Canada: Committee examining Liberals’ emergency powers debates scope of inquiry

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A woman holds a flag as protesters gather and party on Kent Street after police cleared Wellington Street, previously occupied by the Freedom Convoy, in Ottawa, on February 19, 2022. - Police in riot gear cleared the main protest hub in downtown Ottawa on February 19, using batons and pepper spray and making dozens of arrests, as they worked to flush out a hard core of demonstrators occupying the Canadian capital. © (Photo by Andrej Ivanov / AFP) A woman holds a flag as protesters gather and party on Kent Street after police cleared Wellington Street, previously occupied by the Freedom Convoy, in Ottawa, on February 19, 2022. - Police in riot gear cleared the main protest hub in downtown Ottawa on February 19, using batons and pepper spray and making dozens of arrests, as they worked to flush out a hard core of demonstrators occupying the Canadian capital.

The Parliamentary committee tasked with reviewing the emergency powers used to address last month’s convoy protests is divided on the scope of their study.

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The Special Joint Committee on the Declaration of Emergency is scheduled to hold its second meeting Thursday evening, and sources with knowledge of the deliberations tell Global News the biggest sticking point is how much to include in the committee’s review.

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One perspective would like to see the committee narrowly focused on the government’s unprecedented invocation of the Emergencies Act to address the protests, with an eye to determining if the Liberals appropriately used those exceptional powers.

The other side wants a more expansive study which would include the roots of the convoy protests that ground downtown Ottawa to a halt and blockaded border crossings in February, law enforcement’s handling — or mishandling — of the protests, and the federal government’s response.

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“I think committees normally will work through those issues,” said Sen. Gwen Boniface, one of the three joint chairs of the joint Senate-House of Commons committee.

Boniface said this committee will be unique. It includes both senators and MPs, and is tasked with reviewing an unprecedented situation. But “it’ll be up to the committee to work through the issues and answer the questions,” Boniface said.

There are a number of other parliamentary committees examining the events surrounding the Liberals’ Feb. 14 decision to invoke the Emergencies Act, a never-before-used law that granted police exceptional powers to deal with the dug-in protest that surrounded Parliament Hill for three weeks.

Speaking to the Commons’ public safety committee Thursday, the Ottawa Police Service’s interim chief, Steve Bell, told MPs that the emergency powers played a central role in dislodging the convoy camp.

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“From a policing perspective, the legislation provided the OPS the ability to prevent people from participating in this unlawful protest, restrict people from travelling to any area where the unlawful protest was taking place, secure protected places and critical infrastructure … go after the money funding the protest and require third parties to assist us in removing the heavy vehicles that were clogging our streets and creating a safety hazard,” Bell told MPs.

“It was a critical piece in our efforts, but it was only one piece.”

On top of those federal studies, the government must launch a judicial inquiry into the circumstances leading up to the emergency declaration within the next 30 days.

Bonfiace said it’s important to ensure “value for money” in the various concurrent reviews — in other words, making sure the multiple reviews do not repeatedly cover the same ground.

The Emergencies Act also sets out in law what the joint committee is supposed to concern itself with — specifically, the “exercise of powers and the performance of duties and functions pursuant to a declaration of emergency.”

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But even those in favour of a limited study by the joint Senate-House of Commons committee agree that it’d be hard to determine if the federal government acted appropriately without some consideration of the convoy context.

“It really is about making sure that what (the committee does) is valuable to the process and that you get the answers that you need,” Boniface said.

“It is more convoluted because of the … perhaps overlapping mandates (of different committees). But I think it can be worked out through the committee with its work and with some goodwill at the table.”

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