Looking back on the use of the Emergencies Act to solve the Freedom Fighter protest.
By Daria Aron
A year ago, the Freedom Convoy protests occurred in Canada, lasting close to a month and causing mass public disruption. The protests, organised by individuals naming themselves as “Freedom Fighters” aimed to object against the vaccine mandates targeted at truck drivers whose job was to cross the US-Canada border, carrying various goods. Before January 2022, this group was exempt from vaccine mandates, however, due to rising CVOID-19 case numbers, both the American and Canadian governments decided to implement this mandate. As a result, money was fundraised, people were mobilised and before anyone realised, Ottawa was flooded with these so-called ‘freedom fighters’. These ‘fighters’ used “big-rig trucks to blockade streets around the parliamentary precinct and set up camps complete with barbecues and open fires” as was described by the Canadian Press 24.
As time passed, an increasing number of people joined the protests, and with them, the severity of the issue rose. The citizens of Ottawa had become hostages in their own city, where they could not leave their houses and feel safe, and public services such as emergency health care and fire patrols could not navigate through the massive hoards of people. As a result, after 3 weeks of protesting, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau invoked the Emergencies Act. This Act is a law which states that in the case of a public order emergency, among other sorts of events, the federal government can grant itself extra capabilities to deal with the issue at hand. These capabilities would traditionally be in the hands of lower levels of government, such as provincial or municipal. Additionally, while this Act is declared, the government can decide whether an individual’s exercise of their rights and freedoms, as protected by the Canadian Charter (constitution) is endangering others’ rights and freedoms. If so, these rights and freedoms can be restricted to bring back order. As a result, the enaction of the law for these protests allowed the government and police to restrict the right to assembly, as well as freeze the bank accounts of some of the key participants.
At the time of the protests, I happened to be in Canada. While some think the protests happened only in Ottawa, the capital, they actually happened across the country and were prominent in my home city, Edmonton. I could not leave the house during those days without hearing the honking of the trucks and other vehicles which were taking part in the protest, nor could I avoid seeing signs and flags on cars saying things such as “Trump 2020”, “COVID is a fluke”, “Communism is coming”, “Death to Trudeau” among many other variations. I could not understand what or why this was happening. Being a daughter of a truck driver, I thought I would be enlightened if I asked my father, however, he was as confused as I was. Going around to friends and social media, I saw two very divided camps – the anti-Freedom fighter group which was as confused as I was about why this protest was even happening, and the pro-Freedom Fighters, who were using this protest to rebel against COVID-19 regulations and Prime Minister Trudeau’s larger policy. A portion of people in the latter camp also used this protest to portray their extreme-right ideologies, expressing desires to overthrow the government and carried Confederate flags.
The confusion was later defogged as I did more research and came to the conclusion that it was not necessarily an issue for the truck driving community. I asked my father what he thought, and if he knew what his coworkers also thought, and the same response was rampant – they did not support nor did they comprehend the issue. First, the policy was enacted by both countries, Canada and the United States, but it was made to seem like this was a Canadian issue solely. There was no protest even close in scale in the United States objecting against these policies. Due to this, my second conclusion was that the increasing anti-Trudeau establishment and right-wing sentiment in Canada possibly led to the spiralling of these protests.
The conversation spurred by these protests continued for a long time in Canada, and around the world with copy protests taking place in France and the Netherlands, among other countries. An element which remained in contention specifically was the enaction of the Emergencies Act. This controversy led to the questioning of the validity of the use of the Act in this instance. The Public Order Emergency Commission, which lasted for 6 weeks in late Autumn 2022, was established to investigate the motivation, circumstances and measures of the use of the Act. In contrast to popular belief, the Commission was not established due to the controversy around the use of the Act but because any use of it has to be investigated. The inquiry serves to be a fact-finding mission rather than a legal trial. The Commission helped shed light on the events and showed that the confusion was not just among the public, but among the institutions themselves. So what did they find? Let’s get into it.
The Commission’s main purpose was to investigate whether Trudeau was justified in using the Emergencies Act. Why? Several police forces came forward and said emergency forces were not necessary to handle this, some senior officials had doubts, and most egregiously, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (the main intelligence agency) did not think the threat caused by these protests was not high enough. Prior to the investigation, they stated that invoking the act could “further the radicalisation of some towards violence” and “galvanise anti-government sentiment” even further. Due to these concerns, the commission’s findings were seen as detrimental.
