Josh is the main author of Northern Currents. Josh is an electrician of 10 years and has been interested in radical politics for even longer. Follow me on Twitter at @josh_nc.
*Note: due to the length of this article, there is a table of contents after the introduction to make reading easier.
It is my opinion that Justin Trudeau invoking the Emergencies Act was a mistake, for a variety of reasons. Here I will lay out the case as best I can.
This is not to diminish the impact of this far-right occupation on the people of Ottawa. The blaring of semi trunk horns at all times of the day could be considered psychological terrorism. Hundreds of hate crimes have been reported to the police. Healthcare workers and citizens experienced harassment. Police are even part of the problem.
Something had to be done. The convoy was ultimately about promoting social harm.
I get the knee-jerk reaction to say screw ‘em, get them out after all the harm they have caused. But the best decision is not to invoke the Emergencies Act.
The central issue is that invoking the Emergencies Act (EA) is a step too far in furthering state power, and police were already able to deal with the occupation in Ottawa but chose not to. If the police had exhausted all their options first (which are routinely used against Indigenous and climate change protestors) then Trudeau may have a case. This did not happen.
The right-wing critique of invoking the Emergencies Act tends to be that this action is a brutal power grab, revealing Trudeau’s quest for unlimited, tyrannical power. This is laughable, and can easily be dismissed as the EA actually has very reasonable checks and balances.
The left-wing critique tends to revolve around the precedent set by invoking the EA. In the future, there is little doubt that the EA will be used against legitimate left-wing causes that threaten corporate power if dissent is large enough.
To the extent that invoking the EA is tyrannical, it is the same tyranny of capitalism preserving order and ultimately preserving itself. This is the same tyranny that marginalized people have known for centuries at this point.
Here are all the reasons why this is a bad idea.
- The Left has valid reasons to engage in mass protests and occupations
- It’s counterintuitive, but a light-handed approach may be better
- The police already have the power needed, it was a city failure
- The criteria for invoking the Emergencies Act may not be met
- Indigenous fundraisers already cancelled by Gofundme
- People will be less likely to be associated with future protests if their bank accounts can be frozen
- Security clampdowns can now be done remotely, with less real police presence
- Removing kids from parents of protesters is not good
The Left has valid reasons to engage in mass protests and occupations
As a leftist, I don’t rule out occupation as a political strategy, of course without the hate crimes, psychological terrorism, and threatening of healthcare workers.
As of Feb 10, “The Hate-motivated crime hotline has received over 413 calls, and Detectives are ensuring every report is investigated.” What happens when the far-right organizes? Hateful people show up – and this is just what has been reported to the police.
Think about a situation in which an emboldened Conservative government, who have recently dramatically turned toward the right, is engaging in dismantling our public healthcare system. If Pierre Poilievre becomes the leader of Canada next time around, it wouldn’t be such a stretch of the imagination, given his comments on our public healthcare system.
Would that warrant an occupation of Ottawa? Or how about a federal or provincial leader engaging in egregious human rights violations? Or genuine labour movement engaging in mass general strikes to pressure governments to concede more power to Labour? Or reconciliation? Or climate change?
Surely these examples would justify engaging in mass protests and even occupation. Nothing else seems to be working to extract real change from our democratic system. Voting every 4 years just isn’t enough.
It’s counterintuitive, but a light-handed approach may be better
It may seem very counterintuitive, but Beau of the Fifth Column on YouTube offers an interesting insight into the current situation that is rarely mentioned. Governments should do very little, and let the protesters exercise their democratic rights while enforcing existing laws to ensure public safety and wellbeing as the main goal.
The problem with a heavy-handed government response is that security clampdowns can make movements like these grow, not shrink. This was on full display during the mass BLM protests across the USA where police brutality was widely used against protestors.
The effect of the general public seeing images of citizens being brutalized by the state can actually create sympathy and support, especially to those sitting on the fence, unsure what to think about the situation.
The flip side of this is that you don’t want to be too light-handed either. The police should have at least stopped the incessant, 24/7 blaring of horns – an act that could be fairly labelled psychological terrorism. After public support for the occupation waned, and supply lines to the occupation were cut, then the police could start to ramp up arrests. However, this didn’t require the Emergencies Act.
That said, with the light-handed approach this is exactly what we saw during the first few weeks. Very little was done – definitely not enough – and the public was growing tired of the situation. The occupation was losing the public relations battle.
Once the police were sent in after the Emergencies Act, what did we see? Images of a woman on a scooter “trampled down by police” spread like wildfire on social media. The fire had been rekindled.
The police already have the power needed, it was a city failure
The short simple answer is that the police already had the necessary power to break up the occupation. They have used these powers on left-wing protests many times over already. The police just chose not to use these powers.
Some jurisdictions were able to clear the protestors without invoking the Emergencies Act. The Ambassador Bridge was cleared by police on February 13th, a day before the Act was invoked by Justin Trudeau.
The blockade in Coutts, Alberta received a light-handed response from the police without the use of the Emergencies Act. In this case, the protesters left voluntarily – a little too voluntarily in fact – as they literally hugged the police as they left.
According to Dimitri Lascaris in Canadian Dimension:
“Moreover, there is no reason to believe that conventional methods of law enforcement are inadequate to control the convoy in Ottawa. As Leah West of Carleton University told the Toronto Star’s Althia Raj, “[Law enforcement authorities] have everything they need.” Indeed, the legal weapons at their disposal include Criminal Code offences such as mischief and unlawful assembly.”
