Canada’s spy agency was concerned extremists might commit violence and recruit members when the Freedom Convoy rolled into Ottawa earlier this year, its director told lawmakers on Tuesday night.
But David Vigneault, director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), said he could not provide specific examples, citing classified intelligence.
“We have seen a number of individuals, who were of concern to CSIS prior to the convoy, being engaged online and also in person in the context of the convoy,” Vigneault said while testifying before a special joint committee investigating the invocation of the Emergencies Act in February, in response to the protests that occupied blocks of downtown Ottawa for weeks.
“The concern we had with the convoy, at the outset and throughout, was the fact that we have seen in Canada, in other jurisdictions, violent extremists using these protests and demonstrations to engage in acts of violence, to recruit members, to be able to spread their ideology further,
CSIS was also concerned about the risk of lone actors, who would “be engaged in violence spontaneously,” Vigneault said.
“This is what we were focusing our activities during the convoy and providing information to law enforcement.”
The never-before-used law gave temporary powers to deal with the blockades and protests against pandemic restrictions. It defines a qualifying emergency as something that “arises from threats to the security of Canada.”
Vigneault said every day the agency is uncovering and investigating threats to the security of Canada, including “a rise in anti-authority, violent rhetoric, particularly as it relates to public health measures.”
He said CSIS was aware of the “opportunities that large gatherings and protest” offer for violence and recruitment to ideologically motivated violent extremism (IMVE), a broad term used by the agency to cover various grievances including those from far-right, anti-authority and anti-government, and racist groups.
One of the concerns for the agency was a memorandum of understanding issued by Canada Unity, one of the groups organizing the convoy, calling on the Governor General and the Senate of Canada to form a new government with the protesters themselves.
“Our assessment of the manifesto was obviously something of concern,” said Vigneault.
RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki told the committee the Mounties provided additional protective protection to Gov. Gen. Mary Simon because of the MOU.
Not a policing failure: RCMP commissioner
The Emergencies Act authorized a ban on travel to protest zones, prohibited people from bringing minors to unlawful assemblies and allowed banks to freeze the accounts of some of those involved in the protests. It also enabled the RCMP to enforce municipal bylaws and provincial offenses where required.
At the time, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau argued its use was necessary to address “serious challenges to law enforcement’s ability to effectively enforce the law.”
But that reasoning has been questioned by the opposition and other critics who have asked whether other measures, including policing tactics, could have been used.
Lucki said she involved in conversations about triggering the act a week before it was invoked on Feb. 14, but that she never asked for it.
Pressed repeatedly about why police couldn’t act sooner, Lucki said the act gave her officers, and those of the Ottawa police, different enforcement abilities — like compelling tow trucks to help move vehicles.
“This was a different type of protest where people weren’t leaving,” she said.
Senator questions policing decisions
She said she didn’t think the event was a failure in policing, despite several senators and MPs on the committee suggesting the opposite.
“In my view, the actions by police prior to the invocation of the act demonstrated a series of police failures, not willful failures, but the inability of police to contain and act appropriately in reducing the occupation here in Ottawa,” said Sen. Peter Harder.
“I find it surprising that you would say that there has been no failure of policing in respect of these incidences.”
Tuesday’s committee is separate from an inquiry, lead by former Ontario Superior Court justice Paul Rouleau, that will look into the events that led to the Emergencies Act being invoked and make recommendations.