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Liberal government to release cabinet documents to Emergencies Act inquiry

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Protesters react as Toronto Police mounted unit charge to disperse as police take action to put an end to a protest, which started in opposition to mandatory COVID-19 vaccine mandates and grew into a broader anti-government demonstration and occupation, in Ottawa, Friday, Feb. 18, 2022. The commissioner of the inquiry examining Ottawa's use of the Emergencies Act to bring an end to the so-called "Freedom Convoy" protest in February has granted standing to the organizers, police and representatives of all three levels of government. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

OTTAWA — The federal Liberal government has agreed to provide sensitive cabinet documents to the inquiry examining its use of the Emergencies Act during the "Freedom Convoy" protest.

The Public Order Emergency Commission said Tuesday the government has agreed to a request not to claim cabinet privilege over the "critical" documents Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his ministers considered in the decision. 

It said the government has committed to the extraordinary step of providing "all the inputs that were before cabinet" when it declared the emergency in February, weeks into the convoy protests that took over Ottawa's downtown and erupted at border crossings.

Out of the 371 federal commissions of inquiry that have been called since Confederation, this is only the fourth that has received such access, the commission noted.

It said it has not yet received the documents but expects them to come in "shortly."

Trudeau's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

The news came hours after commissioner Paul Rouleau released a list of participants to whom he has granted full standing in the inquiry, including convoy organizers, police forces and all three levels of government. 

Those granted full standing include the federal, Alberta and Saskatchewan governments, the cities of Ottawa and Windsor, Ont., the Ottawa Police Service, the National Police Federation and a group of 10 convoy organizers, including Tamara Lich, Tom Marazzo and Chris Barber.

Full standing means they will be given advance notice on information submitted into evidence before the inquiry, as well as certain privileges, such as the opportunity to suggest or cross-examine witnesses.

The Ontario Provincial Police was granted full participation with the exception of cross-examining witnesses or producing policy papers.

Lich, who along with Barber is facing criminal charges related to the convoy, was arrested in Alberta on Monday for breach of her bail conditions, Ottawa police said.

Rouleau granted standing to the convoy leaders, along with a not-for-profit corporation called Freedom 2022 Human Rights and Freedoms, because of their "key role in the events that led to the declaration of the emergency."

But he denied standing to a variety of other convoy participants and supporters, some of whom had their bank accounts frozen under the act, saying that "simply being a witness to relevant events does not itself justify a grant of standing." 

He also dismissed the federal Conservatives’ application for standing. 

The party had sought to participate on the basis that the commission's work would have far-reaching impact on current and future members of Parliament, and said in its application that it had a "substantial and direct reputational interest" in the inquiry. 

Rouleau wrote in his decision that the CPC did not demonstrate how its interests on a range of factual and public policy issues differ from that of the public generally.

The commissioner said the inquiry must remain an independent, non-partisan process, noting that a special joint committee of the House of Commons and Senate has been tasked with reviewing the use of the Emergencies Act's powers.

Dane Lloyd, the Conservative party critic for emergency preparedness, said Canadians deserve complete transparency from the government to explain why the Emergencies Act was necessary. 

"Canadians need more than just the information cabinet had but how they used that information, and how the decision to invoke the Emergencies Act was made," Lloyd said in a statement.

“So far transparency has not been forthcoming. The minister of public safety has lied to and misled Canadians in an attempt to deflect responsibility for invoking the Emergencies Act. We do not have confidence that the Liberals will behave any differently when it comes to the public inquiry."

The Conservatives had been pushing for the Liberals to grant the inquiry access to cabinet documents.

The commission has not yet indicated whether Trudeau or cabinet ministers will be asked to testify at the public hearings that are expected to begin in September. 

In addition to the groups that have been granted full status, other entities, including the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, Ottawa business associations, industry groups and civil society organizations were granted partial standing allowing them to make only certain types of submissions. 

Former Ottawa police chief Peter Sloly, who resigned his position the day after Ottawa invoked the Emergencies Act, will be allowed to produce documents, make submissions on factual, evidentiary and policy-related issues and examine witnesses, and the Manitoba government has been granted permission to provide written submissions.

Trudeau's government triggered the Emergencies Act on Feb. 14, a week after protesters first blockaded the Detroit-Windsor Ambassador Bridge and several weeks into what he called the "illegal occupation" of downtown Ottawa by anti-lockdown protesters and their vehicles. 

It was the first time a government invoked the law since it passed in 1988.

The temporary measures under the act gave authorities greater leeway to make arrests, impose fines, tow vehicles and freeze assets.

Trudeau revoked the emergency declaration Feb. 23, two days after the NDP joined the Liberals in a House of Commons motion affirming his government's choice to use the exceptional powers.

The commission, which the government was required to set up under Emergencies Act provisions, is mandated to provide a final report to Parliament by Feb. 20, 2023.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 28, 2022.

Marie-Danielle Smith, The Canadian Press