Trudeau defends vax mandates, Emergencies Act decision, in interview

Justin Trudeau says people who chose not to be vaccinated against COVID-19 must accept the consequences of those decisions, including lost employment and restricted access to transportation and other services.

“It was their choice and nobody ever was going to force anyone into doing something they don’t want to do,” the prime minister said in an interview with CBC Radio’s The House airing on Saturday. 

“But there are consequences when you don’t. You cannot choose to put at risk your co-workers. You cannot choose to put at risk the people sitting beside you on an airplane,” Trudeau said before leaving for international summits in Africa and Europe.

Federal vaccine mandates played a major role in last fall’s election campaign and proved to be a focus of public anger earlier this year that contributed to the occupation of downtown Ottawa and blockades at border crossings in four provinces.

More protests are planned in the nation’s capital over the Canada Day long weekend even though the federal government lifted most of the restrictions this week.

Trudeau spoke at length during The House interview about the unrest, how his government responded to it and whether his own comments referring to the protesters coming to Ottawa as a “small fringe minority” holding “unacceptable views” contributed to the anger.

“No. I will always call out unacceptable rhetoric and hateful language wherever I see it,” he said, insisting his remarks in January were never intended for the vaccine-hesitant, but for those he believes were deliberately spreading misinformation and disinformation.

“Now, unfortunately, with … our modern social media and communications world, that was picked up and conflated and extended on. And I’m not going to start to say I was taken out of context, but my point was that there are people who are deliberately trying to stir up hate and intolerance and misinformation,” he added.

“And we do need to call out those folks even as we continue to do everything we can to reach out in thoughtful, reasonable ways to people who do have worries or concerns and focus on allaying those worries and concerns.”

Trudeau on taking divisive positions

There’s more than a bit of Pierre Trudeau in Justin Trudeau the longer he’s in office. There’s no public second-guessing and, increasingly, no regrets. Like his father, the younger Trudeau isn’t inclined to shrink from a political fight, including over his decision to invoke the Emergencies Act.

The prime minister argued in the interview that using the powers in the act did nothing to block free speech or peaceful assembly. The line was drawn, he said when it was clear to the government that this was an illegal occupation.

He compared his decision to end the protests, and the language he used to condemn those advocating illegal actions, to criticism of his decision that every Liberal candidate must endorse a woman’s right to choose.

“Well, I got accused of being divisive on that because people who believe deeply in being anti-abortion were therefore excluded from my perspective on this,” he said.

“Any time you’re going to take a strong position, especially one that is contested in society, there are going to be people who feel that you are strong against them. And what you have to do every step of the time as a leader is figuring out whether or not it is worth the division to stand up for something that you know is right, and whether it’s women’s rights or the freedom of people to be protected during a pandemic.”

Chris Hall, CBC’s national affairs editor and host of The House on CBC Radio, virtually interviews Prime Minister Justin Trudeau from his home at Rideau Cottage in Ottawa on Monday, June 20. (Philip Ling/CBC)

Formal reviews are now underway into the reasons behind the decision to invoke the Emergencies Act for the first time. And as with the decision itself, these hearings are not without controversy or drama.

Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino told the parliamentary committee in April that the act was invoked on the advice of police. Since then two other cabinet members, Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair and Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland told the same committee they didn’t hear recommendations from police to enact the Emergencies Act.

“I’m not aware of any recommendation of law enforcement,” Blair said.

Trudeau was asked who was right.

“We had a range of advice from Justice. From Public Safety. From various areas,” he said. “But if you think about the specific tools, one of the concrete complaints was tow truck drivers weren’t willing to send in their rigs at the cost of being outed or harassed by these protesters.”

Was that what tipped the balance?

“Well, no.. I said, ‘Okay. What are the tools to get tow truck drivers to do that?’ And we saw that one of the only tools we had that was going to be effective in the timeframe necessary was to bring in the Emergencies Act.”

Opposition MPs are demanding full access to the decision-making process before the act was invoked. But witnesses, including RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki and CSIS Director David Vigneault, have told them they don’t have the power to disclose their conversations or advice to the cabinet.

“I can’t speak specifically to any advice that was done in a cabinet,” Lucki told the committee last month when pressed whether her force had suggested the act be enforced.

She also deferred when asked if situational reports on what was happening would be publicly released, saying those reports belong to the government.

The prime minister told The House that the government will release those situational reports and what he called “the reality that we were facing across the country.”

But demands that he waive the long-standing practice of maintaining cabinet confidentiality will not be met, he said, to ensure ministers have the confidence to speak freely on matters of national importance.

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