Photo: Maksim Sokolov, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Few events have provoked as much activity on the Inroads listserv as the occupation of downtown Ottawa in late January and February. Some participants in the discussion were on the scene in Ottawa; others observed from a distance. Taken together, their contributions constitute a running commentary on what is likely to be remembered as a defining event in Canada’s political life, whatever one’s perspective on it. What follows is a small sample of the discussion.
Philip Resnick | February 7
A History Lesson
As the blockade enters its second full week,
we discover, naive Canadians that we are,
that things are not nearly what we thought they were,
disdainful of Americans with their take no prisoners politics as we’ve been,
of Europeans who’ve so often proven their inability to get along,
of Latin Americans who’ve never quite figured out where things went wrong,
of the Chinese with their new model imperial dynasty.
Instead, we find ourselves stumbling as we go,
warily aware that the ties that bind this country together
are as thin as gossamer,
that city folk and country folk live in silos apart,
that endless harping on individual rights
can prove the bane of a functioning democracy,
that our leaders, in the crunch,
scurry to the nearest rabbit hole,
that this country proves just as problematic in governance
as the ones we’ve scorned.
Reg Whitaker | February 12
As the obscene spectacle of the Trumpist insurrection in Ottawa, Windsor etc. continues in the face of pathetic rhetoric and abject surrender by so-called policing and civil authorities, I have been increasingly struck by the generally unremarked hypocrisy that infects both right and left over protest that becomes civil disobedience that morphs into interference with the rights and safety of others and finally into outright insurrection.
There is a line dividing, on the one hand, dissent that can be accommodated by a liberal democracy from, on the other hand, forms of activism that erase that line and undermine liberal democracy itself. When the authorities style themselves as liberal and tolerant of free speech, which is of course admirable, they should be careful to note that exact line and be quick to bring to a halt “protest” actions that run over that line and threaten others and the community at large. In this case the authorities have largely abandoned any efforts to enforce respect for that line, with serious consequences for the practice of liberal democracy in the future. The lesson for any other group of people seized with self-righteous zeal about the truth of their cause, whatever it might be, is obviously “go for it.” Who cares about the collateral damage to innocent third parties or the democratic constitutional process, when the authorities will crumble in the face of your determination and selfish zealotry?
Just prior to the pandemic we had a dry run of today, only from the alleged left, in the “shut down Canada” campaign on behalf of a group of hereditary chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en opposed to the Coastal Gas Link pipeline that ended in rail and road blockades across the country. The Conservative Party then demanded blood and denounced the namby-pamby hands-off liberal response of the Trudeau government. They might have made major political gains out of this, but the pandemic intervened, shutting down the shutdowns. Today, of course, with a right-wing cause to champion, the Conservatives have hypocritically moved 180 degrees to a far-right support of the insurrectionist stance.
But leftists who demand that Trudeau Jr. emulate his father in the October Crisis and bring down maximum force on the “freedom” insurrectionists were often praising defiance of the law in “shut down Canada” two years ago. Hypocrites all.
Worse, there are ongoing defiance of the law environmental protests that continue apace with the “truckers’” mob. At Fairy Creek on Vancouver Island, near where I live, there has been an ongoing attempt, in defiance of a legal injunction, to blockade logging roads, demanding an end all old-growth logging immediately and forever, at whatever cost to the workers and communities affected by such a ban. More importantly, this is also against the express views of the two First Nations on whose lands the protests have been taking place, who have both demanded the protesters leave. The B.C. NDP government is trying to work with First Nations on whose lands logging has been taking place to develop Indigenous plans for logging, but the protesters dismiss this out of hand.
It is surely time for responsible people on all sides of the ideological divides to rein in their zealot colleagues and redraw the line that separates lawful protest and dissent and legitimate civil disobedience from actions that disrespect the constitutional process and endanger the health and safety of others. That means that when the line is crossed, authority steps in and disciplines the lawbreakers. It matters not at all whether you agree or disagree with the aims of the protestors – all that matters is the legitimacy or illegitimacy of their actions.
Frances Abele | February 12
Reg, I often agree with you and here see your point, but tonight it is very hard for me to focus on this issue. Downtown Ottawa is a long way from young environmentalists blocking roads. It’s mayhem. Food stores have been overrun by maskless gangs and have been forced to shut. Pedestrians continue to be harassed. Many of you will have heard about the arson attempt a few days back. Tonight on Bank Street a resident spotted two individuals testing whether using handcuffs would work to lock the doors on an apartment building. Fuel is being openly carried to vehicles and generators on Wellington and other streets. It’s one big dance party, with an edge of hostility coming from some yelling “Freedom” from the back of pickup trucks.
Of course I don’t know that the arsonists are part of the invasion mob – or who obeys which of the six reported “organizers.” What I can say is that it appears that members of the Ottawa Police Service are aiding and abetting them. So, really, what else can the people live here do, but ask for federal aid that gets around the “command” of the Ottawa Police Service. As far as I can see, that’s the Emergencies Act. Any other suggestions?
