OTTAWA—Prime Minister’s Office officials say the former Conservative interim leader Candice Bergen told the prime minister there would be “significant concerns” to consider in meeting with convoy participants, a public inquiry heard Thursday.
That statement contradicts Bergen’s recollection of a call with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, she said in a statement sent to the Star.
Bergen made frequent public statements throughout the convoy protests last winter, blaming Trudeau for failing to meet with demonstrators to defuse tensions and resolve the blockades.
The PMO assertion came in a summary of an interview given by four top Trudeau advisers with lawyers supporting Justice Paul Rouleau, who is leading a public inquiry into the declaration of the Emergencies Act.
Justin Trudeau’s deputy chief of staff Brian Clow told inquiry lawyers in an interview on Oct. 11 that on Feb. 3, in the sixth day of the protests that gridlocked downtown Ottawa, chief of staff Katie Telford wondered if Bergen, then-newly named Opposition leader, could help engage with those involved in the protests.
Trudeau called Bergen that same day, the summary said, and Telford recalled that during the call Bergen “acknowledged that there were significant concerns about whom the federal government could engage with and setting a bad precedent.”
Telford was not questioned about that particular aspect of her evidence during testimony Thursday.
The Star reached out to Bergen to clarify if that accurately reflected her comments at a time when she and the Conservatives were hammering Trudeau.
She said, “my recollection of that conversation was that the PM called me to congratulate me on becoming the leader. That was the purpose of the call.”
“We spoke about a number of things including his and his family’s health, Ukraine, taxes and the protest. I asked him if he would consider reaching out and extending an olive branch to the people who had come to Ottawa. He said he didn’t want to set a precedent by speaking to protesters in that way.”
That reflects a statement sent out at the time by the Conservative party about the call.
The Canadian Press obtained an email written by Bergen on Jan. 31 to fellow MPs, in which she told some of her colleagues the Conservatives should try and make the protests the prime minister’s “problem.”
“I don’t think we should be asking them to go home,” Bergen’s email said.
She added: “I understand the mood may shift soon. So we need to turn this into the (prime minister’s) problem. What will he take (as) the first step to working towards ending this?”
On Jan. 31, Conservative MP Marilyn Gladu posted a photo on Facebook of her and Bergen at a restaurant “sitting over pizza and drinks” with two truckers in the protests.
Bergen was elected as interim Conservative leader on Feb. 2, after caucus voted to dump Erin O’Toole as party leader.
Although the Liberal government has insisted at the inquiry it was exploring all options to resolve the blockades, according to evidence at the inquiry, Telford had concerns about a so-called “engagement proposal” brought forward on Feb. 11 that would have seen unnamed federal officials and the Ontario solicitor general meet with protesters if they denounced the convoy and left.
It was supported by the federal deputy public safety minister, an OPP inspector and the then-solicitor general Sylvia Jones.
But Telford told inquiry lawyers it wasn’t really a plan at all because there was no clarity on which federal official would meet, which convoy leader would be involved, and because one such attempt had failed at Windsor “because there was no desire on the part of those involved in the blockade to engage with police.”
Telford also said the negotiation attempted by the City of Ottawa with some of the protesters fell apart soon after it was reached. Telford said there were lots of people throwing out names of who could engage with the protesters, including MPs from other parties whom she didn’t name. She says these proposals never got off the ground, for various reasons.
Telford said no one could say who in the protests they would speak to, and what they could do, which is why engagement never became a real solution.
Telford said there’s a difference “between engagement and negotiation,” and the government “wasn’t prepared to negotiate public health measures that were rooted in science.”
“It wasn’t clear what this engagement strategy would be, let alone if it could have any effect,” she said.
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