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Canada: Hearings begin on application of emergency law to end convoy

An independent panel will hear from dozens of witnesses how Canada broke the “Freedom Convoy” blockades and occupation.

Montreal Canada – An independent panel will begin hearings this week on Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s use of an emergency measure to disperse anti-vaccination protesters who blocked the Canada-US border crossing and occupied downtown Ottawa earlier this year.

The Emergency Public Order Commission, headed by former Ontario Court of Appeals Judge Paul Rouleau, will hold its first public hearing in the capital on Thursday.

The commission will investigate the circumstances that led Trudeau to invoke the emergency law in February in response to the “Freedom Convoy” demonstrations organized by far-right activists.

“This critical period will shed light on the events leading up to the declaration of a public order emergency and fully examine the reasons for the declaration,” Rouleau said in a statement Tuesday.

The panel said it will hear testimony from 65 witnesses, including convoy participants, Ottawa residents, law enforcement officials, municipal and provincial officials and federal government ministers. Trudeau is also expected to answer questions during the six-week public hearings.

The decision to invoke the Emergencies Act for the first time since it came into force in 1988 raised concern from civil rights groups and other observers, who questioned whether Canada had met the strict legal thresholds required to invoke the measure were.

Others have questioned whether it was even necessary to apply the law, or whether the authorities lacked the will to use the tools they already had to end the protests.

The move gave the government sweeping powers, including the ability to ban any public gathering “which may reasonably be expected to result in a breach of the peace” and restrict access to certain areas.

The emergency law also mandates the public inquiry, which begins this week.

This requirement arose from criticism of the measure’s predecessor, the War Measures Act. It was created in 1970 in response to a wave of violence by hard-line Quebec separatists has been widely criticized as an encroachment on civil liberties.

Participants in the “Freedom Convoy” gathered in downtown Ottawa in late January to protest a vaccination mandate for truckers crossing the Canada-US border. The anti-vaccine truckers and their supporters also called for an end to all COVID-19 restrictions and for Trudeau to resign.

For several weeks, participants occupied the streets of downtown Ottawa, honking and disrupting daily life while others set up blockades at border crossings in the provinces of Ontario and Alberta.

Days after Trudeau invoked the emergency law on February 14, federal and provincial authorities stepped in to end the blockades and occupation of Ottawa. They arrested dozens of participants.

The Prime Minister later defended his decision, saying it was “the responsible act”.

“After weeks of dangerous and illegal activity … it became clear that local and regional authorities needed more tools to restore order and keep people safe,” Trudeau said.

Cara Zwibel, director of the civil liberties program at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, said the group assumed from the start that Canada’s use of the emergency law was unjustified.

“We have real questions about why normal legal avenues already in place weren’t used to raise things, rather than invoking the emergency law,” Zwibel said in an interview with Al Jazeera this week ahead of the commission’s first hearing.

Rouleau, the lead commissioner, granted full standing to 20 agencies during the public hearings, including the federal government, three provinces, two cities, five police officers and squads, and a squad of convoy organizers.

“Full standing means they are informed of information presented as evidence before the investigation, as well as certain privileges, such as the ability to propose or cross-examine witnesses,” the Canadian Press news agency reported.

According to Zwibel, the commission’s hearings are important for accountability purposes and will push the government to explain why certain restrictions have been put in place under the emergency law, including an asset freeze on convoy organizers.

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