Organizers said they would not end their protest until all pandemic-related public health measures were dropped.
After three weeks of protests, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau invoked the Emergency Act to deal with the blockades. It was the first time the law had ever been used, and it was invoked even though there were plenty of other laws on the books to deal with peaceful protests. It was a classic example of using a machete when a scalpel would have worked just fine.
The Act gave the Canadian government broad powers to restore order, ranging from placing significant limits on peaceful assembly, to prohibiting travel, to requiring financial institutions to turn over personal financial information to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and freezing the bank accounts of protestors and anyone who helped them.
The Act also gave the government broad authority over businesses, such as dragooning private tow truck companies to provide services against their will. Insurance companies were required to revoke insurance on any vehicles used in blockades.
The Emergency Act is only supposed to be invoked in a genuine crisis, such as in wartime. The War Measures Act, its predecessor, was last invoked under the current prime minister’s father, Pierre Trudeau, in response to the 1970 October Crisis, when a group of militant separatists who wanted to create an independent socialist Quebec engaged in numerous bombings and kidnapped and murdered a cabinet minister.
There is a very real difference between invoking a law against violent terrorists using it to combat a largely peaceful protest by Canadian citizens tired of COVID-19 restrictions and lockdowns.
Riot gear-clad Ottawa police, with provincial and federal help, towed dozens of vehicles that were blocking Ottawa’s downtown streets, retaking control of the area around Parliament buildings, and using pepper spray and stun grenades to remove demonstrators. Ottawa’s streets are now back to normal; there is only snow and silence in the country’s capital.
All this could have been done under existing law. As Alberta Premier Jason Kenney put it, “We have all the legal tools and operational resources required to maintain order.” Put simply, the prime minister could have restored and maintained public order without marginalizing substantial segments of the population.
Trudeau, born and bred elite, first described the truckers as a fringe minority who held “unacceptable” racist and misogynist views. He refused to meet the protesters or negotiate with them, and he was not interested in hearing about the mandates’ impact on their lives. Many of these truckers had spent the last two years keeping the supply chain running.
Instead of finding ways to defuse the situation, Mr. Trudeau issued the emergency order, which he called a “last resort.” After a conservative member of Parliament and descendant of Holocaust survivors asked him tough questions about his handling of the truckers’ protest, Trudeau denounced conservatives who “stand with people who wave swastikas and confederate flags.” These comments came from someone who spent his youth wearing blackface.
The role of government is to maintain public order while respecting civil liberties, including the right to peaceful assembly. Many protests are disruptive and often unlawful, so it is reasonable to impose limits on the right to assemble.
But a real leader and statesperson would have gone to the protesters and said: “I’m here. What do you want to say?” Seeking out and meeting with protesters and pursuing dialogue is a far more strategic way to restore the rule of law than imposing martial law.