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More calls for changes after Emergencies Act ruling on convoys

Police move in to clear downtown Ottawa of protesters after weeks of demonstrations on Feb. 19, 2022.  (Cole Burston/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Police move in to clear downtown Ottawa of protesters after weeks of demonstrations on Feb. 19, 2022. (Cole Burston/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Police move in to clear downtown Ottawa of protesters after weeks of demonstrations on Feb. 19, 2022.
Police move in to clear downtown Ottawa of protesters after weeks of demonstrations on Feb. 19, 2022.

Police move in to clear downtown Ottawa of protesters after weeks of demonstrations on Feb. 19, 2022. (Cole Burston/The Canadian Press)

A lawyer representing Ottawa residents and businesses in a class-action lawsuit against organizers of that city's 2022 convoy protest says he isn't surprised by a federal court decision that use of the Emergencies Act to help end it was unreasonable — in fact, he agrees with it.

"Invoking the Emergencies Act is something that should be done very rarely, if ever," Paul Champ told CBC following the decision.

The legislation was invoked by the Liberal government on Feb. 14, 2022, weeks after thousands of protesters angry with the government and its response to the pandemic parked themselves in the capital, gridlocking Ottawa's downtown core with large trucks, honking horns most of the day and disrupting the lives of the tens of thousands of people living and working there.

Otherproteststargeted U.S. border crossings.

The act gave law enforcement extraordinary powers to remove and arrest protesters and granted the government the power to freeze finances of those connected to the protests.

The temporary emergency powers also allowed authorities to commandeer tow trucks to remove protest vehicles from the streets.

According to the act, a public order emergency can be declared only in response to "an emergency that arises from threats to the security of Canada that are so serious as to be a national emergency."

Justice Richard Mosely wrote this use of the act did not meet that threshold.

Champ said his reading of the decision is one that doesn't vindicate protesters.

"The Freedom Convoy trucks occupying the streets of downtown Ottawa, the way they made the lives of Ottawa residents and businesses and workers miserable — the court clearly conveys that," he added.

"But what the judge also says is that the federal government didn't necessarily need this … tool to bring those unlawful protests to an end."

His civil arguments seeking $300 million centre on allegations of nuisance and are playing out alongside various criminal cases alleging organizers committed mischief and obstructed police.

The lawyer also said the act should not have been applied across the country.

"My view is that in Ottawa, the provincial government, the (Ontario Provincial Police) and the Ottawa police probably could have done the job if they'd turned their minds to it," he said.

He pointed to provinces such as Alberta and Manitoba who successfully handled protests.

Ottawa police and the OPP declined to comment Tuesday. Ottawa Mayor Mark Sutcliffe, who hadn't yet been elected when the protests were happening, also declined.

Former councillor says federal intervention needed

Former downtown Ottawa city councillor Matthieu Fleury admits that "uncharted territory led to maybe decisions that would have been done differently," but maintains that at the time, federal intervention seemed necessary.

"Obviously if we as a city weren't able to prevent it, if police authorities weren't able to control it, then senior levels of government … needed to find ways to intervene," he said.

Fleury added that better tools are needed to prevent rights from being breached while ensuring residents' safety in a situation like that.

University of Ottawa criminology professor Michael Kempa said the act could use an update.

According to Kempa, provinces and cities need to be "very clear on what the rules of protest actually are, so that we enforce these rules and permit legal protest without permitting things to spiral out of control."

Police from across the country enforce an injunction against protesters camped in downtown Ottawa on Feb. 18, 2022.
Police from across the country enforce an injunction against protesters camped in downtown Ottawa on Feb. 18, 2022.

Police from across the country enforce an injunction against protesters camped in downtown Ottawa on Feb. 18, 2022. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Canadian Security Intelligence Service Director David Vigneault testified at the inquiry into the act's use that he supported invoking it, even if he didn't believe the self-styled Freedom Convoy met his agency's definition of a threat to national security.

In his final inquiry report, Commissioner Paul Rouleau argued that the definition of "threats to the security of Canada" in the CSIS Act should be removed from the Emergencies Act.

Decision a 'win' for convoy protesters, supporters

Melissa McKee, co-pastor of Capital City Bikers Church in Vanier, said the decision is "good news."

The convoy participant and supporter of protests that have followed said she "won't be satisfied until all charges are dropped" against protesters such as Pat King and organizer Tamara Lich.

Bethan Nodwell, who was part of the convoy's organizing efforts, called the decision a "win" and said she'd like to see government officials responsible for invoking the Emergencies Act held accountable.

"What will be the consequence and the outcome from this decision?" she wondered.

"Will there be consequence for freezing bank accounts of Canadian citizens who were doing nothing wrong?"

Trucks park on Metcalfe Street behind a barrier in downtown Ottawa as part of the protest convoy against COVID-19 rules Jan. 31, 2022.
Trucks park on Metcalfe Street behind a barrier in downtown Ottawa as part of the protest convoy against COVID-19 rules Jan. 31, 2022.

Trucks park on Metcalfe Street behind a barrier in downtown Ottawa as part of the protest convoy against COVID-19 rules Jan. 31, 2022. (Frédéric Pepin/Radio-Canada)

According to Champ, that's not likely.

"I don't think there's going to be a lot of scope for the convoy protesters to try to get some kind of legal remedy beyond simply what they got here, which was a declaration by the court that it was unreasonable to use this particular power in this particular statute," he said.

Kempa says protesters may have some legal recourse.

"There may be some financial accountability on the part of the government," he said.

"This does open them up a little bit more to people suing the government seeking damages for things like having their accounts frozen."

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland told reporters at a cabinet retreat in Montreal on Tuesday that the government plans to appeal the decision, setting up a legal battle that could go all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada.