A photo of Canada's Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino.
Canada's Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino. Credit: Office of Marco Mendicino / https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=406131067839744&set=pb.100053285616662.-2207520000..&type=3

The Conservative opposition in Ottawa believe they can smell a cabinet minster’s blood during ongoing debates over the Liberal government’s use of the federal Emergencies Act. They are going after him like piranhas attacking a wounded cow that wandered into the river. 

The minister in question is Marco Mendicino, minister of public safety. 

Mendicino’s putative crime is lying to Parliament and the Canadian people when he said police forces requested the government invoke the Emergencies Act to help end this past winter’s illegal occupation by the so-called freedom convoy.

The RCMP and the Ottawa police force say they never made such a formal request. 

It would not be the police forces’ place to do so, in any case. It is elected city and/or provincial governments who would normally request federal intervention in an emergency

Robert Stewart, Mendicino’s deputy minister (the highest ranked civil servant in the department), has defended his minister. 

Stewart has explained that when Mendicino said “the advice we received from police was to use the Emergencies Act” he meant police requested the “tools contained” in the emergencies act.

Mendicino and the deputy minister both point out the minister was talking about seeking advice not making a formal request. 

At a time of crisis, they argue, federal officials asked police officials what sort of assistance the federal government could provide. Unnamed police officers replied, “Well, you could invoke the Emergencies Act”. 

The government’s message is: Nothing to see here folks. The government, they say, was merely doing its due diligence. Minister Mendicino never intentionally misled Canadians.

That explanation does not satisfy the Conservatives.

One gets the impression, however, that the official opposition is less interested in the truth than in battering the Trudeau team’s credibility – which is already suffering from the government’s seeming helplessness in the face of current economic turmoil.

Conservatives supported the convoy, lest we forget

As with much political discourse in Ottawa, this dispute is generating more heat than light.

The exchange during question period on Tuesday June 14 between the Conservatives’ acting leader Candace Bergen and prime minister Justin Trudeau is typical of the rhetoric on this issue.

Bergen: Canadians should be able to trust that what their government tells them is the truth. Telling the truth is especially important when setting the serious precedent of invoking the Emergencies Act. We now know the Minister of Public Safety has been misleading Canadians. No police force asked for the Act; he knows it, we all know it and there was no misunderstanding. The minister has lost credibility and trust. Will the Prime Minister do the right thing and ask the Minister of Public Safety to step away from his duties?

Trudeau: When illegal blockades paralyzed our economy and hurt workers and communities, police, municipal and provincial leadership told us more tools were needed to bring them to an end. The former Ottawa police chief said at the time, “we cannot do it alone and we are grateful for what they provided, but we need more”, and even Alberta’s Minister of Municipal Affairs wrote that the local RCMP “have exhausted all local and regional options.” We listened, we determined that the Emergencies Act had the tools necessary to end this and it worked.

Later in the week, on Thursday June 16, New Brunswick Conservative MP Jake Stewart put the question directly to minister Mendicino himself, quoting another Liberal cabinet minister, Bill Blair.  

The former Toronto police chief once had Mendicino’s job. He now holds the recently-created position of emergency preparedness minister: 

“The public safety minister continues to hide the truth from Canadians on the use of the Emergencies Act,” Stewart said. “The minister cannot just tell Canadians that the Act was necessary; he must show them. That is his job. To quote the emergency preparedness minister: ‘I do not believe that would have been an appropriate thing for law enforcement to ask, and they did not ask’.

Mendicino did not back down one bit. 

He elaborated on the government’s central argument that the police needed enhanced power and authority to deal with a grave threat to public order. Then, as other Liberals have done, he turned the tables on the Conservatives and reminded Canadians the official oppostion actively supported the illegal occupation last winter.

“We have been consistent and clear … that the decision to invoke the Emergencies Act was necessary because it was needed to restore public safety,” Mendicino told the House. “Let me quote from the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police’s former president Chief Gary Conn, who said: ‘In our view, the Emergencies Act provides the appropriate authorities and powers for police services to ensure the rule of law and the safety of citizens.’  … That is law enforcement … It is the Conservatives who knew all too well that by making reckless statements to ask the blockades to double down and entrench, they were undermining public safety, and they should apologize for that role.”

Liberals need to do better job of explaining themselves

The Liberals have a good case, on the face of it, but most of the media is siding with the Conservatives on this dispute. 

The truth is that anyone who was paying attention knows the Ottawa police found themselves to be nearly helpless in the face of the hundreds of idling vehicles that had taken over the seven strategic city blocks adjacent to Parliament Hill. 

The federal government took its time before acting. The Ford government in Ontario never expressed open support for the occupiers, although some its ministers did quietly support them. 

Doug Ford invoked Ontario’s own emergencies act, but that legislation does not have the teeth of its federal counterpart. 

The Ontario act did not have the power to compel reluctant towing companies to honour their contracts and move vehicles that had been illegally obstructing neighbourhoods for weeks. The federal emergency act could.

The federal government only stepped in when the crisis had become intolerable, especially for the tens of thousands of people who live and work and operate businesses in downtown Ottawa. The intervention was measured and appropriate and played a big role in ending the occupation without violence. 

And it is important to remember that the federal government does not need an invitation to invoke its own Emergencies Act in response to what the legislation calls a “public order emergency” – as long as the emergency involves more than one province. 

The federal government is only obliged to consult with the provincial governments concerned. 

In the case of the emergency precipitated by the so-called freedom convoys, the Quebec government was lukewarm on federal intervention, understandable given Quebec’s experience of the 1970 October crisis and the invocation of the War Measures Act then.

Ontario’s Doug Ford, whose province was at the centre of the action, was all for the Emergencies Act. He was happy the federal government was stepping in and relieving him of the burden of what had become a severe political headache for him.

Not a single police official anywhere in Canada complained about the use of the Emergencies Act last winter when the Trudeau government invoked it. And the national media were almost all relieved to see the end of the crisis.

Now, Trudeau and his ministers must account for their actions, which is appropriate. 

But today those who would quibble and find fault should not forget how they felt while hundreds of invaders illegally occupied Canada’s capital for weeks on end.

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover Canadian politics. He has worked as a journalist and filmmaker for many decades, including two and a half decades at CBC/Radio-Canada. Among his career highlights...