The past ten days or so in Canadian politics have been unprecedented. So much has happened that a brief recap may be useful.
It started on Monday, February 14, when the federal government, led by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, invoked the never-before-used Emergencies Act to grant itself extraordinary powers to regain control of the roughly two-week-old trucker protests. These powers included the capacity to freeze bank accounts of individuals involved in the protests.
Last weekend, a combination of federal, provincial, and local police from across the country converged on the protests, arresting their leaders, freezing roughly 210 bank accounts, and towing more than 70 cars and trucks from the protest area. The net effect of these efforts was that by this past Monday, February 21, the protests were disbanded and Ottawa’s downtown was once again cleared.
The law still required that the federal parliament vote on the government’s invocation of the Emergencies Act. That vote took place on Monday evening, after three days of generally thoughtful and serious speeches and debate. A majority of parliamentarians backed the motion on a straight party-line vote, with members of parliament from the left-wing New Democratic Party ultimately supporting the government. The country’s unelected senate still needed to take up the motion, but its approval was largely expected to be a formality. For all intents and purposes, the parliamentary vote granted the government emergency powers for up to 30 days, though the protests by then had been neutralized.
Prime Minister Trudeau was noncommittal about whether his government would revoke these powers prior to the 30-day expiration. His answer, as recently as Tuesday, February 22, was that “we receive information, briefings, we think and analyse whether it continues to be needed.” Yet he faced mounting pressure to give up the emergency powers, and not merely from the Conservative Party. The Canadian Civil Liberties Association, the Canadian Constitutional Foundation, and other groups and individuals, including some progressive law professors, called on the government to revoke the powers, since the protests were now over.
The Trudeau government finally yielded to these demands and rescinded the extraordinary powers on Wednesday, February 23, nine days after first invoking them. The prime minister’s explanation: “The situation is no longer an emergency.”
The Act stipulates that an inquiry must be made within 60 days of the revocation. There’s reason to be skeptical that it will tell us much. The government has rightly been criticized throughout this process for failing to share information that would justify use of the Emergencies Act—and this has been the most frustrating part of the whole ordeal. It has led to a false binary in the political debate: one was somehow in favor either of invoking the Emergencies Act, or of anarchy.
Some Conservatives have fallen into this trap. An instinctive desire to support the truckers, out of a combination of policy and partisan reasons, has led some high-profile Conservatives to overlook that the protests involved a degree of lawlessness in our nation’s capital. It’s not hyperbole to say that the public authority had lost control of parts of downtown Ottawa, including in and around the parliamentary precinct. The conservative instinct ought to have been more skeptical of these public expressions of radicalism and disorder and their consequences for the rule of law. It’s regrettable that too many Conservative MPs chose not to see these risks.
But that’s by no means an excuse for Prime Minister Trudeau and his government, who have behaved just as badly. They’ve used the supposed emergency as a tool of wedge politics that may have longer-term political implications than the protests themselves. Trudeau and other government officials have depicted the protestors as motivated by racism and white supremacy and delegitimatized their debatable yet practical objections to the government’s pandemic policies. This not only has left the government off the hook in terms of responding to legitimate grievances about the country’s pandemic reopening plans but has also allowed the prime minister and his team to characterize any critics or opponents as illegitimate. “The prime minister decided this was an identity wedge issue to be used for political gain,” a former Liberal Party candidate recently wrote in the National Post.
The protests have had three main effects on Canadian politics. The first was to create a flashpoint within the Conservative Party that ultimately led to the resignation of party leader Erin O’Toole, who struggled to manage the intraparty conflicts these issues provoked. O’Toole’s successor will almost certainly be more populist.
The second effect was to prompt a serious debate about how the government and law enforcement should handle protests and blockades. The question is whether Trudeau’s uncompromising approach will become the norm for all forms of protests and blockades or just the ones that aren’t sanctioned by progressives.
The third effect has been a coarsening of Canadian politics along partisan lines, in an echo of the polarization in the United States. The protests and the invocation of the Emergencies Act exposed fissures in Canadian society, including an urban-rural divide, traditional class-based divides, and what Ross Douthat described as an emerging gulf between those working in the virtual economy versus those who work in the physical economy.
So even as life in Ottawa returns to normal, Canadian politics will not. This unprecedented experience will stay with us.
Top photo: Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during a news conference in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, on February 21, 2022. (Photo by Dave Chan / AFP) (Photo by DAVE CHAN/AFP via Getty Images)