveal much to the ordinary public.

From the Krever Inquiry to the Gomery Commission, these proceedings usually provide riveting coverage and fodder for political opponents.

In the case of the Krever Inquiry, formally known as the Commission of Inquiry on the Blood System in Canada, the government was dealing with the thousands of victims of tainted blood from AIDS to hepatitis victims.

Justice John Gomery, through the Commission of Inquiry into the Sponsorship Program and Advertising Activities, gave us a look into the inner workings of the Liberal Party, and the public was shocked by the exposure of malfeasance.

Then-prime minister Paul Martin, who launched the commission, eventually lost his own job because of the negative fallout.

In the current context, the government will emerge from this inquiry unscathed. If anything, the testimony simply reinforced the need for the federal government to take drastic action to end the illegal blockade.

From the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, to the testimony of multiple federal ministers, the message was simple: the federal government needed to act because the blockade would have continued if Canada was depending on provincial police forces to remove the occupying truckers.

From testimony evidence, provincial police in Ontario were reluctant to utilize all the tools at their disposal, as their political masters—including Premier Doug Ford—viewed this as an “Ottawa” problem, which would be resolved by the federal government.

On an economic level, the shutdown of the auto industry actually cost the economy and grabbed the attention of the Americans, who were also losing jobs because of the Freed Convoy’s supply chain disruption.

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland testified that questions remained long after the blockade ended about how the risk to Canada’s supply chain could inflict serious economic damage in multiple sectors, including the auto and mining sectors.

The testimony gave the public a deep dive into the operations of the federal government, including the relationship between the Prime Minister’s Office and the Privy Council Office, and the interchange amongst responsible ministers included public safety, transport, security and the economy.

Insofar as the political blowback, certain provincial premiers appeared far more negative in their private communications with federal ministers.

Former premier Jason Kenney was acid in his repartees with some federal ministers. It was obviously clear that political gamesmanship was the key factor in Kenney’s refusal to use provincial powers to end the blockade in Coutts, Alta.

The mayor of Coutts made it clear that he informed the premier’s office early on in the blockade, and said some would characterize the Coutts trucker blockaders as “domestic terrorists.”

He said he personally would not say that because he was actually afraid for his personal safety and that of his family.

Clearly, a small-town mayor in southern Alberta could see the convoy for what it was: a threat to communities that some of his constituents believe warranted the label of terrorist.

He also said that 70 per cent of the citizens in Coutts were supportive of the blockade. However, that support waned after the discovery of a cache of illegal weapons. The arrest of four men charged with conspiracy to commit murder ruined the original non-violent flavour of the protest.

At the end of the commission’s work, the decision that the federal government made will likely be justified.

Canadians have a deeper understanding of the limitations facing the federal government when it comes to jurisdictional conflicts vis-a-vis the authority of local and provincial police.

The fact that no federal opposition parties have taken up the convoy’s cause, including that of convoy supporter Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre, is proof positive that the commission’s findings have largely reinforced the government’s decision to implement the Emergency Measures Act.

The commission also made clear how the local Ottawa police leadership failed to recognize the seriousness of the occupation at the beginning of the process.

Former police chief Peter Sloly, who resigned amidst the occupation, appeared unable to manage even his own team. It was clear the municipal government would not be in a position to end the blockade.

However, Ford did express more interest in getting involved when the auto industry was shut down because of the Ambassador Bridge blockade.

In the end, most reasonable Canadians have already concluded that the actions to end the blockade were in keeping with the gravity of the situation.

Now, the Freedom Convoy is calling for a reunion next February.

No bouncy castles this time.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.