As Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland tells it, Brian Deese is a hard man to get a hold of.
So when US President Joe Biden’s senior economic adviser requested a call with her on Feb. 10 about the ongoing border blockades, Freeland said she knew the stakes were high.
“That was a dangerous moment for Canada, I felt,” the deputy prime minister tested Thursday before the Emergencies Act inquiry.
“That one conversation was a seminal one for me. And it was a moment when I realized it was a country, somehow, we had to find a way to bring this to an end,” she said.
Freeland is appearing before the Public Order Emergency Commission as it reviews the government’s decision to invoke the Emergencies Act Feb. 14 to clear anti-public health measures of protests in Ottawa and deter border blockades.
At various points in early 2022, protesters blockaded border crossings in Windsor, Ont., the small town of Coutts, Alta., Emerson, Man., and the Pacific Highway in Surrey, BC.
Freeland said after her call with Deese, the US director of the National Economic Council, she knew the blockades had set off an “amber light flashing” in the US of supply chain vulnerabilities with Canada.
She said she was worried the blockades would tip the balance in the favor of Democrats and Republicans who favor protectionist trade policy.
“It wasn’t just the immediate damage, it wasn’t just the immediate harm. It wasn’t, ‘Oh, you know, this plant loses four days of operation,'” Freeland said Thursday.
“The danger was, we were in the process as a country, of doing long-term and possibly irreparable harm to our trading relationship with the United States.”
The government cited the risk to Canada’s economic security when it invoked the Emergencies Act last winter.
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Transport Canada estimates the blockade at the Ambassador Bridge, a key corridor, brought an estimated $2.3 billion in trade to a standstill.
The commission has already heard that during the convoy protest the federal government was trying to convince the United States to scrap a plan that would exclude electric vehicles assembled in Canada from a proposed consumer tax credit, which would give an advantage to companies manufacturing electric cars on US soil.
Freeland called it “life or death” for Canada’s auto industry.
Freeland to face questions about account freezing
As the minister of finance, Freeland is likely to also field questions about the economic impacts of the protests and the decision to give authorities emergency powers to freeze the finances of those connected to the protests.
Data presented to the inquiry last week suggested that approximately 280 bank accounts with approximately $8 million in assets were frozen due to the emergency measures.
Isabelle Jacques, assistant deputy minister at the Department of Finance, told the inquiry that the goal of freezing assets was to deter people from joining the illegal protests and motivate others to return home.
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But Brendan Miller, a lawyer for some of the protest organizers, argued under cross-examination that the order to freeze accounts was an act of overreach and halting fundraising on crowdfunding platforms breached Canadians’ right to freedom of expression.
Several members of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s staff are also set to testify Thursday, including Katie Telford, Trudeau’s chief of staff. Telford will be joined by chief deputy of staff Brian Clow and Trudeau’s director of policy John Brodhead.
The three staff members will offer a rare glimpse into the inner workings of the Prime Minister’s Office and will likely face questions about the deliberations that went into the invocation of the Emergencies Act.