People block highway 75 with heavy trucks and farm equipment and access to the Canada/US border crossing at Emerson, Man., Thursday, Feb. 10, 2022. The federal government has until the end of the day today to call an inquiry into its use of the Emergencies Act during the blockades at Canadian border crossings and in Ottawa earlier this year. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

People block highway 75 with heavy trucks and farm equipment and access to the Canada/US border crossing at Emerson, Man., Thursday, Feb. 10, 2022. The federal government has until the end of the day today to call an inquiry into its use of the Emergencies Act during the blockades at Canadian border crossings and in Ottawa earlier this year. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

Government must call inquiry into use of Emergencies Act today

Act gave extraordinary powers to police to clear people out and to banks to freeze accounts

The federal government has until the end of the day to call an inquiry into its use of the Emergencies Act during the blockades at Canadian border crossings and in Ottawa earlier this year.

Millions of dollars in trade was halted for days at several border crossings and the streets of downtown Ottawa were flooded with demonstrators as part of a national convoy of big-rigs and trucks protesting COVID-19 restrictions.

In response, the Liberals invoked the Emergencies Act on Feb. 15, granting extraordinary powers to police to clear people out and to banks to freeze the accounts of those involved. It’s the first time the law has been used.

The temporary powers meant protesters and their supporters could face fines up to $5,000 or five years in prison during the emergency declaration.

At the time, Attorney General David Lametti said the government couldn’t “allow our democratic system to be hijacked by shows of force.”

While many people involved in the blockades said they were occupying Ottawa city streets and blocking border crossings to demand an end to all COVID-19 restrictions, some, including many of the most vocal organizers, said they wanted the Liberal government overthrown.

Throughout most of February, Parliament Hill was packed with people and trucks carrying signs and flags adorned with expletives directed at Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

The protests had a major impact on Ottawa residents. Officials described a state of “lawlessness” setting in around the area as bylaws went unenforced by police for three weeks and the sound of airhorns droned on at all hours of the day and night.

The Emergencies Act requires the government to call an inquiry into the use of the legislation within 60 days of revoking the declaration.

That will examine the circumstances that led to the emergency being declared and the measures taken to deal with it.

Several provincial premiers have spoken out against what they characterized as a serious overreach of power by the federal government, arguing police already had all the authority they needed to clear out protesters.

The inquiry isn’t the only post-mortem review of how governments and law enforcement handled the protests.

Parliament established an all-party committee to look at the way the powers were used, as required by the legislation, and the city of Ottawa’s auditor general launched a review of the local response.

The lessons learned are unlikely to be detailed and delivered before another convoy, this one on motorcycles, is due to arrive in Ottawa next weekend.

—Laura Osman, The Canadian Press

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