Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair was the first federal politician to take the stand before the Public Order Emergency Commission this week, speaking about his involvement in the federal government’s response to the “Freedom Convoy” protests and the decision to invoke the Emergencies Act.
Kicking off the much-anticipated phase of the testimony featuring key cabinet ministers, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his staff, Blair spoke about his frustrations with former Ottawa mayor Jim Watson, his interactions with the Ontario government, and confirmed that he was also not aware of RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki’s view that not all police tools had been used pre-invocation.
Referencing his first-hand experience dealing with major protests during his 31-year career as a police officer prior to becoming a politician, Blair spoke about how it informed his perspective and advice he offered his cabinet colleagues—including keeping comments ‘temperate’— in this case.
Blair also spoke to the commission about concerns with the City of Ottawa’s request for more police resources given the lack of a “satisfactory” plan for how those resources would be used, and sought to clarify what he meant when he said police needed to “do their job” with the tools they had during the protests.
Ahead of his appearance on Monday, top CSIS officials testified, telling the commission that they advised Trudeau that invoking the unprecedented national powers were required. You can recap the highlights from their hearing, here.
Here’s some of the notable things Blair had to say during his testimony.
EXPLAINS CALL FOR POLICE TO ‘DO THEIR JOB’
The weekend before the federal government decided to invoke the Emergencies Act, Blair made headlines when he came on CTV’s Question Period and said that the federal government was prepared to invoke the act to see the trucker convoy protests and blockades end, but that police need to “do their job.”
Asked to explain where he was coming from when he said this, Blair told the commission that it wasn’t his intention to criticize the police, it was to encourage them to use the tools that were already at their disposal.
“I’ve spent most of my life telling police officers to do their job, and I have every confidence in them. I’m very proud of my profession. I’m very proud of the men and women who do that work, and I was just trying to encourage them. We as a society needed the police because they’re the only ones empowered to deal with these public order events and we needed them to do what was required to bring it to a peaceful resolution. And I was simply commenting that we needed them to do that job,” Blair said.
For example, he thought the Ottawa Police had an “incorrect” initial response.
“Based on the intelligence that they had, I think allowing those trucks into the downtown core to establish themselves and become essentially very large barricades … I believe that was a mistake,” he said. “It would be better had that not happened.”
And, when he saw news of progress at the Ambassador Bridge blockade in Windsor, Ont., Blair texted his chief of staff Zita Astravas to say: “the police are finally doing their job.”
Coming around to the eventual major police action that was seen in the days following the invocation of the Emergencies Act, Blair told the commission that he thought the police did “an excellent job” in clearing the convoy.
‘NEED TO KEEP THE LANGUAGE DOWN’
Blair was questioned on Monday about comments he made during a Jan. 28 call with his cabinet colleagues in which he said, based on notes taken, something to the effect of: “we need to keep the language down.”
The rough readout of the call, prepared by Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino’s chief of staff Mike Jones, also noted what police were estimating as the convoy rolled in, MPs’ security concerns and the FBI being “aware” of the convoy.
Asked what Blair meant by the call for calm when it came to communication and the language used, here’s what the minister said.
“I believe we all have a responsibility to do what is necessary to keep the peace and I was concerned that inflammatory language could incite a more violent response potentially, or incite others to continue to come to the protest,” Blair said. “And so I think one needs to maintain—and I’ve had some experience in this— in your language around an event to speak of it in such a way as to not aggravate it.”
He then went on to elaborate: “I believe in my experience sometimes people live down to your expectations, and so one would want to be careful in in how you speak of these events. I also quite frankly I’m always concerned about fear. I think fear is one of the greatest enemies of public safety and I think if our language is intemperate, we can make people quite fearful. And if people are fearful, then they don’t use public space. They don’t engage with their neighbours, it can actually create a more dangerous situation. And so my advice to colleagues was that we would remain temperate in our language.”