Other premiers also didn’t think the EA was necessary. Althia Raj writes in the Toronto Star:
Ford, who is up for re-election this June, wholeheartedly supported federal action to step in to establish calm in the province’s second-largest city and maintain the free flow of goods at the most important Canada-U.S. border crossing. To keep, as Ford said — and as he campaigned — Ontario “open for business.”
His stance is in sharp contrast to Alberta Premier Jason Kenney who said the federal Emergencies Act was “not necessary” for his province. “We have all of the necessary statutory powers and operational capacity for enforcement.” Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe, who also opposes the measure, noted that “also police already have sufficient tools to enforce the law and clear the blockades, as they did over the weekend in Windsor.”
The criteria for invoking the Emergencies Act may not be met
Dr. Leah West, an Assistant Professor of International Affairs at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University, wrote a very useful explainer of understanding whether or not the criteria were met to invoke the Emergencies act.
While she explicitly does not take a position whether it was correct or not, I think some issues jump out immediately. There are two sets of criteria required to invoke the act. Each set has some potential issues.
On one set, the emergency, “…is of such proportions or nature as to exceed the capacity or authority of a province to deal with it; AND cannot be effectively dealt with under any other law of Canada; AND…”
The other set requires that the emergency, “…seriously threatens the ability of the Government of Canada to preserve the sovereignty, security and territorial integrity of Canada; AND cannot be effectively dealt with under any other law of Canada; AND…”
Given these criteria, The Canadian Civil Liberties Association takes the position that it doesn’t meet the threshold.
Indigenous fundraisers already cancelled by Gofundme
Now that the pandora’s box has been opened, the possibility of other legitimate fundraisers or protests to be extinguished before they even start is real. It’s already happening too.
The Git’luuhl’um’hetxwit created a fundraiser to create a “mobile command centre” to distribute food, supplies and educational material to Gitxsan villages. Although part of the Landback movement, this fundraiser has nothing to do with protesting, occupation, or disruption of cities. It’s a trailer.
People will be less likely to be associated with future protests if their bank accounts can be frozen
People will now be less likely to donate to organizations that do good work, such as Indigenous, environmental, or anti-hate networks because now we are financially linked.
With governments now able to freeze bank accounts of people that are linked to any organization or protest, some may be unwilling to engage in their democratic right of protest as they may not want to find themselves on the wrong side of the law.
A protest could potentially be quelled before it even starts. As we have seen, this is already happening.
Q. Anthony Omene discusses the problems with freezing bank accounts of protestors in further detail:
Security clampdowns can now be done remotely, with less real police presence
Previously, when protests occurred, police would have to show up and physically confront protesters. Now, they can confront dissent “remotely” by freezing bank accounts. The precedent has been set, and this is a massive escalation in state power over dissenting civilians.
Why wouldn’t the police, who have over-inflated budgets, want to save resources and use this “remote” option? If a mass Labour protest was in place in Alberta, what would stop a politician such as Jason Kenney from requesting help from Ottawa? Indeed, local politicians have already asked for help from the Federal Government:
In a letter obtained by Postmedia, Alberta Municipal Affairs Minister Ric McIver wrote the federal ministers of public safety and emergency preparedness on Feb. 5 asking for personnel and equipment to move roughly 145 vehicles (including about 70 semi-tractor-trailers) from the busy Canada-U.S. border crossing, where demonstrators set up a blockade to protest COVID-19 public health restrictions and vaccine mandates for truckers.
Despite claims that these extra resources were needed because “the Royal Canadian Mounted Police have exhausted all local and regional options to alleviate the week-long service disruptions at this important international border,” the Coutts protestors left voluntarily. This was largely due to the light-handed response by police as mentioned earlier. This contradicts the claim that all available options were exhausted.
While Kenney himself has denounced the Emergencies Act, the pandora’s box is now open. What if a hostile federal Conservative party was in power, a party much more likely to quell left-wing dissent?
Removing kids from parents of protesters is not good
One of the new features in Trudeau’s EA is that children are prohibited from these illegal blockades and protests:
Bringing children to the antigovernment blockades that have immobilized downtown Ottawa and shuttered border crossings is among the activities that could net protesters a fine of up to $5,000 or five years in prison while Canada is under the national Emergencies Act.
The question is, what happens to the children that are brought to future mass protests? Will they be taken from the parents? The residential school system, sixties scoop, and the major problems of the child welfare system should instruct us that this is not a road we want to go down.
If a child is sent to child protective services because their parents are in prison, how easy will it be for left-wing protestors to get their kids back? These are all questions that we don’t have clear answers to, as this invocation of the EA is unprecedented. However, this should be cause for alarm.
Overall, this is not good for the Left
There are a myriad of reasons not to invoke the Emergencies Act in this situation. Today it is the Liberal Party in power, not the friend of the working-class but not their worst enemy either. If a more hostile Conservative government were to wield these powers, the potential for the cutting of civil liberties and discarding of rights for marginalized people is exceedingly evident.
Therefore, this should be cause for alarm for those of us on the Left, despite what seems to be broad support among Liberal Party supporters. I’m willing to have my mind changed on this, but as it stands, invoking the EA was a mistake.
To recap: The central issue with invoking the Emergency Act is twofold: First, it is a step too far in consolidating state power against dissenting citizens. Second, police already had the tools they needed to deal with the occupation in Ottawa but chose not to. If the police had exhausted all their options first (which are routinely used against Indigenous and climate change protestors) then Trudeau may have a case. This did not happen.