Strong desire to not engage
If you don't listen, you won't hear anyone disagreeing
If there’s one thing we can all agree on as a nation, after a year of hard lessons and bitter reckonings, it’s that being in a meeting with Brenda Lucki is way more interesting than asking her about it later.
The RCMP commissioner was on the witness stand Tuesday at the Public Order Emergency Commission down on Wellington Street. She peered out from over the top of a face mask, as we are all encouraged to do these days by Ontario public health authorities, and spoke in a low, even voice in response to polite questions from commission lawyer Gordon Cameron. Often she said she didn’t have strong recollections of specific moments during February’s unpleasantness. I’m skeptical, but it’s plausible. She was often giving three briefings a day to deputy ministers, cabinet committees and the prime minister himself.
“Oh my goodness!” she said at one point, when Cameron urged her to try harder. “I don’t think people understand the amount of meetings we had. There were so many meetings.”
Fortunately electronic records of some meetings endure. They suggest Lucki was a sardonic, self-aware presence, often participating in a simultaneous Teams chat with police colleagues while she waited to speak to her elected and bureaucratic counterparts. In some cases the meetings themselves are forgotten but the chat records endure, like the border illuminations in some ancient book whose pages have otherwise crumbled.
“I need to calm him done,” she wrote to colleagues during one supper-hour cabinet committee meeting on Feb. 5. She meant “calm him down.” Lucki could be an approximate typist.
This does not appear to have gone well. “ok so calm is not in the cards” she wrote 14 minutes later.
Who was refusing to calm down? Mark Flynn, the RCMP’s assistant commissioner for national security and protective policing, typed a strong hint a minute later: “When the AG talks like this, we better get our own plan going…”
Taken together, the two senior police officers’ notes suggest the attorney general, David Lametti, was flashing a level of mood most of us never see as the convoy entered its second weekend.
This Zoom call tabled on Tuesday dovetails nicely with another document that was tabled last month at the commission, a transcript of a telephone text-message exchange between Lucki and Thomas Carrique, the commissioner of the Ontario Provincial Police.
That conversation, too, happened on Feb. 5. The time stamps and the content suggest that at some points Lucki was Teams-chatting with her RCMP colleagues while she phone-texted with Carrique, in the middle of the virtual meeting with the cabinet ministers.
“Trying to calm them down, but not easy when they see cranes, structures, horses, bouncing castles in downtown Ottawa,” she told Carrique eight minutes after commiserating with her fellow Mounties about one minister’s inability to stay on an even keel.
By Feb. 13, calm was no closer to being in the cards. The Zoom chat that accompanied an important cabinet committee meeting began in mid-afternoon, long before the committee meeting began if I’m not mistaken, and ended well past 10 p.m. The cabinet was debating whether to invoke the Emergencies Act. Lucki was on deck to give her assessment. While she waited, Lucki kibitzed with Flynn about the effect such a call might have.
Flynn: “I would be curious what our psychologist, that informed our plan, thinks about the reaction…”
Lucki: “reaction by who”
Flynn: “reaction of the protesters. Government giving themselves more power… The protest started due to government exerting power.”
Lucki: “great observation” — and then, less than a minute later — “it could deepen division”
An hour later, Lucki had given up hope of making her report. “so doesn’t look like I will be reporting on anything”
The meeting ended 10 minutes after that.
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If asked, Lucki was prepared to say she wasn’t persuaded the Emergency Act was yet needed. In the event, Justin Trudeau would invoke the Act the next day. Which is why we’re all here now.
In a pre-interview with commission counsel in early September, a transcript of which was published in evidence on Tuesday, Lucki said the chief of staff to Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino had asked her on Feb. 12 for a list of Emergency Act powers that would come in handy. She had a day to cough that list up, in time for the cabinet meeting. Which she dutifully did. But she was also prepared to say something Mendicino’s office hadn’t asked for:
“This said, I am of the view that we have not yet exhausted all available tools that are already available through the existing legislation. …
“These existing tools are considered in our existing plans and will be used in due course as necessary.”
It’s worth noting that these caveats — essentially cases of Lucki volunteering to the ministers that she didn’t need the Emergencies Act — held only in those areas where the RCMP was the police force of jurisdiction. Basically, everywhere outside Ottawa.
