The head of Canada’s intelligence service told the prime minister he supported the decision to invoke the Emergencies Act last winter, despite his opinion that protest blockades across the country did not meet the service’s strict definition of a threat to Canadian security.
Canadian Security Intelligence Service director David Vigneault’s testimony Monday is key to the Public Order Emergency Commission, which is scrutinizing the government’s use of the Emergencies Act to disperse the protests.
The act identifies a public order emergency as a threat to Canada’s security, as defined in the Canadian Security Intelligence Service Act.
That definition includes espionage or sabotage of Canada’s interests, foreign influence, acts of serious violence against people or property with political, religious or ideological objectives, or the violent overthrow of the Canadian government.
No such threat materialized during the “Freedom Convoy” protests, Vigneault said, though CSIS was investigating some participants in relation to violent extremism.
Still, Vigneault said he was satisfied that a threat to national security had to be interpreted differently in the context of the Emergencies Act after he received advice from the Department of Justice.
“This I think is the crux of the issue,” Vigneault said during the hearing Monday. “In the context of the Emergencies Act there was to be separate interpretation, based on the confines of that act.”
The clerk of the Privy Council testified last week that the government took a wider interpretation, including threats to Canada’s economic security.
Protesters with hundreds of large trucks and other vehicles arrived in Ottawa at the end of January, blocking city streets in what began as a demonstration against a COVID-19 vaccine requirement for cross-border truck drivers.
The protest quickly expanded to include dissent against all COVID-19 public health restrictions and the Liberal government generally, continuing for nearly a month.
Similar protests developed in cities across the country, and demonstrators blockaded several busy international border crossings.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau declared a public order emergency on Feb. 14 — the first time the legislation was used since its 1988 inception.
Vigneault was asked for his opinion before the Emergencies Act was invoked, and told the prime minister he believed it was “required” based on what was happening across the country.
The Emergencies Act granted extraordinary powers to governments, banks and police to create no-go zones around critical infrastructure, compel the co-operation of tow-truck companies and freeze the bank accounts of people suspected of being involved in the protest.
Vigneault testified on a public panel Monday with the CSIS deputy director of operations and the executive director of the Integrated Terrorism Assessment Centre, a unit housed at the intelligence service.
The inquiry commissioner, Justice Paul Rouleau, has allowed CSIS to share some testimony and evidence privately with the inquiry because details could jeopardize the agency’s intelligence operations and national security.
Questions about investigative techniques, CSIS informants and any details about CSIS investigations were off-limits during the public hearing, but might have been asked during a closed-door hearing earlier this month.
CSIS produced five threat assessments of the convoy protest in Ottawa and similar protests that blocked border crossings, but the details of those assessments have been shared privately with the commission and will not be released publicly.
The intelligence service wasn’t specifically investigating the growing movement of Canadians opposed to public health measures, CSIS deputy director of operations Michelle Tessier testified Monday. Rather, it was concerned about people with more extreme views using the protest as an opportunity.
“It would be more the individuals who exploit that type of a movement to recruit individuals, to bring them more toward the extreme view of anti-authority ideology, wanting to use serious violence to kill to bring changes,” Tessier said.
There were early indications that ideologically motivated extremists planned to attend the protest, says Jan. 27 briefing material prepared by CSIS.
The notes, which Vigneault indicated were used to brief Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino, also make clear the agency was unaware of “any tangible plots or plans of serious violence.”
The overall threat level in Canada remained “medium” throughout the protests, CSIS reported to the commission.
—Laura Osman, Stephanie Taylor and David Fraser, The Canadian Press