Reg Whitaker | February 12
Ottawa is indeed in chaos and insurrection and, yes, absolutely a public order emergency should be invoked under the Emergencies Act, since the excuse for a police force have surrendered or are complicit with the insurrectionary mob. That the Prime Minister will not do so is appalling. Apparently he wants no more to be a real PM than the Ottawa police want to police.
My only point was to suggest there is a more widespread complicity in this breakdown of civility, order and the rule of law than today’s headlines would indicate.
André Binette | February 12
If Trudeau does not invoke the Emergencies Act within three days, he will completely lose control. The Ottawa police chief is clearly in over his head. This is actually worse than the October Crisis. The FLQ were a handful of amateurs. This is much more organized and widespread.
Gareth Morley | February 13
While the protests are a nuisance – in both the legal and the ordinary sense – it is over the top to compare them to kidnapping a foreign diplomat and killing a senior member of the elected government.
André Binette | February 13
The FLQ never talked about overthrowing a democratically elected government and they never bore swastikas. They did not use children as human shields. They did not have an irrational view of science.
Although the violent methods they used were unacceptable, they had some public support because they denounced serious and verifiable social injustice. Cries of freedom in this case are far less credible.
I think it is over the top to deny these basic differences.
Frances Abele | February 13
It’s true, thank goodness, that no one has been kidnapped and killed yet. But what is happening here is much more than a nuisance.
It’s true that the crowds have often been cheerful – BBQs, hot tubs, music, etc. But the angry bully boys are there too; people have been harassed and spat upon. As far as one can tell from close outside observation, there are some very bad people blended in. I wish I could estimate the proportion, but I don’t really have a basis for that.
Ottawa is a small city. Lots of people – including, by design, low- income people and recent immigrants – live near Parliament Hill. There have been semi-trailer tractors blocking their streets for over a week, idling and sounding their air horns virtually all night. Imagine being a frail senior or a recently arrived family with small children. Small businesses have closed because their staff are being menaced, sometimes with racist slurs. People who cannot afford to lose even a week’s pay have been unable to work for much longer – this is Week Three. There is a pretty widespread impression growing among people who live here that the police will not protect us.
Numerous spokespeople for the occupiers – and they have tended to be the rightwing ones – insist that they are not leaving until their demands are met.
So what do you suggest?
I am sure that in the longer term some sort of effective dialogue needs to be cultivated. Maybe not with the Proud Boys etc. (outside my wheelhouse to know how that could work), but clearly there are hundreds of other people who have joined them in Ottawa because they wanted to. I think they look so happy because they feel solidarity and they feel heard. The consistent slogan is “freedom.” Why do they feel like they don’t have it? Why are they not troubled by the uglier aspects of the message? Why is it so exhilarating to cause so much pain to fellow citizens? It’s complicated and very frightening.
Philip Resnick | February 13
The kidnappings of both James Cross and Pierre Laporte were serious threats to constituted authority, whatever André Binette may believe. Was the reaction of the Trudeau gouvernement excessive? The War Measures Act was a heavy weapon to wield, and 400 or so were caught up in the arrests that followed. But Pierre Laporte was murdered, and it took months for the authorities to finally track down the house where Cross was being kept and work out the deal which allowed the kidnappers exile in Cuba in exchange for Cross’s release.
As a graduate student at the University of Toronto at the time, I was passionately opposed to the proclamation of the WMA. But with hindsight, I note two things: (1) There was no attempt to prevent the pursuit of sovereignty by nonviolent means. Indeed, the Parti Québécois went on to win the 1976 election, and subsequently those of 1981, 1994, 1998 and 2012. (2) Two referendums were held, one in 1980 the other in 1995, with the PQ government determining the question, though with the fate of Canada as a whole on the line. And the federal government and the country as a whole went along with this.
In short, if Quebec is not independent today, it is not for lack of trying by the PQ and others, nor because of the proclamation of the WMA during the October Crisis.
None of this is meant to excuse the shocking lack of leadership to date by Justin Trudeau and the federal government in the trucker convoy challenge that has paralyzed downtown Ottawa for over two weeks as well as the major border crossing between Alberta and the United States. I wish he had a quarter of the backbone of his father.
André Binette | February 13
As a young man at the elite French-speaking Montreal college his father also attended, Justin Trudeau would have encountered young men and women who expressed resentment at Trudeau the Elder’s actions. He would have also likely seen a film celebrated in Québec, called Les Ordres, which has contributed to shaping collective memory of the October Cisis. That film is about the imprisonment, without any accusation of wrongdoing, of nonviolent artists and intellectuals.
There are about 200 survivors from that dark period. There are now mythical stories about their time in prison. I heard many harrowing tales. I was part of a team of lawyers who sought recognition of wrongdoing by the federal government in Superior Court in Montreal last fall. It so happened that the judge, who is considered a safe pair of hands by the federal Department of Justice in sensitive cases, was a former teenage friend of mine in Ottawa. He was exceedingly courteous and commiserating, striking just the right note, but of course the result was expected. He would not turn his court into a historical commission of inquiry into federal state secrets.
