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Texts about using military during convoy protests were a joke, Justice Minister Lametti says

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Minister of Justice and Attorney-General David Lametti appears as a witness at the Public Order Emergency Commission in Ottawa on Nov. 23, 2022.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Two senior cabinet ministers exchanged text messages suggesting they call in the military and use tanks in Ottawa during the first week of the convoy protests in February, comments Justice Minister David Lametti defended in testimony as jokes.

The text messages between Mr. Lametti and Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino were tabled at the inquiry.

“You need to get the police to move,” Mr. Lametti told Mr. Mendicino on Feb. 2, and the Canadian Armed Forces “if necessary,” he added.

“Too many people are being seriously, adversely impacted by what is an occupation. I am getting out as soon as I can. People are looking to us/you for leadership. And not stupid people,” he added in subsequent texts.

“How many tanks are you asking for I just wanna ask Anita how many we’ve got on hand,” Mr. Mendicino said in response, referring to Defence Minister Anita Anand.

“I reckon one will do!!” Mr. Lametti replied.

Texts between Justice Minister David Lametti and Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino tabled Wednesday, November 23, 2022 at the Emergencies Act inquiry in Ottawa.Handout

The extraordinary exchange between two senior cabinet ministers came on the sixth day of anti-government, anti-vaccine mandate protests that gripped the capital. By that point Ottawa police were overwhelmed and it was unclear how the entrenched protests would end.

Days after his ministers were discussing a military option, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made it clear at a press conference that he was not considering calling in the Canadian Forces. He invoked the never-before-used Emergencies Act on Feb. 14.

When the text messages about bringing in the Canadian Forces were first presented before Mr. Lametti he did not clarify that he did not mean them seriously. However, when asked about them later on Wednesday by a lawyer representing the federal government he said the “exchange is meant to be a joke between two friends.”

The armed forces are “always the last resort under the National Defense Act, the very last resort even after the Emergencies Act. So in a sense, the Emergencies Act is the second last resort.” He added that as things progressed it became clear that bringing in the Canadian Forces “was not an option.”

Mr. Lametti also sought to play down the meaning behind other texts presented to the inquiry, noting that he is also friends with Mr. Mendicino and at times the texts were just banter or “attempts at bad humour.”

On Wednesday, at the legally required inquiry studying its use, Mr. Lametti sought to play down the meaning behind his texts, noting that he is also friends with Mr. Mendicino and at times the texts were just banter or “attempts at bad humour.”

Texts tabled with the inquiry show that on Feb. 4, the two ministers again texted about the Ottawa protests. “Police have all the legal authority they need to enforce the law,” Mr. Mendicino texted Mr. Lametti, adding, “They just need to exercise it, and do their job.”

Mr. Lametti responded that he was “stunned” by the lack of a multilayered plan, adding, “Sloly is incompetent.” Peter Sloly was, at the time, the chief of the Ottawa Police Service. He resigned on Feb. 15.

During testimony, Mr. Lametti softened his comment about the former chief, saying it was made “in the heat of the moment” and was made as a “human being,” not the Attorney-General.

The questioning from Public Order Emergency Commission senior counsel Gordon Cameron focused on whether Mr. Lametti was seeking to influence police operations and his thinking around the use of the Emergencies Act. A series of texts tabled at the inquiry show that by the third day of the protests in Ottawa, Mr. Lametti was already considering invoking the sweeping powers.

Convoys of big rigs and other vehicles began arriving in Ottawa on Friday, Jan. 28. At the time police expected them to leave after one weekend despite intelligence that shows they could be there for longer, were well-funded and highly motivated.

“Do we have a contingency for these trucks to be removed tomorrow or Tuesday?” Mr. Lametti asked his chief of staff Alex Steinhouse on Jan. 30 “What normative authority do we have or is some order needed? EA?”

The minister told the inquiry he was referencing the Emergencies Act and said it was something he was “prudently raising” to begin thinking “about in case we need it.”

The Emergencies Act states that to declare a public order emergency, there must be “threats to the security of Canada” that are so serious they mark a national emergency. The act’s definition of those threats comes from the CSIS Act.

However, when the Prime Minister invoked the Emergencies Act he did so knowing that the convoy protests did not meet the definition of threats to the security of Canada under the CSIS Act. Instead federal government officials have told the inquiry that they received a legal opinion that allowed for a broader interpretation of the definition of threats to the security of Canada in the context of the Emergencies Act that is not granted in the context of the CSIS Act.

The federal government has not yet disclosed what led it to believe “threats to the security of Canada” marked a lower threshold under the Emergencies Act than under the CSIS Act and it has not yet disclosed how broadly it now understands that definition.

The government partially waived cabinet confidence in relation to the inquiry but has not waived solicitor-client privilege. Mr. Lametti repeatedly invoked that protection during testimony on Wednesday.

At the time of the act’s invocation, the government did not disclose that it was relying on a broader definition in either its legally-required justification for the emergency declaration or in Mr. Lametti’s speech to the House of Commons or explanation to the premiers for its use.

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