OTTAWA — Treasury Secretary Chrystia Freeland made a direct link between Canada’s economic and national security on Thursday when she defended her government’s decision to declare a state of public order emergency to end the ” Freedom Convoy” protests.
The claim came as testimony before the Public Order Emergency Commission, where cabinet ministers faced questions about the legal basis on which they invoked the Emergency Act in February to remove protesters from Ottawa and several US border crossings.
“I truly believe that our security as a country is based on our economic security,” Freeland said. “And if our economic security is threatened, then all of our security is threatened. And I think that’s true for us as a country. And that applies to individuals.”
While Freeland said the Liberal government’s decision to apply the emergency law was correct, he repeatedly declined to say whether the perceived economic damage caused by the protests was the basis for the government’s decision — and if so, whether it was. If so, was it legal.
“I’m not a lawyer,” said Freeland, who is also deputy prime minister of Canada. “I rely on the judgment of the agents who advised us and expert legal advice.”
The analysis remains the key missing piece as the committee enters the final days of public hearings to uncover the government’s decision to invoke the law for the first time since it was enacted in 1988.
The Emergency Act provides that a public order emergency is an emergency arising from a threat to the security of Canada, as defined in the Canadian Security Intelligence Service Act.
That definition includes espionage or subversion of Canadian interests, acts of serious violence against people or property with foreign influence, political, religious or ideological objectives, or the violent overthrow of the Canadian government.
But the Privy Council clerk testified last week that the government gave a broad interpretation, including threats to Canada’s economic security, of the federal Liberals’ refusal to provide the legal advice that formed the basis of their decision.
Freeland testified that the protests coincided with a period of fragility for Canada’s economy, with supply chain challenges, US plans to exclude Canada from electric vehicle incentives and the escalating Russian invasion of Ukraine all creating uncertainty.
Freeland initially said she was not interfering in handling the protests, which began Jan. 29 when thousands of people and hundreds of trucks gathered in downtown Ottawa to protest the COVID-19 vaccine mandate and pandemic restrictions.
But when protesters blocked the Ambassador Bridge in Windsor, Ontario, the busiest trade route between Canada and the US, she said: “From a financial and economic point of view, it has accelerated things. It made it a hugely important economic move.” “
The White House was also concerned about the blockade of the bridge and Brian Dees, director of US President Joe Biden’s National Economic Council, made it clear to Freeland that the US wanted Canada to keep the situation under control.
The committee was shown an email exchange between Freeland, his chief of staff and the deputy minister after the Feb. 10 phone call to Dees, in which Freeland wrote, “They are very, very, very concerned.”
He said, “If this isn’t resolved within the next 12 hours, all of their car plants in the Northeast will be shut down.”
Freeland spent much of 2021 trying to convince Dees that the U.S. should make an exception to electric vehicle incentives that initially excluded Canada, the study found.
Part of her belief was that Canada was a reliable trading partner – a reputation Freeland bore witness to when protesters began blocking access to the bridge.
“The longer this goes on, the greater the danger that the US will lose confidence in us and that our trade relationship will be damaged beyond repair,” he testified. “The longer this goes on, the greater the danger that foreign investors will write off Canada.”
Freeland repeatedly raised the specter of US protectionists using the blockade of the convoy to further their interests, which he said would have a profound effect on Canada and the economy.
“It’s people in a steel mill in Hamilton who will lose their jobs because this relationship broke down, people in an aluminum smelter in Quebec,” she said.
“For any of those people, if everything falls apart and the country’s economy is deeply undermined, it will undermine their security, and it will undermine our security as a country.”
But Freeland sidestepped questions about the emergency law’s lack of references to economic harm, saying only that she had received “reassurance” about the legality of using the emergency order.
Freeland rejected suggestions that Ottawa was using the law to appease the White House or allay American concerns.
The investigation also found that as early as Feb. 13, Freeland listened to the concerns of some Canadian banking industry CEOs.
A reading from one of the phone calls that day shows that some CEOs suggested to the government that some of those involved in the protests be listed as terrorists, which would allow banks to freeze their funds more quickly. So received.
On the same day as the meeting with the bankers, a cabinet meeting was held to discuss the invocation of the Emergency Act. The special measures announced on Feb. 14 include an order allowing financial institutions to freeze the accounts of Convoy participants.
Freeland defended the decision to freeze some 280 accounts worth about $8 million, saying it was a way to end the protests without violence by encouraging protesters to go home.
“I would rather not have done it. But in my mind, I truly believe there are tens, hundreds of thousands of Canadian jobs and families that we’ve protected.
She also testified that as the blockade escalated, she feared violence would break out between the fed-up Canadians and the protesters, and that the government would have to intervene.
“I thought Canada was like a powder keg.”
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on November 24, 2022.
Stephanie Taylor and Lea Berthiaume, The Canadian Press