A public inquiry into the Canadian government’s use of emergency powers to end so-called ‘freedom convoy’ protests last winter is giving Canadians a rare glimpse into the inner workings of a government under pressure – including candid and often frustrated text messages between Cabinet Ministers which they probably did not expect to be made public.
The government partially waived Cabinet confidentiality for the purposes of the inquiry, giving the Canadian public extraordinary access to thousands of pages of crisis-era documents that would normally remain private. Together, they shine a light on the unvarnished thoughts of senior officials in a government that typically sticks tightly to scenarios and talking points.
The investigation is required by law following Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s decision to invoke the never-before-used Emergencies Act on February 14 to end the protest. Powers under the act have been used to freeze protesters’ bank accounts, ban travel to protest sites and force tow trucks to clear vehicles blocking Ottawa streets. The commission must now determine whether the Liberal government was justified in using emergency measures.
This week, a series of cabinet ministers and senior officials are appearing before the commission. Trudeau, the last witness after six weeks of public hearings, will testify on Friday.
Commission counsel questioned Justice Minister David Lametti on Wednesday about text messages he sent to his chief of staff on January 30, just days after trucks arrived in Ottawa and jammed downtown streets, showing that he was already considering using the Emergencies Act.
Lametti testified that he was simply “cautious” in raising the Emergencies Act early on. “I knew we had to start thinking about it whether or not it was an option,” he said.
Other colorful text exchanges with Public Security Minister Marco Mendicino, however, reflect Lametti’s growing frustration with the protest and what he perceives as police inaction.
“You have to get the police moving,” Lametti told Mendicino on Feb. 2. “And the CAF [Canadian military] if necessary.”
“How many tanks are you asking for?” Mendicino replied
“I think one will do!!” Lamet replied
On Wednesday, Lametti testified that the exchange was “meant to be a joke between two friends.” He also clarified that the government cannot instruct the police on operational matters.
Two days later, on February 4, Lametti and Mendicino expressed their irritation again in a text exchange. “Police have all the legal authority they need to enforce the law,” Mendicino wrote. “They just need to exercise it and do their job.”
“I was stunned by the lack of a multi-tiered plan,” Lametti replied. “Sloly is incompetent,” he added, referring to then-Ottawa Police Chief Peter Sloly.
Speaking to commission counsel, Lametti said the comment was “a complete product of the heat of the moment” and added that he would “soften it now in hindsight.”
The justice minister said he was forced to leave his residence and move to another location in Ottawa for part of the protest, which lasted from late January until the weekend of February 19. He also spent time in Montreal, where his riding is located. , and said his staff in Ottawa had been harassed by protesters for wearing masks on their way to work.
He said his comments partly reflected the fact that his life “was changed by it”.
But a lawyer for Sloly disputed Lametti’s claim that his texts were just correspondence between friends. “You can understand how when such a thing is made public that…Canadians, through the media, see the words as the weight of your office,” the attorney said.
“I understand that point,” Lametti replied.
Other text exchanges offer a much more candid account of the conversations taking place at the highest levels than was offered publicly at the time. On Feb. 11, after Trudeau had a phone call with President Joe Biden about ongoing border crossing blockages, his deputy chief of staff, Brian Clow, texted Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland.
“POTUS was quite constructive,” Clow wrote. “There was no lecture. Biden immediately agreed it was a shared issue. He started talking about supposed convoys against the Super Bowl and DC.
“The Prime Minister spent quite a bit of time talking to the President about American influence on this. The money, the people, and the political/media support.
Official readings of the appeal from Ottawa and the White House were much more circumspect. “Leaders agreed to continue to closely coordinate bilateral efforts,” the Canadian report said. “The Prime Minister and the President discussed U.S. and global influence on the protests, including financial support.”
Other posts expressed frustration with criticism from the federal government and the limited tools Ottawa had. Earlier this week, a panel discussion between Mendicino, Transport Minister Omar Alghabra and Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc was filed with the commission.
The exchange shows the ministers discussing messages that then Alberta Premier Jason Kenney sent to LeBlanc, saying Trudeau had “really screwed up the doggie” with his response to the protests.
“Speaking of nuts,” Alghabra commented. “Totally,” LeBlanc replied.
On February 13, Greg Fergus, an Ottawa-area Liberal MP, texted Lametti expressing his displeasure with the ongoing occupation. “Is integrated control the best we can offer? Shit,” he wrote.
“Our only other legal option is emergency law,” Lametti replied.
“That’s exactly where people are. That’s where I’m at,” Fergus replied. “And me,” agreed Lametti.
Trudeau invoked the Emergencies Act the next day.