A Canadian court found that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s use of the country’s Emergencies Act to end a truck convoy protest that had paralyzed the capital, Ottawa, two years ago was an unjustified infringement of civil rights, including the protection against unreasonable search and seizure, and, in some instances, the freedom of expression as well.
The Federal Court of Canada decision also found that the freezing of bank accounts of people linked to the protest was similarly unjustified, but it dismissed arguments that the government had violated a variety of other rights, including those linked to peaceful assembly.
The decision, which will be appealed, was the first instance of a court delivering a rebuke to Mr. Trudeau over his handling of the protest, which began on Jan. 28, 2022, and continued for much of February, inspiring copycat protests in other provinces, including Alberta and British Columbia, as well as in France.
The protests in Ottawa, which were initially incited by a Covid vaccine mandate for cross-border truckers, rendered most of the city’s downtown streets impassable, clogging them with parked trucks. Six days after Mr. Trudeau’s government introduced the emergency powers, an enormous force of police officers from across the country finished clearing the streets. About 230 people were arrested during the protest.
In his decision, Judge Richard G. Mosley wrote that while the protests “reflected an unacceptable breakdown of public order,” the government did not meet various tests for using the emergency law, which expanded police powers to, among other things, compel tow truck drivers to help clear the streets.
Judge Mosley said that evidence from the two civil rights groups that brought the lawsuit against the government persuaded him that the “decision to issue the proclamation does not bear the hallmarks of reasonableness — justification, transparency and intelligibility — and was not justified in relation to the relevant factual and legal constraints.”
“The harassment of residents, workers and business owners in downtown Ottawa and the general infringement of the right to peaceful enjoyment of public spaces there, while highly objectionable, did not amount to serious violence or threats of serious violence,” he wrote, noting that even a blockade where police said they found an arms cache was resolved peacefully. “The harm being caused to Canada’s economy, trade and commerce was very real and concerning but it did not constitute threats or the use of serious violence to persons or property.”
The court decision could be largely symbolic. It’s unclear whether it will allow people affected by the Emergencies Act, including those who had their bank accounts frozen, to bring lawsuits against the government and be awarded damages, said Ewa Krajewska, a civil litigator who argued on behalf of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. And criminal prosecutions, which were not brought under the Emergencies Act, won’t be affected.
Chrystia Freeland, the deputy prime minister, said the government will appeal the ruling.
“I would just like to take a moment to remind Canadians of how serious the situation was in our country when we took that decision,” Ms. Freeland told reporters in Montreal.
Pierre Poilievre, the leader of the Conservative opposition who brought coffee and doughnuts to the protesters during the blockade, condemned Mr. Trudeau on X, writing that he “broke the highest law in the land with the Emergencies Act.”
He added that Mr. Trudeau “caused the crisis by dividing people. Then he violated Charter rights to illegally suppress citizens.” The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which protects the rights of free speech and others, is part of the country’s Constitution.
“The invocation of the Emergencies Act is one of the worst examples of government overreach during the pandemic,” Joanna Baron, executive director of the Canadian Constitution Foundation, said in a statement. The Calgary-based organization, which has supported libertarian causes, joined with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and several people involved in the protest to bring the court challenge.
They argued, successfully, that the government should not have used the act and that it had breached the rights of Canadians against unreasonable search and seizure.
But the decision largely rejected some of their other assertions, including that the protesters’ freedom of assembly and to travel and their rights to expression had been violated — although the judge did say that protesters who were not occupying streets or disobeying other laws did have their freedom of expression rights infringed.
Speaking on behalf of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, Ms. Krajewska said the group is “very pleased with a decision that provides a robust framework for when the Act should be invoked in the future.” She added: “They think it’s a win for democracy and they think it’s a win for the rule of law.”
After getting the approval of Parliament, the government used the emergency measure for eight days before revoking it once the streets of Ottawa were cleared.
Last February, an Ontario Court of Appeal Judge reached a conclusion that contradicted the findings of Judge Mosley while conducting a legislatively mandated public inquiry. That inquiry concluded that the government was right to use emergency powers to end the blockade, given the breakdown in police efforts and a lack of political coordination.