Frances Abele | February 13
What happened this weekend in Ottawa:
1. There is labour action. The Ottawa District Labour Council and the Public Service Alliance, along with several community groups, organized a counter-protest march on Saturday. Looked like a couple of thousand people. No violence.
2. This morning a truck convoy left the occupiers’ baseball stadium camp, planning to join the protest on the Hill by driving north on Bank Street. They were stopped by 25 community people (a dog-walking group) standing on the road at Bank and Riverside. Those people tweeted asking for support, and within a couple of hours there were over 1,000 people. The convoy-stopping group were polite and firm. They spoke to people in each of the convoy vehicles, and within a few hours had convinced all of them to go home, after surrending their gas cans, flags and decals. Apparently some of the people in that convoy had no idea that the protest was not supported by Ottawa residents. The counter-protesters also explained their concerns to the police who were standing around. Early on, the police told the counter-protesters to get off the road. They said no, politely, and raised the issues we have all had with the failure of police to protect people in Ottawa. Politely. Eventually the police worked with the counter-protesters to allow convoy vehicles to leave once they surrendered their flags etc. and promised not to join the demonstration by Parliament Hill.
3. Saturday night on Wellington Street and area was party time – mayhem as usual. Drinking, loud music, dancing, with no permits, of course, for any of it.
4. Our mayor, apparently acting on his own initiative, negotiated a crazy deal with Tamara Lich, one of the occupation leaders, under which the occupiers would be allowed to stay on Wellington if they moved off the residential streets. Not sure this will happen, as (a) there is no more room on Wellington for more trucks, and (b) Lich is already calling “the media” and Watson liars and apparently walking away from the deal.
5. We were all spooked by the news out of Peterborough that a truckload of guns (no bullets apparently) was stolen.
6. Let me repeat – the trucks and all the rowdiness are on Wellington, right in front of Parliament Hill, the PMO, etc.
7. It is extremely hard to know what is up with the Ottawa police, except that clearly they are not vigorously protecting us.
Harvey Schachter | February 14
Justin Trudeau, for all his fiery rhetoric and relatively quick response to the pandemic, has been a cautious prime minister. We’re still waiting for a decision on Huawei 5G, even though it would be easy to give. He had a lot of pressure from wise Liberals to concede on Ming but he let things play out.
He does let things play out.
He falls back, when not on political rhetoric, on process, and there are process issues here. The War Measures Act was formally requested by the Mayor of Montreal and Premier of Quebec. A protest has due process requirements; an insurrection, less so. But hot tubs at an insurrection?
I have been thinking of Mackenzie King in recent years as I watch Trudeau. I remain fond of Frank Scott’s poem:
The height of his ambition
Was to pile a Parliamentary Committee on a Royal Commission,
To have “conscription if necessary
But not necessarily conscription”,
To let Parliament decide –
Not quite Trudeau. Different people, different times. But Trudeau in action usually seems more W.L.M.K. than Pierre Trudeau, although Pierre Trudeau knew how to stall as well.
In the late afternoon of February 14, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced at a specially called press conference that the Emergencies Act was being invoked.
Frances Abele | February 14
I’ve been listening to the press conference. Strikes me as a measured response. All over Ottawa, I hear sighs of relief. Citizens here have been calling for cutting off the funding and insurance for over two weeks.
I find myself in the odd position of appreciating Brian Mulroney (who is responsible for the new Act) and Justin Trudeau for judicious use of it. Maybe the only day in my life this has happened. I guess an occupation will do that to you.
Philip Resnick | February 14
His Father’s Son
F.R. Scott famously wrote,
“Do nothing by halves,
Which can be done by quarters.”
This of a man
who had promised a version of medicare back in 1919
and delivered only dribs and drabs
of social reform
during his long tenure in office.
And what might one say about J.T.,
who waited weeks and weeks
as the occupation festered
and border crossings were besieged
before finally acting,
but still afraid to let the military
play even a minor role?
“Why be half his father,
when a quarter would suffice?”
Reg Whitaker | February 15
Despite complaints from civil libertarians, leftists and environmentalists warning of an alleged slippery slope to authoritarianism, the government has offered what I take to be a reasonable rationale for proclaiming a public order emergency. The conditions are all met and the threat level takes on real meaning with the arrests and seizure of an arsenal of weaponry at the Coutts crossing. The so-called Freedom Convoy has a political or ideological agenda it seeks to impose upon Canada by threatening force if necessary, in the course of which it has already inflicted huge economic losses, not to speak of terrorizing and intimidating citizens of Ottawa. Local police have proved utterly inadequate or unwilling to cope with the challenge (the resignation today of the Ottawa police chief confirms this) and extraordinary federal powers are required to compel everyone from the police to towing contractors to simply do their job, which they have signally failed to do so far.
Gareth Morley | February 15
I don’t want to weigh in on any legal issues. I question the strategy though. What the government should be doing is splitting the extremists from the mass of people who dislike Trudeau and want to see the mandates loosen. This seemed to be happening but this declaration will almost certainly reverse that. It will vindicate the extremists in their fantasy about holding back a totalitarian government and legitimize that fantasy among the 30 per cent or so of Canadians susceptible to it. I can’t see what has been gained to make that worth it.
