The federal public safety minister has said he wants people to celebrate Canada Day, but with protests planned for the upcoming holiday weekend in Ottawa, Marco Mendicino says he hopes the mistakes of the last winter will not be repeated.
“I think Canadians should celebrate Canada Day. We’ve been through a marathon of the pandemic and there’s reason for hope and optimism,” he said in an interview last week. .
“I think it’s troubling that some are fanning the flames…we don’t want a replay of last winter and we don’t want people engaging in illegal behavior or violence that disrupts the community here in Ottawa or elsewhere .”
Protest groups have said they plan to hold continuous protests throughout the summer, starting June 30 and running through Labor Day.
The Ottawa Police Service said it is aware of the upcoming protests and is “planning accordingly”.
The capital’s police force continues to face criticism over its handling of anti-COVID-19 restriction protests last winter that paralyzed Ottawa for three weeks after protesters – some calling for overthrow of the federal government – were able to park trucks and other vehicles. on the main thoroughfares around Parliament Hill.
This week, the House of Commons Sergeant-at-Arms said he was “stunned” by police inaction at the time.
Protesters were eventually forced out of downtown after the federal government took the unprecedented step of invoking the Emergencies Act. In the end, more than 100 people were arrested, leaving a multi-million dollar police bill.
“I think it’s important that we learn from last winter,” Mendicino said.
“We will continue to give [police] the tools and support needed to ensure public safety as we celebrate Canada Day. »
“We did what a responsible government would do”
Mendicino ended the spring sitting of parliament, now in summer recess, under intense questioning about how the decision to invoke the Emergencies Act was made.
The legislation authorized a travel ban on protest areas, allowed banks to freeze the accounts of some of those involved in the protests, and allowed officials to commandeer tow trucks. It also allowed the RCMP to enforce municipal by-laws and provincial offenses as needed.
The minister told a parliamentary committee set up to investigate the matter that the government had acted on “the advice of non-partisan professional law enforcement bodies”.
When questioned, RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki and Acting Ottawa Police Chief Steve Bell said they did not ask the government to invoke the law, although they said the new powers had a deterrent effect.
Interim Conservative Leader Candice Bergen called on Mendicino to resign, accusing him of “lying and misleading Canadians about the Emergencies Act.”
Mendicino said his government speaks to law enforcement daily, sometimes hourly.
“We did what a responsible government would do, which is to stay in contact with law enforcement in order to make the decisions necessary to restore public safety,” he said.
At the time of the invocation, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau argued that its use was necessary to address “serious challenges to law enforcement’s ability to effectively enforce the law.”
But that reasoning was questioned by the opposition and other critics, who questioned whether other measures, including police tactics, could have been used.
Mendicino pointed to testimony from Lucki, who spoke of the ability to direct tow trucks to help move vehicles clogging Ottawa streets.
“Other powers that have been granted under the Emergency Measures Act have been exercised through advice we proactively sought from law enforcement before invoking the Emergency Measures Act. emergency. That’s how the system is supposed to work,” Mendicino said.
“It made tremendous sense for the government to be in conversation with the police, identifying gaps in existing authorities, and then filling those gaps with unique, exceptional, time-limited and targeted powers.”
Mendicino added that Lucki “corroborated this” in his testimony.
An independent investigation will begin soon
Outside the parliamentary committee, an independent inquiry will also soon begin to dig into the reasons for the decision to invoke the Emergencies Act for the first time.
“We hope we never have to use those rare powers again,” Mendicino said.
“But I will never apologize for doing what is necessary to protect Canadians, and invoking the Emergencies Act was the right thing to do.”
The upcoming protests are set to kick off when James Topp, a veteran marching across Canada against vaccination mandates, plans to end his cross-country journey at the National War Memorial in downtown Ottawa.
Last week, the federal government lifted the vaccination mandate requirement for federal employees and for passengers wishing to board a plane or train in Canada.
Earlier this week, Topp and other organizers met with Tory MPs near Parliament Hill, where he said the protest had grown into something bigger.
“Their problem is not so much with the warrants anymore, it’s their satisfaction with the federal government,” Topp said.
“There’s a divide in this country that I’ve never seen or experienced before – I’ve only ever seen it in a war zone.”
Conservative MP Jeremy Patzer, who represents Cypress Hills-Grasslands in Saskatchewan, said politicians on all sides should listen to what the group has to say.
“I’m not prepared to demonize or buy into this narrative that people who have opinions that other people don’t agree with, that they should be demonized for holding those opinions,” he said. he told CBC.