OTTAWA — With blockades at Canada-U.S. borders choking supply chains, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and top government officials scrambled to ease heightened anxiety in Washington.
The revelations were revealed in testimony and documents tabled Thursday at a public inquiry into the federal government’s decision to use emergency powers to end the ‘Freedom Convoy’ blockades and clear a weeks-long occupation of downtown Ottawa that started in January 2022.
“I could see for the first time this amber light flashing,” Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland told the Public Order Emergency Commission.
The inquiry is required by law as a result of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s decision to invoke the never-before-used Emergencies Act on Feb. 14 to end the protests.
Powers under the act were used to freeze the bank accounts, ban travel to protest sites and compel trucks to tow vehicles blocking streets. The commission must determine whether the Liberal government was justified in using those measures.
Freeland told the inquiry about a Feb. 10 phone call from Brian Deese, the director of the National Economic Council and Biden’s top economic adviser, who expressed urgent concern about the border blockades.
“They are very, very, very worried,” Freeland wrote in an email to her staff. “If this is not sorted out in the next 12 hours, all of their northeastern car plants will shut down.”
During the conversation, Deese acknowledged the integrated nature of the cross-border economy that Canadians regularly emphasize with American counterparts. Transport Canada analysis pegged the cost of the blockades at C$3.9 billion in halted trade.
Freeland asked Deese if he could arrange a phone call between Biden and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. He would “try to make it happen,” she wrote to staff. Brian Clow, Trudeau’s deputy chief of staff, helped coordinate that discussion, which took place the next day on Feb. 11.
Clow followed up with Freeland after the Trudeau-Biden conversation.
“POTUS was quite constructive,” he wrote. “There was no lecturing. Biden immediately agreed this is a shared problem.”
The president reportedly alluded to trucker convoys rumored to be heading to the Super Bowl in Los Angeles, as well as for the streets of Washington.
Clow’s text said Trudeau spoke with the president about American influence on the Canadian blockades, including “money, people, and political/media support.”
At the time, Fox News personality Tucker Carlson was one of the most prominent vocal American supporters of the Canadian protests.
Official readouts of the call from Ottawa and the White House offered fewer details.
Trudeau will be expected to share his recollections of this time when he testifies at the inquiry Friday.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg was also preoccupied with the border blockades. The same day Deese called Freeland, Buttigieg got hold of Transport Minister Omar Alghabra to press his counterpart for “a plan to resolve” the disruptions.
Buttigieg initiated the call, an interaction Alghabra told the commission was “unusual.”
During her testimony Thursday, Freeland told the commission the pace of the cross-border interactions during the crisis was uncharacteristically swift. Meetings that typically required advance notice and effort to arrange took place within 24 hours.
In an email to staff, Freeland noted Deese had requested daily updates — a stark signal that a “hard to get hold of” White House adviser was following closely.
Those check-ins never transpired. Four days after the Deese call and three days after Trudeau touched base with Biden, the government invoked the Emergencies Act.
“In other words, Canada took prompt action, and daily updates were not necessary,” reads a commission summary of a September interview with Freeland.
The minister described the stakes as existentially high for Canada. BMO CEO Darryl White and TD Bank CEO Bharat Masrani both called her the weekend before the Emergencies Act invocation. On Feb. 13, Freeland convened a call with a group of top bankers.
Freeland also exchanged text messages on Feb. 11 with Stelco CEO Alan Kestenbaum.
“This is really impacting us badly now like many others,” wrote Kestenbaum. “I fear that even worse, the long term consequences of shutting down auto plants because of lack of Canadian parts, will only convince the auto companies to ‘on shore’ even more and relocate supplies (and our customers) to the USA.”
“I share your concerns,” Freeland replied. “We are determined to bring this to an end quickly, and we will.”
Freeland testified that she worried Canada was “in the process of doing long-term and possibly irreparable harm to our trading relationship with the United States.”
Freeland raised the specter of Democrats and Republicans in Washington “who would love any excuse to impose more protectionist measures on us.”
Canadian diplomats and business leaders are well-practiced in launching a full-court press in defense of Canada’s interests in Washington. They maintained a united front during Trump-era NAFTA renegotiations and more recent congressional deliberations over tax incentives for made-in-America electric vehicles.
“We didn’t save NAFTA only to have it undermined,” Freeland texted Flavio Volpe, a staunch free-trade ally and president of the Auto Parts Manufacturers’ Association.
The impact of the emergency powers on border blockades remains unclear. Documents tabled at the inquiry show that law enforcement agencies didn’t require the Emergencies Act to open up the border.
RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki told reporters after her testimony that the force used “existing tools” to carry out arrests near an Alberta crossing on Feb. 14 — the same day as the invocation. The protesters in Coutts, Alta., departed the area the next day.
Emails from government officials in Manitoba claimed a border blockade in that province was cleared without the need for emergency powers.
And a six-day blockade at the busiest Canada-U.S. border crossing between Detroit and Windsor was cleared on Feb. 13, a day before invocation.
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