I reflected on repercussions that continue to this day from Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s peacetime use of the War Measures Act in 1970.
Human rights of hundreds were violated in a government authorized roundup of political opponents and protest group members. In the end, violent Front de libération du Québec (FLQ) terrorists were arrested, charged and convicted using traditional policing methods and already established laws.
Perhaps Mr. Trudeau atoned somewhat for his actions with patriation of Canada’s constitution in 1982 by including a Charter guaranteeing the rights and freedoms he had personally authorized be violated beyond limits of the law little more than a decade earlier.
The ‘fringe’ separatist Parti Québécois would form Quebec’s government in 1976. The PQ delivered two referendums seeking Quebec separation from Canada in 1980 and 1995, coming within a whisker of partition. The PQ’s Bill 101, the Charter of the French Language, legislated linguistic priority in the province for French. Quebec remains the only province not to endorse the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. A positive from the PQ, its principles of separatism led it to address another smear on our history as the first government in Canada to recognize the right of Indigenous peoples to self-determination.
The ready use of the War Measures Act initiated serious reflection in Ottawa. Parliament worked through a series of temporary replacement measures before settling on the Emergencies Act (EA) in 1988, a last resort to provide extraordinary measures to deal with pressing and extreme emergency situations not resolvable using available means and already established laws. Its provisions were thought so extreme by Prime Minister Jean Chretien that they were not invoked in the days following 9/11.
A fortnight after the Freedom Convoy 2022 truckers’ approach was deemed a threat so severe Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was whisked away to a secure location, he chose domination over dialogue, invoking the extraordinary powers of the EA to counter the air horn insurgency and bouncy castle rebellion that included dancing in the street at the doorstep to his office.
The powers invoked by Mr. Trudeau include measures parliamentarians who spent nearly two decades defining and refining never imagined would be used as they were this week, to quell peaceful protest. Outside Ottawa, freedom convoy demonstrations were resolved through dialogue, with few arrests, or continue as weekend rallies. Part II of the EA is intended to deal with a “public order emergency” that “presents a threat to the security of Canada.” It authorizes immediate enforcement until such time as approved, amended or revoked by Parliament. The regulations issued by the Trudeau government described the threat as “a peaceful assembly that may reasonably be expected to lead to a breach of the peace.”
My eyes welled up when police moved forward. This was about what was essentially a municipal bylaw problem―parking, noise, idling―that dragged on for three weeks. It was unlike the 1991 truckers’ protest, resolved within a week through negotiation by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s government. It was also unlike the 2019 United We Roll truckers protest. Two days after arriving the big rigs rolled out following meetings with Conservative MPs who assured them of support in Parliament. Some Conservative MPs repeated efforts at diplomacy with the Freedom Convoy 2022 protest. The Leader of the Opposition introduced a motion in the House of Commons designed to be easily satisfied by the government and to encourage the truckers to break camp and head home. The Liberal government objected to presenting Parliament with a plan of any sort for ending federal Covid-19 related restrictions. With support of the NDP, it voted the motion down. For their efforts, Conservatives were labeled as being in league with the Trudeau-defined insurrectionists.
Demonstrators regularly come to the nation’s capital to protest. The prime minister and members of his cabinet chose to insult and disparage these particular protesters as unacceptable, intolerable, and unCanadian long before they arrived. Undeterred and unashamed, convoyers wrapped themselves in the Canadian flag and arrived in Ottawa ready for conversation. Unwilling to dialogue, Mr. Trudeau’s intransigence bred protests nationwide.
I lament for our nation and the potential long-term ramifications of the decision to supplement police powers in an effort to silence voices opposed to government policies.
Whether or not one agrees with the freedom convoy messengers, the Government of Canada cannot claim to be respecting Charter rights while simultaneously authorizing extraordinary police powers to violate those rights. Section 2 of the Charter guarantees freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful assembly, i.e. freedom of peaceful protest. Section 8 guarantees the right to be secure against unreasonable search or seizure, i.e. including not to have personal banking frozen (without a court order) for choosing to support peaceful protest. Will any of this be considered by a court of law to be “such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society” under section 1 of the Charter? I hope not, or future governments may use the EA to silence critics as well.