BLAIR NOT AWARE OF LUCKI’S ‘TOOLS’ VIEW
A central piece of testimony that came to light during RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki’s testimony was that the commissioner felt just prior to the invocation of the Emergencies Act that police had “not yet exhausted all available tools that are already available through the existing legislation.”
Lucki said that while she didn’t bring this up directly with cabinet, she felt it had adequately been passed along because she mentioned it in correspondence with Mendicino’s staffer Jones.
However, the commission heard later from Trudeau’s National Security and Intelligence Adviser Jody Thomas that she was also not aware of this view, and that Lucki was “expected to provide information that is of use to decision-makers … so if there is useful information or critical information it needs to be provided, whether you’re on the speaking list or not.”
Backing this up in his Monday testimony, Blair confirmed that he was also not aware of Lucki’s view that there was still law enforcement tools to be used.
“I’ve obviously subsequently become aware of it … but I don’t I don’t recall being aware of it prior to that,” he said.
This was something he also discussed in his pre-interview with the commission, and according to a summary of that exchange, Blair said that he felt the commissioner was “doing her job by ensuring that everything that could be done pursuant to existing authorities was being done, and that the RCMP was properly acting within its existing authorities.”
He added that it is not up to the police to ask the government for more tools. The police were doing their best with the tools they had.
SLAMS WATSON’S ‘MEDIATOR’ SUGGESTION
Under cross examination by the lawyer representing the core “Freedom Convoy” protesters, it came to light how strongly Blair felt about the City of Ottawa’s suggestion eleven days into the protests, that the federal government should appoint a mediator to help end the protests.
At the time, in an interview on CTV Morning Live, then-Ottawa mayor Jim Watson said that he’d suggested to federal ministers that a mediator could be “an honest broker on both sides to try to find some common ground, if that’s possible.”
“Someone of great stature in our community and the country who can actually open doors and bring some peace and calm to the situation,” Watson said. “That’s one option that I think the federal government should pursue, because right now we’re at a complete standoff.”
The CTV News article was shared with Blair, and in an email thread he responded, writing to his chief of staff: “I don’t know who is advising Mayor Watson but this is a bad mistake. He has conceded without ever using the many tools available to the city. His language is also problematic.
“This is not a labor dispute between interests. It’s an unlawful occupation. As long as the city and its police refuse to do anything, no progress will be possible.”
Asked then if that meant the federal government didn’t want to bring in a mediator to deal with the protests, Blair said not exactly.
He told the commission he was concerned about the intention of the mediation and what was being negotiated, noting that in his experience the intent of engaging with protesters, is to bring a peaceful resolution to the protest.
After the convoy’s lawyer suggested that the federal government “couldn’t be seen to meet with Nazis and extremists,” Blair said he disagrees with that characterization and that in his many years he’s never experienced cases of public order events where political figures engage with protesters.
BLAIR WAS ‘EMBARASSED’ AND ‘WORRIED’
One late-breaking moment came near the tail end of Blair’s testimony. Under questioning by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA), the minister was asked whether he or his federal colleagues were feeling embarrassed about what was happening in Canada given the international attention on the convoy.
Blair responded: “I’ve never indulged myself in feelings of embarrassment. I’ve got a job to do, we have a responsibility to protect Canadians … and I believe all of my colleagues were deeply motivated by our responsibility to Canadians to do what was required to restore the rule of law and peace.”
The CCLA then called up an undated text message Blair sent to his chief of staff Astravas. According to the screenshot the minister said:
“I am wondering if anyone else is embarrassed that the protest on Wellington is expanding. Dozens of new porta-pottys and a new stage where they are currently holding a concert.
“I am embarrassed for my former profession. And worried for my government which is being made to look very weak and ineffective. I can’t believe that I am hoping that Doug Ford will save us.”
When this was put to him Blair says while his remarks were “intemperate” he was very concerned, going on to list some of what was concerning him, from people losing confidence in the police and the views many had that the federal government was responsible for the situation.
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