Transcript: Paul Wells
My interview with the Canadian journalist, podcaster and author
After much anticipation, Justice Paul Rouleau has released his final report for the Public Order Emergency Commission, finding that the Canadian government’s use of the Emergencies Act against the trucker convoy was appropriate, but noting that he came to this conclusion reluctantly.
My guest on the program today had a front row seat — both for the convoy protests in Ottawa and the Commission — and he joins me today to talk about what this report means for Canada going forward.
Paul Wells is an award-winning Canadian journalist, the author of a popular Substack, and the host of the Paul Wells Show podcast. His latest book is An Emergency in Ottawa: The Story of the Convoy Commission and it’s out early next month.
This is an edited transcript for paid subscribers. You can listen to the episode for free here.
TH: Paul, welcome to Lean Out.
PW: Thanks for having me.
TH: So nice to have you on. I think you’re the perfect person to talk through this important moment in Canadian history with. So first, the Commission found that Canada’s use of emergency powers was appropriate — particularly given the police dysfunction and the political infighting. But Justice Paul Rouleau came to this conclusion reluctantly. For listeners who may not know, can you give us a brief explainer on the Commission? How did it work? What was it tasked with determining?
PW: The Commission is a creature of the Emergencies Act itself. The Emergencies Act was passed in the 1980s at a very different time in Canada’s history, and had never been used since then. But because the Emergencies Act was designed to be harder to use than the War Measures Act that it replaced, one of the provisions in the Act is that every time it’s used, there’s supposed to be a commission of inquiry to examine the decision. And so, as soon as the government of Canada used the Emergencies Act to break up the convoy in Ottawa at the beginning of 2022, they knew that there would be commissioner of inquiry that would be reporting in a little less than a year. That also is required by the law.
Now, the Commission heard more than 60 witnesses — I actually think, in the end, more than 70 witnesses — and heard them in a very compressed amount of time, simply because the judge who was in charge of it, this Justice Paul Rouleau, got sick. And so, he missed more than a month of the planned hearings. When he came back, they heard all the witnesses they were going to hear, and they had long, long days. 10, 12 hour days, hearing witnesses at length, questioned both by the Commission’s own council and by lawyers representing all the different parties — the protestors, citizens of Ottawa, the various governments. It was a very intense look at decision-making in a moment of chaos. That’s what I found interesting as I set out to write this short book.
TH: You were in Ottawa during the convoy crisis. You covered the hearings. As you just mentioned, you’re writing this book on the Commission. You recently wrote on your Substack that you remain unpersuaded by some of Rouleau’s reasoning. How so?
PW: Yeah. So I think special laws to impose order in a public order emergency should be used sparingly and reluctantly. And in this case, I think that the police were finally getting their act together and were in a good position to finally make some progress against the convoy protestors without the use of the act. So I think it would’ve been useful to give some more time. In the end, hundreds of people had charges put pressed against them in the wake of the convoy, but none of those charges were under the public order emergency provisions. In other words, all of the charges after the convoy were ordinary criminal charges that didn’t require the Emergencies Act. Which is part of what leads me to think that — I’m still not convinced that we actually needed the Emergencies Act.
That being said, the police were just a hell of a mess. I’m writing now the chapter on the police during the crisis, and it was a tremendously chaotic, contradictory response. What I also said in my piece was, even though I disagree with Paul Rouleau on the central question at hand, I have a hard time getting too riled up about it. Because, in the end, the use of the Act was very limited.
TH: I have concerns about what this means for Canada going forward. I was very convinced by a recent op-ed in The Globe and Mail by University of Toronto law professor Daniel Schneiderman. As you say, these are extraordinary last resort powers. It sets a troubling precedent. But I do have to say, I did find Justice Rouleau — the report reads is pretty fair and pretty even handed. And I do think it goes away to establishing how dynamic and volatile and chaotic these protests could be. Let’s talk about the context. Rouleau makes a pointed effort to talk about the roots of this populist uprising, including economic marginalization, social anxiety, and distrust in institutions. This line really stands out: “Covid-19 measures, for example, were seen by some as rules imposed, by a political elite, that inflicted terrible economic harms on working people.” What do you make of his analysis?
PW: I share his analysis. And it almost doesn’t matter whether I think that these were to horrible restrictions that imposed economic hardship. What matters is that there were an awful large number of people who did feel that way, and no government was going to change their mind. It turns out that when you paint all those people into a corner, some of them respond badly. And that’s a dynamic that governments, I think, in the future, should simply keep in mind.
One thing I’m going to do in this book is go through a fairly extended history of vaccine skepticism. Going back as far as there have been vaccines. I myself think these vaccines were useful, that they worked as needed, and that they did not cause substantial extra fatalities. But what we’ve seen is that throughout the history of vaccinations, there are people who, for different reasons at different times, don’t trust them. So again, I don’t think it actually helps governments to designate these people who disagree as the out-group, and essentially radicalized them.
There’s two personalities who responded very differently to this whole thing. One was French president Emmanuel Macron, who was a substantial influence on Trudeau in his handling of the pandemic. Macron was the guy who said, “We’re not going to require vaccinations, but we’re going to forbid access to most public activities to people who don’t have vaccinations.” That was the idea of vaccine passports to get into restaurants, cultural activities, concerts, and so on. Macron memorably says at one point that he wanted to piss off the non-vaccinated people. A lot of people had a good laugh over that. Well, it turns out when you piss people off, they get pissed off. I think that’s a lesson to take in the future.
Then the other figure who I wasn’t sure I agreed with at the time was Francois Legault, the premier of Quebec. He was on the verge of imposing a health contribution tax on people who refused to be vaccinated, another measure to try and coerce people into getting vaccinated. He cancelled that measure because the convoy had occupied Ottawa, and there were other protestors who were heading for Quebec City. He said at the time, “I am not going to go ahead with this thing because I don’t want to increasingly marginalize non-vaccinated people.” At the time, I wasn’t sure I bought the wisdom of it. But I’ll tell you, it looks smarter and smarter as time goes by.
Make vaccines available to all. Strongly encourage everyone to get vaccinated. Do public awareness campaigns, whatever you want to do. But as soon as you start to ostracize people for not getting vaccinated, I’m not sure that the tiny incremental gains in vaccination rates are worth the social strife that you’re almost inevitably creating. Rouleau says that he came to his conclusions reluctantly. That’s a conclusion that I’ve reached reluctantly.
TH: I was against the vaccine mandates and throughout the pandemic, the mail that I got from people and the way that strifes between families, between coworkers — I think it really did a lot of harm, in terms of social cohesion in this country. It’s troubling. I want to talk for a moment about misinformation. Justice Rouleau makes an interesting distinction about misinformation, that you have drawn attention to, that the truckers could be both victims of it and spreaders of it. Rouleau talks about victims in the sense that media coverage often amplified the small extremist element. One of the examples he gives is the arson — which we know was not connected to the protestors. Rouleau noted that while most protestors were not violent, they were disruptive. What role do you think media mischaracterization contributed to this crisis?
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