The inquiry that will examine the federal government’s reasons for using emergency measures to end last winter’s Freedom Convoy protests is asking members of the public to share their stories of the occupation of downtown Ottawa.
Meanwhile, a parallel process to document Ottawa residents’ experiences during the crisis has announced hearings that will coincide with the inquiry’s hearings.
Last week, the Public Order Emergency Commission — the official name for the public inquiry — put out a call for submissions from people describing what they experienced during the protests and their thoughts about the unprecedented use of the Emergencies Act.
The commission is hoping to get email responses by early September, a few weeks before its hearings launch at the Library and Archives Canada building on Sept. 19. Some of the submissions may be read aloud during the hearings.
“We hope the public — whether they participated in protests, were affected by them or otherwise have views on the protests and the government’s use of the Emergencies Act — will take advantage of this opportunity to participate in the work of the commission,” a spokesperson for the commission said via email.
A new page on the commission’s website lays out in more detail what the inquiry wants to learn from the public.
The inquiry will examine the measures the federal government took under the act and the circumstances that led to its use. Multiple witnesses — including police officials, business owners and protesters — are expected to testify.
“Among other things, the hearings will provide an opportunity for the commission and the public to hear an explanation from ministers and officials of the federal government [of] why the government deemed it necessary to invoke the Emergencies Act,” the Public Order Emergency Commission spokesperson said.
Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson will appear before the commission, his office has confirmed.
The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, a group that’s been associated with Freedom Convoy figures such as Tamara Lich, said last week it has not yet finalized its proposed list of witnesses for the Public Order Emergency Commission, adding that the commission would have the final say.
A complete list of witnesses will be released closer to the inquiry’s launch, the commission spokesperson said.
People or groups who already have been permitted to cross-examine witnesses, or have been granted other forms of “standing” during the inquiry, may also testify themselves, the spokesperson added.
The inquiry’s efforts to record public experiences of the occupation overlap with the focus of the Ottawa People’s Commission.
A grassroots effort, the Ottawa People’s Commission bills itself on its website as a venue “to address [people’s] trauma and their losses — but also to hold to account governments and authorities that failed to end the occupation and protect public health and safety.”
Unlike the public inquiry, which will hold hearings continuously until Oct. 28, the Ottawa People’s Commission is expected to hold hearings and public meetings on and off for several months at public venues that have yet to be confirmed.
The first of those hearings will start just days after the launch of the public inquiry “to ensure that the inquiry is very much in the spotlight,” said Alex Neve, one of three commissioners chairing the people’s commission.
“We look at it all as complementary,” said Neve, an adjunct professor in international human rights law at the University of Ottawa and Dalhousie University.
“Obviously there is a limited amount of public bandwidth…. But I think there are ways in which what is coming out will build upon each other.”
Neve said he hopes the people’s commission’s tight focus on resident experiences will build trust and draw out those who have been reluctant to share their stories.
“I’ve already started to hear that there are many, many people who simply were too afraid,” he said.
Both commissions are aiming to release final reports in February 2023. Neve said the people’s commission might also release preliminary findings before Ottawa’s municipal election on Oct. 24.
3 other reviews underway
Three other processes examining the impacts of the occupation and the use of the Emergencies Act are underway.
A joint committee of senators and MPs began holding hearings on the invocation of the act in March, only weeks after the last protesters were dispersed by over a dozen police agencies.
Among other things, the committee heard from Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino that the Ottawa Police Service’s control of Wellington Street — the artery in front of Parliament Hill that became the noisy nucleus of the occupation — created policing challenges.
A clerk for the committee said last week that with the House of Commons set to start its fall sitting on Sept. 19, more committee meetings may occur.
A different group — the House of Commons’ standing committee on procedure and House affairs — has held meetings to discuss whether to expand the boundaries of the parliamentary precinct to include Wellington Street.
Yasir Naqvi, MP for Ottawa Centre and a member of the committee, said he would like to see the street closed to vehicles for good.
“The thing I want to see fleshed out is, how do we encourage Canadians to participate in peaceful and lawful protest but not take it to a place where we saw in January and February of this year?” he said.
“I’m hopeful all these different processes that are taking place would help us guide in that direction.”
The standing committee on procedure and House affairs will produce a report with recommendations, but its timeline is unclear.
Meanwhile, the City of Ottawa’s auditor general is conducting a review of the city’s response to the occupation. Many complained the Ottawa Police Service took far too long to take decisive action against unlawful protesters.
Public consultations to help hammer out the scope of that audit took place last month; details are set to be announced in the coming weeks.
The audit does not involve public hearings and is accepting anonymous submissions from the public. No date has been set for the release of the audit report.