Frances Abele | February 15
Gareth, I think Reg is right. If you had been in Ottawa for the last 19 days, you would know why it was necessary. The police were not enforcing the law. There is lots of confusion about why and no doubt blame belongs on several heads. At this point I don’t care. To get the people who are terrorizing the downtown communities out of the city, a credible force was needed. Because of the powers Reg mentions, the solution need not be violent. Cutting off the money and insurance will help a lot.
I agree we also need to think about the aftermath, and especially understand better why the people who poured into the city each weekend to support the hard core were motivated enough to do that. It seems that they just don’t believe the news – not Global, not CTV, not CBC and certainly not me. They have been schooled in suspicion and mistrust. We really are toast as a democracy if we can’t find a way out of this.
Gareth Morley | February 15
I would like to understand how this is worse than, say, the Stanley Cup hockey riots in Vancouver. It was important to react to those in a way that didn’t make things worse afterwards. The B.C. government tried to come up with punishments that involved accountability but weren’t criminogenic.
The convoy was splitting and was losing its support among the much larger group that dislikes the mandates and thinks Justin Trudeau is the face of a woke authoritarianism that disdains them. I don’t think you have to share this perspective to understand it. I just fear that order was winning and Trudeau threw that away for a performative political victory.
Arthur Milner | February 15
Over the years, I haven’t seen many comments denouncing Trudeau for authoritarianism. More likely elitism (wokeness?) and insults that imply vacuity, inexperience and weakness. To some people, there is no greater insult than “drama teacher.”
He’s now being called authoritarian and the like for bringing in “heavy-handed legislation” against “peaceful protesters.” But in the long run, which accusation is more damaging to democratic government – weakness and an inability to maintain order; or authoritarianism?
Reg Whitaker | February 15
You are stretching an analogy well past the breaking point.
The Stanley Cup riot was a one-off tied to an a single event, the Canucks losing to Boston. Like January 6, these convoys are a scattered, ragged but semi-organized insurrection set on overthrowing government (that’s what they have said repeatedly). As with January 6, despite their patent inability to actually pull off a violent revolution, they (a) may well try again, perhaps with better organization, if not stopped dead now; (b) pose an intolerable burden of intimidation and fear on the majority of the population they have targeted; and (c) can inflict multibillion-dollar damage on the economy if their blockades continue and grow. For all these reasons, it was straightforward for Vancouver police to go easy and assume the rioters would return to being relatively law-abiding citizens in the days following. No such assumptions can be made about the politicized wingnuts of 2022.
Nor have I never heard that any of the Vancouver rioters were financed by multimillion-dollar donations from right-wing sources in the United States and Canada bent on building resistance to the liberal democratic state.
Philip Resnick | February 16
Watchman, what of the night?
— Isaiah 21:11
The abyss would seem to be as wide
as the country’s raging rivers,
each side knowing all too little of the other,
the one convinced of the disdain
with which those within city walls
look down on their condition,
though they labour in the heat and cold
to keep their kinsmen well supplied
with the necessities of life,
the other side adjusted to the comforts
and discontents of urban living,
with a certain insouciance in navigating
a global age’s shifting values.
A gap that two years of pandemic with its restrictions
has only widened,
as some of the freedoms and ease of movement
we all took for granted
were slowly chipped away.
One side now flies the flag
as a symbol of defiance,
the other the same flag
as a reaffirmation of the country’s underlying values,
as each awaits the watchman
to announce the ending of the night.
Gareth Morley | February 16
When conservative Canadians see Trudeau as authoritarian, it is in the sense that they think he wants to coercively impose an upper-middle-class urban morality on everyone. This is what “virtue signalling” means, I think. It is particularly galling because he doesn’t seem like a morally serious person, but someone who was handed everything and just talks his way out of consequences. A rich kid who leaned all the right things to say, but one who is going to impose a narrow provincial ethic in the name of universal morality.
I hasten to say that I don’t share this perspective. But I do get why his sense of superiority is grating.
Henry Milner | February 19
By next week the protest will have fizzled. For the protesters this will have been a great success. A small group with little popular support for their actions (though they expressed the feelings of many that Canada and the provinces had been too stringent in applying pandemic constraints) managed to attract the attention of the city, country and world for three weeks.
It is media attention that makes all the difference. There have been many protests here and abroad, some much larger than this one, that got a fraction of the media attention. They got it because they used big trucks and other vehicles to disrupt, in Ottawa and on the bridges. Had they simply sat in in front of Parliament Hill or provincial legislatures without vehicles they would have won little media attention and fizzled on their own.
It surely isn’t difficult to draft and pass legislation to make using vehicles to disrupt normal activities so costly in terms of fines, loss of permits and jail time if necessary to prevent this in the future.
Frances Abele | February 20
I agree with you about the trucks, Henry, and also the remedy.
But there are other lessons to be learned.
1. I have been unsettled by the way in which far-right nutbars maintained leadership of the occupiers, which numbered more than 5,000 on the weekends. How is it that that many people were not unsettled by swastikas and the statements of leaders preaching sedition? Something to understand there.
