OTTAWA, Ont. — Two of Canada’s federal ministers joked about summoning tanks to downtown Ottawa to end a protest of pandemic public health measures in February.
One of them called the chief of the Ottawa Police Service “incompetent” for failing to dislodge protesters from the streets around Parliament Hill.
And a third minister dismissed a provincial premier’s concerns about the federal response to the protest as “bonkers.”
A public inquiry into the Canadian government’s use of emergency powers to end the so-called “Freedom Convoy” protests last winter is giving Canadians a rare glimpse at the inner workings of a government under pressure — including candid, often frustrated text messages between Cabinet ministers that they likely never expected would be made public.
The government has partially waived Cabinet confidence for the purposes of the inquiry, giving the Canadian public extraordinary access to thousands of pages of documents from the time of the crisis that would normally remain private. Together, they shed light on the unvarnished thoughts of senior members of a government that generally sticks closely to scripts and talking points.
The inquiry is required by law as a result of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s decision to invoke the never-before-used Emergencies Act on Feb. 14 to end the protest. Powers under the act were used to freeze the bank accounts of protesters, ban travel to protest sites and compel tow trucks to clear out 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 government staff are appearing before the commission. Trudeau, the final witness after six weeks of public hearings, will testify on Friday.
On Wednesday, a commission lawyer questioned Justice Minister David Lametti about text messages he sent to his chief of staff on Jan. 30, just days after trucks rolled into Ottawa and clogged downtown streets, which showed he was already contemplating use of the Emergencies Act.
Lametti testified he was simply “being prudent” in raising the Emergencies Act early on. “I knew that we had to begin thinking about it, whether or not it was going to be an option,” he said.
Other colorful text exchanges with Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino, however, reflect Lametti’s growing frustration with the protest and what he perceived as inaction on the part of police.
“You need to get the police to move,” Lametti told Mendicino on Feb. 2. “And the CAF [Canadian military] if necessary.”
“How many tanks are you asking for?” Mendicino replied.
“I reckon one will do!!” Lametti responded.
On Wednesday, Lametti testified the exchange was “meant to be a joke between two friends.” He also clarified that the government cannot instruct police in operational matters.
Two days later, on Feb. 4, Lametti and Mendicino again voiced their irritation 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 multilayered plan,” Lametti responded. “Sloly is incompetent,” he added, referring to Peter Sloly, then-chief of the Ottawa police.
Speaking to a commission lawyer, Lametti said the comment was “a complete product of the heat of the moment” and added he would “soften it now with the benefit of 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 Feb. 19. He also spent some time in Montreal, where his riding is located, and said his staff members in Ottawa were harassed by protesters for wearing masks when they went to work.
He said his comments were partly a reflection of the fact that his life “had been altered by this.”
But a lawyer for Sloly challenged Lametti’s claim that his texts were just casual correspondence between friends. “You can understand how when such a thing is made public that … Canadians through the media take the words to be the weight of your office,” the lawyer said.
“I take that point,” Lametti responded.
Other text exchanges offer a much more candid account of conversations happening 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 blockades of border crossings, his deputy chief of staff, Brian Clow, texted Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland.
“POTUS was quite constructive,” Clow wrote. “There was no lecturing. Biden immediately agreed this is a shared problem. He started talking about rumoured convoys against the Super Bowl and DC.
“PM spent a fair bit of time telling the President about the US influence on this. Money, people, and political/media support.”
Official readouts of the call from Ottawa and the White House were much more circumspect. “The leaders agreed to continue closely coordinating bilateral efforts,” the Canadian readout says. “The Prime Minister and President discussed the American and global influence on the protests, including financial support.”
Other messages express frustration with criticism of the federal government, and with the limited tools Ottawa had at its disposal. Earlier this week, a group chat between Mendicino, Transport Minister Omar Alghabra and Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc was tabled with the commission.
The exchange shows the ministers discussing messages then-Alberta premier Jason Kenney sent to LeBlanc, claiming Trudeau had “really screwed the pooch” with his response to the protests.
“Speaking of bonkers,” Alghabra commented. “Totally,” LeBlanc replied.
On Feb. 13, Greg Fergus, an Ottawa-area Liberal member of Parliament, texted Lametti to voice his annoyance about the ongoing occupation. “Is integrated command the best we can offer? Fuck,” he wrote.
“Our only other legal option is the emergencies act,” Lametti answered.
“That is exactly where people are at. It is where I am at,” Fergus responded. “And me,” Lametti agreed.
Trudeau invoked the Emergencies Act the next day.