When Paul Rouleau kicked off the inquiry into the federal government’s use of the Emergencies Act, he warned against allowing the proceedings to become “adversarial.”
“I recognize that different points of view will be forcefully advanced. This is to be expected. It is important, however, that at all times disagreement be respectful,” Rouleau said, adding that he would “actively control the proceedings.”
As the head of the inquiry into the federal government’s use of emergency powers in response to the anti-COVID-19 vaccine mandate protest that gridlocked parts of downtown Ottawa this past winter, the Ontario Court of Appeal justice will be the public face of what could be a polarizing and politically tense six weeks.
WATCH | Ontario judge says inquiries ‘are not trials’:
The Public Order Emergency Commission began public hearings Thursday on the government’s decision to invoke the Emergencies Act. It is expected to hear from 65 witnesses during its factual stage, including protest participants, law enforcement representatives, federal cabinet ministers and officials with provincial and municipal governments.
The opening day saw battle lines taking shape as lawyers for key players — including the federal government, the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan, Ottawa police and protest organizers — gave brief opening remarks.
The federal government’s lawyers have promised to lay out the step-by-step process which led the government to declare a public emergency as a “last resort,” while a lawyer for the convoy organizers has said the government never met the legal threshold to invoke the act.
With a tight timeline for the hearings — they’re scheduled to wrap on Nov. 25 — here’s what we know about the man tasked with heading up the commission.
Education and legal practice
Rouleau is originally from Eastview, Ont., now known as the Vanier neighbourhood of Ottawa, according to his biography from the Universite de l’Ontario Francais.
He received a bachelor of administration in 1974 and later a bachelor of law in 1977, both from the University of Ottawa.
Rouleau was called to the bar in 1979 and would later obtain a masters degree in law from York University in 1984, according to his biography on the Ontario Court of Appeal website.
In 2002, Rouleau was appointed an Ontario Superior Court judge during Jean Chrétien’s Liberal government, and then a judge on the Ontario Court of Appeal in 2005.
In 2014, he was appointed to the Yukon Supreme Court and later the Nunavut Court of Justice and the Supreme Court of the Northwest Territories, both in 2017.
During his opening remarks on Thursday, Rouleau said his experience as a judge would inform how he conducts the inquiry.
“During these hearings I will be hearing the bulk of this evidence for the first time, just like members of the public,” he said. “To that end, I’ve made no findings and reached no conclusions.
“Like a judge, my findings and conclusion will be based on the evidence that is presented to me. I will keep an open mind throughout and will only reach a final conclusion once the evidence is all in.”
Raj Anand is chair of the Law Commission of Ontario’s board of governors on which Rouleau serves. He said Rouleau is practical, thoughtful and very interested in advancing the law.
With 17 years as a judge of the Court of Appeal behind him already, Anand said, Rouleau has seen many important legal issues that he brings to his role on the board.
“He has lots of experience and lots of ideas, and he doesn’t hesitate to express those ideas,” Anand told the Canadian Press this past spring.
Advocate for French legal services, education
Rouleau has been an active advocate for access to French language education and legal services in Ontario.
In 1981, he helped found the Association des juristes d’expression française de l’Ontario, a group of Francophone legal professionals that promotes access to French legal services.
Ronald Caza, who worked with Rouleau when he was president of the association, said Rouleau’s approach to litigation was always practical rather than technical.
“I think he was quite successful, because when you bring a common-sense approach and a practical approach to legal issues, it’s very compelling for a court. It’s very compelling for a judge, that argument, because it sort of drives to the essence of what the litigation is about,” Caza told the Canadian Press in April.
Rouleau was appointed to the Ontario attorney general’s advisory committee on access to justice in French in 2018.
Rouleau is also very highly respected in the francophone community for championing precedent-setting cases on linguistic rights, said Caza.
He successfully argued for the right of children to have access to French public education in the 1986 Marchand case, and also served as a school board trustee in Toronto in the 1980s, according to the public order commission.
Last year, Rouleau was appointed the first chancellor of the Universite de l’Ontario Francais.
Rouleau also worked for Liberal leader John Turner in 1984, according to reports from Maclean’s from the era.
Role of the commission
Rouleau kicked off Thursday’s hearing by explaining the commission’s mandate and the challenges it faces.
“A commission’s recommendations may be modest or wide-ranging. They may be directed at a range of audiences, including government, public bodies and the private sector,” said the commissioner.
“It’s also important to understand what commissions of inquiry do not do. They do not make findings of legal liability. They do not determine whether individuals have committed crimes. While inquiries seek to uncover the truth, they are not trials. Questions of civil and criminal liability are decided by courts and not commissions.”
At Rouleau’s request, the Liberal government has waived cabinet confidence on documents related to its invocation of the act, though it’s not clear if those documents will be made public. It’s only the fourth time in Canada’s history that a public inquiry has been given access to such high-level documents.
After hearing from Ottawa residents, business representatives and two city councillors on Friday, the commission is expected to hear from a number of city officials and police representatives this week.
Ottawa City Manager Steve Kanellakos, outgoing Mayor Jim Watson and Councillor Diane Deans — who was head of the Ottawa Police Services Board for a majority of the protests — will appear before the committee this week. Like Watson, Deans is not seeking re-election this month.
Also expected to testify this week are acting Deputy Chief of Ottawa Police Patricia Ferguson, retired chief superintendent of the Ontario Provincial Police Carson Pardy and OPP members Pat Morris and Craig Abrams.