2. We have to think about the U.S. influence. I watched as false news was created here in Ottawa and picked up by Fox and countless right-wing social media – for example the case of the woman (not) trampled by a police horse. It did not help that the New York Times got events seriously wrong, so wrong so repeatedly that I have cancelled my subscription. Their “take” too fed the right-wing imagery. All this shows that we are not really separate from the dumpster fire that is U.S. domestic life. So what is to be done?
Arthur Milner | February 20
The police action on the Hill, which I’ve spent a lot of time watching, was pretty great. Very calm, ordered, patient – but in two days they cleared Wellington Street. (When the cops smashed the windshield of a big truck, it was a pleasure to see a great many other big trucks pull out.) Clearly, the cops learned from the disastrous G20 experience. The calm, slow, methodical action on the Hill required a great show of force, with cops from a many jurisdictions. From what I understand, the emergency legislation expedited the participation of various police forces.
Everyone acknowledges the participation and leadership of far-right individuals and groups, and also U.S. participation and influence, but we seem reluctant to acknowledge the participation and leadership of religious extremists. Three “experts” on political extremism, just now on CBC Sunday Magazine, never mentioned religion as a motivation of the Freedom truckers. Would that be impolite? Do people occupying for religious reasons have greater rights under the Charter than people occupying for political reasons?
Clearly the occupiers had been assured that what they were doing was legal and there was no way the police would intervene. The three-week occupation reinforced their beliefs. Most, it seems, were absolutely stunned when the police actually intervened. Religious or secular, delusions run rampant.
It will be interesting when various bodies review mistakes made and why the Ottawa Police and administration were paralyzed for so long. My suspicion is that a woke Chief of Police combined with many racists among the police rank and file led to inaction.
Frances Abele | February 20
Look, folks, the occupiers are not truckers. Please stop perpetuating this myth, which does not help us understand what happened and indeed is still happening. Ninety per cent of Canadian truckers are vaccinated, the Canadian Truckers Association early on condemned the occupation in very strong terms, and for the last three weeks a surprising range of working truckers tweeted their opposition to the occupation. As a social group, people who own those big rigs, or are trusted to drive them, are intelligent and well informed. They need to keep working – and certainly cannot afford to take three weeks off.
From what I have been able to see, Arthur is quite right – a substantial chunk of the occupiers are people from big-box churches who are deeply confused about which country they live in and about science. They seem quite prone to breaking into tears when confronted with information, and indeed some were evidently shocked to find themselves on the wrong side of the law. I have a hunch that is who brought their kids.
Then there are the people it is hard to like – mainly young men, and some women, who probably do not have steady jobs. They bulked out the disco dance parties, took their shirts off to dance in front of the cameras (why?), harassed women and young service staff, bullied pedestrians, and are happy to hate Justin Trudeau. The mockery of Justin Trudeau, for instance their tendency to refer to him as “Justine,” does look like class resentment to me, but also plain old male rivalry – he’s pretty, he’s privileged, and he’s in charge. (Is that why they kept taking their shirts off?)
But: I saw also a lot of funding and a lot of organizational skill behind this. On the first day, I saw a woman and her kids in a car, by appearance working-class, flying a beautiful big flag on an expensive pole. How did she afford it, and so quickly? There were tons of those around town. Throughout there was a steady supply of fuel, food, saunas, entertainment and, yes, cash money, until that was cut off. Much more than the people we could see, I am worried about the people we did not see, who funded this.
There did seem to be people, especially those who came on weekends, who were simply fed up with the restrictions. Some might have been baseline libertarians. Others are ordinary Conservatives, exasperated with how we have all been living, and not convinced by the science. It’s hard to tell how many people signed on because they wanted to press all governments to relax the public health measures. Honestly, though, I don’t think people in this last group would have stayed for the show this weekend. They are people who usually obey the law. It is very unfortunate that Candice Bergen, Pierre Poilievre & Co. are condoning lawlessness in an effort to corral the votes of this group.
I probably missed some fractions of the occupiers, but these are the most obvious ones to me.
Geoff White | February 20
As is Frances, I am an Ottawa resident, pleased to see the occupiers peacefully dispersed.
As to the virtues of invocation of the Emergencies Act:
1. It enabled the assembly of a concentration of police forces from across the country and gave them enforcement powers without jurisdictional complication.
2. Organizers were deprived of financial and physical assets, which was vital, not only in taking resources away, but in punishing organizers and participants in a way they will remember. Their confiscated assets may be available to pay for some of the damages they caused.
3. Combined with the city’s and province’s declarations of emergency, invocation of the Act injected a necessary quality of urgency and purpose into the imminent police action.
Listserv contributors may wish to criticize the particular judgement call of invoking the Act, but I think it should be judged on its positive consequences. The required inquiry and debate may identify failings leading up to the occupation and identify any overreach if any. But I do not imagine that the door to casual future invocations of the Act has been opened.
An incoherent rabble’s occupation of Canada’s capital was effectively defused and dispersed, to the relief of the vast majority of this city. It is often the restoration of order and the experience of being restrained that encourages careful reflection. The animus against government is not of the sort to be changed by reasoned argument alone – or even at all.