The Ottawa Police Service had, of course, been spectacularly ineffective. But during these crucial middle days of February, that was changing fast.
OPS Superintendent Rob Bernier had replaced the previous incident commander on Feb. 10. Where the previous guy had been splendid in his isolation, Bernier preferred to talk to the OPP and the Mounties, and by Feb. 12 they had slammed together what Lucki, in her September pre-interview, called an “amazing” plan to dismantle the convoy. There followed two days of confusion, as the hapless OPS chief Peter Sloly refused to sign off on a plan that, to Lucki’s eyes, shouldn’t need his signature. Then Sloly resigned.
But by then the Emergencies Act had already been in force for a day.
That’s at least partly because, while the RCMP commissioner was preparing to counsel patience, another senior official was scrambling to come up with last-minute justification for the Act’s use. Say hello to Jody Thomas, a former deputy minister of national defence who served as Trudeau’s national security advisor. Before noon on Feb. 14, she sent this to several people in the Privy Council office, the bureaucracy’s central coordinating office:
Janice was Janice Charette, the then-acting Clerk of the Privy Council, essentially Trudeau’s deputy minister. Twenty minutes later Thomas answered some of her own questions:
Was the bit about the protesters “preparing to be violent” invented from nothing? No. Was it rock solid? Also no. On Feb. 13 at Coutts, AB, the RCMP had seized 13 long guns and a lot of ammunition, and made three arrests on the way to making more arrests later. That incident was enough to collapse the Coutts blockade: “It became apparent to the RCMP that protestors were attempting to distance themselves from the splinter group associated with the weapons cache,” the Lucki pre-interview reads. The remaining protesters hugged their neighbours the Mounties, sparking a thousand furious tweets, and went home.
And in an email to Mendicino and Jody Thomas that arrived only minutes before the Feb. 13 cabinet meeting, Lucki wrote:
“You may have heard that a tractor trailer with approximately 3,400 firearms was stolen overnight in Peterborough. The firearms are reported to be 22 calibre rifles…. We don't know if it is related to the current protest but I can assure you we are treating it as a national security matter and have a National Security team working on it.”
What we know now is that the RCMP has never found a connection between the Peterborough firearms theft and the convoy protests. Which is more than Mendicino and Thomas could have known when they participated in the decision to invoke the Emergencies Act.
This may be part of what Commissioner Paul Rouleau determines in the end: that around the edges of the most intensely scrutinized political event in Canada since the 1995 Quebec referendum, everything was guesswork and partial information.
Another of the drama’s many characters was Rob Stewart, who in February was the deputy minister of Public Safety, Marco Mendicino’s civil-service lieutenant. Stewart is a University of Ottawa MBA who spent 16 years at Finance before being asked to run Public Safety, a department where he’d never worked, four months before the COVID lockdown began. He has already moved on, to Trade, where he’s been the new DM for six weeks. Stewart’s testimony on Monday — a day before Lucki’s — suggested a lively intelligence, an independent mind, and limited familiarity with the files he suddenly had to juggle.
As one might in such circumstances, he kept a close eye on the politicians for social cues. Shantona Chaudhury, another commission lawyer, took Stewart through a summary of a Feb. 7 meeting of federal and provincial public-safety DMs. Stewart had told his colleagues about the situation in Ottawa. There was “no degree of violent extremism going on,” he said, but there sure was a lot of frustration: “In Ottawa, the law has been disregarded. The norms of behaviour and laws.”
The last line in the summary of Stewart’s remarks to the provincial ministers was: “Strong desire to not engage protesters and to let enforcement take its course.” Chaudhury asked what this meant. “That last line refers to essentially the decision by Ministers not to speak to the protesters,” Stewart said.
This reluctance has been mentioned at length, both at the commission and in my occasional summaries of its proceedings for you. It’s that reluctance that led Serge Arpin, the Ottawa mayor’s chief of staff, to blow his stack on Feb. 11, because Mendicino’s office was more than happy to have people at Ottawa City Hall meeting the protesters. To diffuse a protest against the federal government. “Spectacularly ridiculous” and “nauseating to say the least,” Arpin called the contradiction.
