Four days before Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government invoked the Emergencies Act to clear last winter’s “Freedom Convoy” blockades, a key White House official made it clear the United States wanted Canada to get the situation under control, a public inquiry heard Thursday.
The Public Order Emergency Commission was told that Brian Deese, the director of U.S. President Joe Biden’s National Economic Council, contacted Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland on Feb. 10, once protesters began blocking access to the Ambassador Bridge in Windsor, Ont.
The public inquiry is examining the Liberal government’s decision to trigger the Emergencies Act for the first time since it replaced the War Measures Act in 1988.
Freeland was called to testify Thursday about her role in responding to the blockades, which included what she was hearing from her U.S. counterparts as well as Canada’s banking and other industry leaders.
Deese was a particularly important figure for Freeland, who is also the deputy prime minister. The inquiry heard Freeland had spent a lot of time trying to convince Deese in 2021 that the U.S. needed to give Canada an exemption for its planned protectionist tax credits for electric vehicles.
Part of her efforts at persuasion involved making the point that Canada was a reliable trading partner — a reputation Freeland testified became challenged once protesters began blockading the Ambassador Bridge, which is the busiest trade route between Canada and the U.S.
“From a finance, economic perspective that escalated things exponentially,” she said of the blockade on Thursday. “That’s what made it a hugely significant economic action.”
The commission was shown an email exchange between Freeland, her chief of staff and deputy minister following the Feb. 10 call from Deese, where Freeland writes: “They are very, very, very worried.”
“If this is not sorted out in the next 12 hours, all of their northeastern car plants will shut down,” she wrote.
“He said that he supposed that this proved the point we had made previously to them about how closely integrated our economies are. (He did not seem to see this as a positive.)”
Freeland ended the email by saying she asked Deese to push the White House on banning travel for U.S.-based participants of the protests, and to arrange a call between Biden and Trudeau to help resolve the crisis.
That call happened the next day — a conversation the commission heard typically takes “weeks or months” to arrange, according to a pre-interview published alongside her testimony on Wednesday.
“The longer it went on, the greater threat that the U.S. would lose faith in us and our trading relationship would be irreparably damaged,” she testified.
“The longer it went on, the greater the threat that foreign investors would write off Canada.”
By Feb. 13, Freeland told the inquiry, she had a call with some of the country’s banking CEOs, which she also described as being highly unusual, given their busy schedules — and the fact the call happened on a Sunday.
Once she left the conversation, Freeland testified thinking to herself: “Wow, this is really serious.”
Besides the economic damage the blockades were creating for Canada, Freeland also said she was worried about Russia’s impending invasion of Ukraine, which at the time she was hearing from intelligence sources could happen any day back in February.
According to the summary of her pre-interview, Freeland told commission lawyers that had the invasion happened while the convoy protests still raged, it would have “completely discredited Canada as an ally in support of Ukraine.”
It said Freeland noted how Russian media would have “been focused 24/7” on the protests in Canada, which would have made the country appear weak.
—Stephanie Taylor and Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press