Joe Murray | February 20
The unified command drawing officers from the RCMP, OPP and local forces in many provinces including Ottawa, Hamilton, Edmonton, Vancouver and Quebec did a very professional and commendable job in ending the protest in Ottawa.
We’ll find out later exactly how many external officers were used compared to the 1,800 requested by but not provided to the Ottawa Police in the weeks leading up to the invocation of the Emergencies Act. We also need to understand more of the backroom discussions between the police services and three orders of government that were involved in the long delay in commencing the operation.
Given the “success” of the Freedom Convoy demonstration tactic of blocking roads with hard-to-remove vehicles, we need to review the toolkit available to the Canadian state to respond. Is it really necessary to use the biggest warhammer in the national security toolkit to deal with some trucks on city streets?
When the main charge against the leaders of the group that caused the Emergencies Act to be invoked is the property crime of mischief (yes, mischief!) we have to wonder if the law and institutions and personnel and preparations are fit for purpose.
The optics of lending some of the Army’s tow trucks might have been awkward, but still preferable to forcing tow truck operators to provide services. A couple of bases stock them, and it’s only a ten-and-a-half-hour drive from one of them in the Maritimes to Ottawa. There were likely other legal means of enforcing contractual compliance of the firms on retainer by Ottawa. Governments should purchase tow trucks for civil powers to have on hand when needed, as they do with Bailey bridges.
Gareth Morley | February 20
Geoff may be right, but I still don’t see why this couldn’t have been done with more active local policing. People have been writing reports about better coordination between Parliamentary security, Ottawa police and the RCMP for decades. Ontario’s Civil Remedies Act provides for ways of going after property said to be instruments of unlawful activity, if that was truly necessary.
The big problem is that the Emergencies Act polarized what should have been a local law enforcement issue and also sent the international signal that we are prepared to suspend the normal operation of law over what almost any country in the world would regard as a trivial amount of disorder. I recognize that this sounds dismissive to Ottawa residents, but I find the comparisons to even the FLQ crisis (which itself was overreacted to) to be hyperventilating.
The PMO saw this as a good wedge issue and wanted J.T. to look tough. I honestly don’t believe there is a more serious justification for it.
Frances Abele | February 20
Gareth, the occupiers were openly preaching sedition, threatening to hang the Prime Minister and flying the Confederate and Nazi flags. None of us could know how well armed they were. (So far the police report finding only an unknown number of long guns in their possession.). It is surprising to me that you feel confident in judging that none of this warranted federal action through the Emergencies Act.
I frankly care a lot less about how we look to imagined international observers than how the crisis was dealt with here. I am sure that the future inquiry will find that the Ottawa police should have acted more quickly and that the Mayor, City Council and Police Services Board should have too. But they did not. They seemed to be paralyzed.
Arthur Milner | February 20
“When the main charge …” Joe wrote, is “mischief (yes, mischief!) we have to wonder if the law and institutions and personnel and preparations are fit for purpose.”
In 1968, 114 of us were arrested for occupying the Simon Fraser University Administration Building. We spent the night in jail.
We all snickered when we found out that we were to be charged with “public mischief.” Then we found out it was an indictable offence that came with a maximum penalty of 14 years in prison. In the end, most of us pleaded guilty to the summary offence of mischief and paid, I believe, a $250 fine.
So perhaps if the crime had a name worthy of 14 years in prison, the Emergencies Act would seem more fit for purpose.
Reg Whitaker | February 20
The use of the Emergencies Act was bound to be controversial. None of the objections strike me as terribly persuasive.
From a number of sources, some of whom are reasonably well-informed, I have heard the criticism that the Act is overreach and unnecessary since normal police powers were already adequate for the task and had succeeded in clearing the Windsor and Coutts border blockades. I find this quite unpersuasive.
The refutation of the “unnecessary” argument applied to Ottawa lies in the shocking but undeniable fact that the main police force with jurisdiction to control the Ottawa occupation, the Ottawa Police, had failed abysmally to deliver on even the minimum of their job description, to provide policing of unlawful activity and ensure the safety and protection of citizens and their property. That failure was reflected in the resignation of the police chief, resignations and turmoil on the Police Services Board, and behind this a Mayor and City Council that sometimes resembled the random flailing of a chicken with its head cut off.
The reality was that in the absence of the federal government taking charge, there was no prospect of a coordinated multilevel police response to the unendurable and unjustifiable occupation of the nation’s capital by a mob of honking, defecating yahoos, backed by well-organized and well-financed right-wing hate networks, many from Trump’s America. When those who actually claim to be insurrectionary call for the overthrow of a democratically elected government and its replacement by a “citizens’ government” (i.e. them) and camp out, in their intention permanently, right outside the Prime Ministers Office while waving “FUCK TRUDEAU” signs, there is surely a national public order emergency, which accords closely with the definition of such in the Emergencies Act.