As a public servant, Rob Stewart was not supposed to have strong opinions about the government. But he kept thinking for himself. And learning in his new role. So on Feb. 10, he briefed an ad-hoc group of federal ministers, a so-called Incident Response Group (IRG), about a chat he’d had that very morning with the lead OPP negotiator. About 80% of the protesters had a “weak connection to the cause,” the OPP guy had guessed. Maybe only 5% were die-hards. “The negotiator suggested that the leaders of the protest could potentially be encouraged to leave and denounce the blockade in exchange for a commitment to register their message with the government.”
Given the government’s “strong desire to not engage,” these were cheeky thoughts to entertain. But smart people, including Brenda Lucki, had told Stewart to talk to the OPP guy, Marcel Beaudin. So Stewart heard him out. De-escalation was a key part of doctrine, Stewart learned. “It was very educational for me.” Beaudin said if some of the convoy leaders — well, leaders “of a sort” — could find someone important to talk to, “this would have the effect of allowing people to achieve something,” Stewart said. And they might go home. Not all of them, of course. But the intensive police action that would follow would at least face a smaller crowd of holdouts.
“So the intention would have been —” Chaudhury began.
Stewart finished her thought. “— Shrink it.”
So now here was Stewart, caught between what his government sure didn’t want and what his police contacts said might work. Inevitably, he got squeezed. It didn’t take long. On Feb. 11, a day after Stewart briefed the IRG, Mendicino learned that his industrious deputy minister had drafted a plan to have Ontario and federal officials talk to the protesters, as Ottawa officials and any number of cops had already been doing.
Mendicino hit the roof. Or more precisely, he hit his phone to text Katie Telford, the prime minister’s chief of staff, and let her know he had brought his DM back into line.
“Inconsistent with good info flow.” Chef’s kiss. In English, this translates as “Too much info was flowing.” The strong desire to not engage won, as it often does in Trudeau’s Ottawa.
One more sign of the feds’ selective insularity. Ric McIver was the Alberta government’s minister of municipal affairs, and in the second week of February he was just about desperate to find some tow trucks to break up the Coutts blockade. The Alberta government’s story here was an extreme version of what Ottawa mayor Jim Watson and the OPP faced: As soon as they found a tow-truck company, they’d learn that the company had backed away from providing its rolling stock, under a combination of social ostracism, overt threats, and financial inducement from convoy supporters. Companies that refused to provide tow trucks, Alberta officials testified last week, were being financially rewarded by convoy supporters. The Canadian Armed Forces said it didn’t have the right equipment.
In desperation, McIver did what only desperate men ever do any more: he tried to get help from Bill Blair.
On Feb. 7, he texted Blair, the federal Minister of Emergency Preparedness, asking for a phone call. “I will call you,” Blair responded.
He didn’t call. The next morning, on the 8th, Blair texted McIver, saying he’d asked the defence minister to lean on the army. There’d be news soon, he said. “Thank you,” McIver replied.
Two and a half days later, on the evening of the 10th, McIver nudged Blair: “Any updates?”
Eleven days after that, another nudge: “Still no answer.” By now it was Feb. 21 and, in Coutts and Ottawa, the whole mess was essentially over.
Stung, Blair launched into his longest reply yet. “You may be aware that we invoked the Emergency Act on Feb. 14…” he huffed electronically.
“We received no help until after Coutts issue was resolved and you know that,” McIver replied. “Disappointed to hear you say otherwise.”
Blair didn’t like that answer either, but the fact was that McIver’s government had bought tow trucks while Blair wasn’t getting back to him.
Like so much else that gets discussed at this commission, none of the icy exchange between Bill Blair and a man who thought he was supposed to work with him gets directly to the commission’s central question, which is whether the Emergencies Act was needed. But it does contribute richly to our understanding of the “circumstances” of the Act’s first-ever invocation, which is also part of Commissioner Rouleau’s mandate.
What it teaches us is that the government of Canada often had a very clear idea what it wanted to hear (“I need an assessment for Janice about the threat of these blockades”) and an equally clear idea what it didn’t want to hear (“Strong desire to not engage”). Inevitably, this produced a long list of people who didn’t feel heard or engaged. And it turns out, not all of them were taking part in the protest.