First, addressing the CSIS concerns, during his testimony CSIS director David Vigneault actually recommend the use of the Act, stating that with hindsight in mind, the combination of factors – the size of the event, strain on resources and unpredictability, as well as the risk of the anti-government participants to act violently, served as too much to be controlled by forces lesser than what the Act provided.
Furthermore, the Ottawa Police Service and Ontario Provincial Police both stated that they had plans in action which would prove successful in getting the protests under control, and the use of the Act was unnecessary. This was mirrored by the commissioner of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) commissioner Brenda Lucki who testified that she advised the Prime Minister before the enaction of the Act that not all resources had been used yet. Despite these, other witnesses said no clear plan was created, and Trudeau himself shared these views, expressing in his own testimony that he felt completely confident in his actions.
An alternate motivation for the Act was also uncovered during the investigation. It was found that the United States expressed deep concern to the Prime Minister before deciding to use the Act. Problems were being caused by the protest blockades at the Ambassador Bridge between Windsor and Detroit, and at Coutts, Alberta which caused supply chain trade issues between the two countries. The concerns were so great, it was found that Trudeau spoke with President Biden about it 3 days before the Act was invoked. Some lawyers during the testimony called this “external pressure” on Trudeau to wrap the protests up quickly and swiftly. The Minister of Emergency Preparedness Bill Blair testified that the Trudeau government were reluctant themselves in using the Act, however, the “escalation” of protests and blockades convinced them otherwise, adding that the Act should not be used for traditional emergencies only, but also for reasons such as the blocking of critical infrastructure as seen in this case. While the impact on trade was never questioned, Trudeau’s lack of transparency regarding his communication with the United States was seen as negative.
Lack of agreement and communication was present, especially between the different levels of government and the police. Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson accused the province’s premier Doug Ford of hiding away from responsibility as the latter skipped some meetings. Conversely, Premier Ford complied with Trudeau that the Ottawa police and mayor mishandled the situation and that he had no normal power to get these smaller entities to act a certain way without the Act. During the investigation, Ford did not deny this and he also supported the government’s decision for invoking emergency powers, despite refusing to testify. A few provinces over, Albertan officials also considered the invocation of the Act to be an overstep of powers, despite the struggle they had at their own border of the United States in Coutts.
As for the masses, a Nanos study shows most Canadians supported or somewhat supported the use of the Emergencies Act. This support varied across the provinces, of course, with the Eastern and Maritime provinces providing a lot more support than the prairie provinces. Some scholars, such as Peter McLaren from Chapman University argue that the confusion generated by the invocation of such an act stems from the masses’ lack of understanding of what ‘freedoms’ are and how the freedoms in The Charter function. The professor argues that the individuals in the group which supported the protests had an assumption that ‘freedom’ means the right to disregard any government rule that they do not like or affect them negatively, such as the vaccine mandates and not being able to cross the border. He also notes that these issues were odd, since a study showed 85% of truckers were vaccinated, and not affected. Thus, he argues that these protesters, while protesting against issues they thought were affecting their social class, McLaren states that the effects of their protesting – supply-chain issues, access to goods, etc. – completely disregarded the needs of this class. Once more, confusion strikes again.
Confusion was clear throughout. Whether the invocation of the act was justified remains an open question until the end of winter, when the findings will be presented to parliament. One can argue that the unprecedented nature of the protests predisposed this response, and Trudeau’s government was acting the way it thought best at the time. Alternatively, some can also say that constitutional rights were infringed, and the Emergencies Act was grossly misused. Whatever the opinion, the confusion on the federal level very easily spread through to the provincial and municipal levels, and finally to the masses. There is no policy recommendation I, or anyone else, can make to fully and completely solve this problem. Jerald Sabin, a professor at Carlton University, however, proposes the issue was not due to specific people or specific issues but that a closer look and analysis of the country’s multi-level federal system that facilitated the spiralling out of control of these protests. Overall, the events which occurred during these protests will be significant for the context of future Canadian politics, the one remaining question is just how detrimental it will remain.