Let me specify a number of areas where the powers of the Act have proved effective and crucial to the resolution of the crisis:
1. Federal coordination of three levels of policing and a larger number of policing and security agencies. The bumbling ineffectiveness of the Ottawa Police on their own was in stark contrast to the remarkably well-disciplined, well-organized and well-planned removal of the trucks and protestors from central Ottawa. As a quasi-military operation this was extraordinarily successful, with a minimum of force deployed and that only in response to aggression from a few protestors. Decapitation of the leadership, patient herding of the protestors into places with escape routes open to those who would leave and arrest for those resisting, getting the trucks out while taking down full information on licensing and ownership for future action, etc. – all this might in theory have been carried out by the Ottawa Police. But everyone knows they were incapable of doing it on their own, without the additional resources and coordinated planning and direction of the whole operation from the federal level.
2. Securing a perimeter around the central core and strictly controlling entry and exit from that perimeter. Without emergency powers, freedom of movement is a right. Police cannot normally tell person X they are allowed to proceed into central Ottawa but person Y is not allowed, simply on the say-so of police. But under the Act they have that power and it was very effectively used to control the situation.
3. Use of the financial power to freeze bank accounts and seize assets of funding organizations, revoke truck licences and potentially seize the vehicles. These were weapons that preempted many from staying on the line out of fear of personal financial catastrophe if they persisted, and therefore did much to defuse the entire protest. But such powers are not readily available without emergency legislation – and rightly so, as few would wish to see the state holding this kind of power over people’s livelihoods.
The latter points to a saving grace of the Emergencies Act, its reviewability and its temporary nature. The invocation of the Act has to be approved by Parliament, and reviewed by Parliament which can at any point revoke its application – not an inconsiderable matter in a minority Parliament. The Act is also reviewable by the courts, and it is clearly specified that its use is subject to the Charter of Rights.
Finally, the Act goes out of existence automatically after 30 days if not renewed. Anything the government might want to extend would then have to be passed like any normal legislation through Parliament.
If these powers are excessive, there is ample opportunity to restrain their use, hardly justifying the charges of tyranny. The Emergencies Act is temporary, it’s working well, and it will be gone shortly, along with the emergency.
Gareth Morley | February 21
We had to declare a national emergency to
1. Procure tow trucks
2. Get police agencies to talk to one another
We should not care about the long-term consequences of lowering the bar for emergency. Canada will not make any diplomatic complaints about emergencies being declared in similar circumstances. We should also not care that this has unified the antiregime elements and divided those in support.
The October Crisis seems like a good benchmark because it was clearly more serious, an emergency declaration had more and broader support at the time, and it still seems to have been an overreaction in retrospect. Innocent people were caught up in it. But the Prime Minister got to look like a tough guy, so that’s what’s important.
Harvey Schachter | February 21
You keep coming back to this point about the Prime Minister looking like a tough guy.
He certainly came under attack initially for not doing anything – for leaving a leadership gap. (And for his rhetoric, perhaps intended to be tough-guy, perhaps just defensive or jabbing at the Conservatives).
But he insisted he would never call in the military, not exactly tough-guy. And he didn’t. Heck, calling in the military is standard tough-guy stuff and easy to do.
After what many people considered too long a time for inaction, he brought in the Emergencies Act, with some consideration to not being overly broad.
Hardly tough-guy. More like moving from supposed inattentive dupe to action-oriented leader.
I’m not saying that tough-guy thoughts never come up in the PMO. In fact, unfortunately, too many people consider tough-guy leadership as equivalent to leadership and so politicians respond. But it would have been easy to be tough guy a lot earlier rather than a wimp for nearly three weeks.
Arthur Milner | February 21
Also, Gareth, you write “Get police agencies to talk to one another,” using emphatically dismissive language.
From what I understand, it would have been possible to bring to Ottawa other police forces – the Sûreté du Québec, for sure – but it would have taken longer. How much longer, I don’t know. And I’m not sure about the RCMP, the Ontario Provincial Police or Ontario municipal police forces. Maybe someone could find out.
But it wasn’t about “talking to one another”; it was about bodies on the ground.
Gareth Morley | February 21
You don’t need to invoke the Emergencies Act to get police departments to shift bodies to one another. It happens all the time. Powers under the Criminal Code are given broadly to peace officers.
Ottawa has had issues about coordination around policing of protests at or near the parliamentary precinct. That is a longstanding issue. I am not at all dismissive of talking between the RCMP, OPP, Ottawa Police and the Sergeant-at-Arms ‘office. If I was dismissive, it was of this being a justification for invoking the Emergencies Act.
Putting armed forces on the streets would have been worse, no question. But lending tow trucks would not be a big deal either.
I apologize to those who think it is unacceptably cynical to see this as politically motivated. Declaring an emergency is an inherently political act. It seems to me to have been a counterproductive one from the point of view of getting together a broad front of a party of order, something that I think was happening and that this foreclosed.
Emergency powers are necessary but they need to be used carefully. I don’t see that here.
Reg Whitaker | February 21
With respect, Gareth, I have to say that you are trivializing this very serious matter, trivializing both the threat and challenge posed to order and the case for emergency powers.
There are reasons to see the threat of the “Freedom” convoys as at least as serious or arguably more serious than the FLQ threat in 1970. The latter certainly posed a threat to the safety and lives of individual diplomats and politicians, and to the legitimacy of a Quebec government wavering in the face of terrorist intimidation. The convoys have already caused somewhere in the vicinity of $1 billion in lost business over the border, the discovery of weapons and plans to kill RCMP officers, and an occupation of the nation’s capital by a self-described insurrectionary force that was not only undermining the legitimacy of the national government unable for three weeks to put this challenge to rest, but also making the lives of ordinary Ottawa citizens intolerable – with no guarantee that if firm action were not forthcoming, the threat would not gather force in various new locations.
The remarkable transformation of Ottawa policing from bumbling ineffective ineptitude (and/or perhaps barely concealed sympathy for the insurrectionists) pre-Emergency to the remarkably professional manner in which the mob and their trucks were cleared out on the weekend is itself the best testimony to the need for the emergency powers, which, yes, do include compelling tow truck operators with contractual obligations to the city to do their job which they had been refusing to do. In an occupation anchored in heavy trucks blocking off entire streets and areas, this is manifestly not a trivial matter.
Both in 1970 and in 2022, there was a clear potential for a crumbling of authority and the decline of the rule of law in the face of an uprising ready to pounce on and exploit state weakness. In 1970 and today, that potential has been resolutely reduced by firm action. The difference is that in 1970 the War Measures Act was a blunt instrument bringing down maximum force without calibration, with no accountability and no framework of constitutional rights to protect the targets of state actions. The situation in 2022 is different, a calibrated time-limited legal instrument with accountability to Parliament and subject to the Charter of Rights.
I don’t see any long-term diplomatic consequences for Canada. The next time a foreign government declares an emergency that is manifestly a threat to public order, brings down a legal response that is time-limited, proportionate and accountable, and polices the crisis with the same kind of professional and measured methods deployed in Ottawa, then Canada will have nothing to criticize. If foreign emergencies don’t meet this standard, we will be just as free to criticize as we have ever been.
Joe Murray | February 21
Reg dismisses the argument that “the Act is overreach and unnecessary since normal police powers were already adequate for the task and had succeeded in clearing the Windsor and Coutts border blockades.” The argument is actually that existing laws are sufficiently powerful, not that their use was already successful. It’s necessary to prove they aren’t sufficient in order to declare an emergency under the Emergencies Act and still be acting within the rule of law. A government could introduce and pass a new law, but that’s not what Trudeau chose.
Reg also maintains that “the powers of the Act have proved effective and crucial to the resolution of the crisis” in a number of specific areas. The claim that the powers are crucial, meaning it couldn’t be done without them, is relevant.
The first area is “federal coordination of three levels of policing and a larger number of policing and security agencies.” It is not clear at all that this couldn’t happen without the declaration. Second, Reg cites “securing a perimeter around the central core and strictly controlling entry and exit from that perimeter.” This has been done legally numerous times without the Emergencies Act, including in Quebec City and Toronto. Finally, he mentions “use of the financial power to freeze bank accounts and seize assets of funding organizations, revoke truck licences and potentially seize the vehicles.” I believe, having scanned it today, that FINTRAC legislation could be used for a threat to national security, which can exist and be investigated without declaring an emergency under the Emergencies Act.
Reg Whitaker | February 21
Joe notes that police have secured perimeters “legally numerous times without the Emergencies Act, including in Quebec City and Toronto.” Quebec City and Toronto were one-off international conferences. Canada is obligated to guarantee the safety of Internationally Protected Persons, which describes foreign delegates to conferences hosted by Canada. The RCMP as the federal police force have particular responsibilities in this regard but responsibility extends as well to other forces, provincial and municipal, which have jurisdiction at the conference site. Exactly what authority this conveys is a matter of dispute. Suffice to say that for such conferences, a lot of leeway has been given policing to define security perimeters, but just for that conference. Charter challenges around unreasonable restriction of freedom of movement are possible.
The Emergencies Act is also subject to Charter review, but it clearly gives short-term power to establish enforceable perimeters, which was done in Ottawa which otherwise lacked the special authority of an international conference. Without that authority, protestors might well have had a valid claim for freedom of movement and the perimeter would have been rendered useless.
Joe also suggests that “FINTRAC legislation could be used for a threat to national security” to take coercive financial measures without invoking the Emergencies Act. Actually it has long been argued persuasively that FINTRAC lacks sufficient resources and sufficient powers to do an adequate job of tracking and stopping money laundering and tracking terrorist funding under normal conditions. Out here in B.C., a commission of inquiry and our provincial government have identified and strongly criticized the feds’ weakness on money laundering. FINTRAC’s powers are very likely to be augmented in the near future with amendments to the mandating legislation. For now, they were not up the job at hand – hence the need for emergency powers.
Obviously there are arguable and plausible points to be made against invoking the Act. Some of these were made in the debate in the House yesterday. I just think that the arguments for invoking time-limited accountable emergency powers are rather more plausible, and under the circumstances of an insurrection against democratic government and an intolerable burden upon peaceful law-abiding citizens of Ottawa: better safe than sorry.