Parliament Hill and the surrounding area are identified as a prohibited protest zone for the duration of the EA order. The public square at the seat of our democracy is closed until further notice.
Under the EA order it’s illegal to decline to render police-defined essential services upon request.
If not overruled by Parliament or the courts, the government’s decision sets all too convenient a precedent for future use of such authoritarian powers by an unpopular leader.
The prime minister said government does not direct the police, it equips them. He then offered his opinion that the citizens of Ottawa did not want to see another weekend of this protest. They didn’t.
The citizens had themselves the previous weekend organized a counter-protest. Public polling suggested Canadians were rallying behind these citizen counter-protesters who had taken to the streets behind the flags of the Public Service Alliance of Canada and Canadian Union of Public Employees; the unions for government employees who kept their jobs and annual raises while working from home through the pandemic. I’ll disregard the communist flag briefly unfurled near the front of the march because focusing on it would be like tagging the truckers’ group with the brief appearance of two nazi flags in the crowd of 10,000+ on the first day.
The freedom convoy protesters had been celebrated by tens of thousands along their route and crowdfunded by the millions to carry a message to Ottawa. After a few weeks they had become like the much-loved family member who visits and overstays their welcome. Public opinion can be a fickle thing. The new hero in town was a 21-year-old civil servant who secured a court order to enforce the city’s noise bylaw against the air-horn assault on her neighbourhood.
Canada’s prime minister followed advice from polls that suggested an overwhelming majority of Canadians were supportive of violating fellow citizens’ Charter rights to get these protesters off the street and out of the daily news. Like too many debateable decisions of Canadian governments past, he chose to marginalize Canada’s newest identifiable minority group, the unvaccinated, and their allies. Human rights―Charter rights like those his father constitutionally enshrined―are protected under rule of law precisely to prevent the majority of the moment from trampling on the freedoms of a minority. I lament for Canada.
I lament for the Church in Canada.
A number of Christian leaders proffered prophetic utterance anointing the convoy, assigning near-salvific qualities to the drivers of the big rigs.
On both sides of the dispute, there were Christians who succumbed to expressing venomous condemnation of fellow human beings made in the image of God―sisters, brothers, and neighbours. I was reminded of Preston Manning’s words that we Christians ought to follow Jesus’ injunction to be “wise as serpents, and harmless as doves” (Matthew 10:16, KJV) rather than “vicious as snakes and stupid as pigeons.”
Those whose public words awaken the Spirit’s conviction within themselves will undertake some serious soul searching and self-reflection. Public utterance may necessitate public repentance. Some may be compelled to step back from pulpit or classroom. Others will postpone such introspection, waiting because it ain’t over ‘til its over.
I don’t lament because the Wellington Street demonstration included truckers who follow Jesus, evangelists who hit Ottawa’s streets to preach the Gospel, as well as pastors and congregants who carried Jesus’ love and service to those gathered at various sites. I lament that after two years of sometimes bitter division over covid-19 policies and practices, we who Christ commanded to love one another as a witness to the world that we follow Him (John 13:34-35) may find the end of this particular road for the freedom convoy, in the bitter cold and driving snow of an Ottawa winter’s day, adds one more difference in political position that may wedge division. Will we humble ourselves, preferring healing in His Body over passionate opinion?
I lament that our prime minister and too many in media tried to kindle smoke into fire, speculating that until the last protester was removed from Wellington Street there might yet be some violent or explosive action at the foot of Parliament Hill. They embellished upon a badly drafted (and early withdrawn both verbally and in writing) document that exhibited a poor understanding of Canadian civics and expressed no violent intent.
The freedom convoy’s downtown encampment turned out to be just another predominantly peaceful protest in the nation’s capital; annoyingly long and loud for some, with a small number at the end taking aggressive posture toward advancing row upon row of police. By the conclusion of the (over?)stay in Ottawa, the smoke had been blown from coast to coast, trucks and protests from city to city. Let’s hope that smoke doesn’t incite some opportunistic ne’er-do-well with a match.
Citizens and the City of Ottawa found remedies in the rule of law, going to court. Such remedies were available to all three levels of government, including the ability to freeze bank accounts, but only when properly justified before the judiciary.
The mayor negotiated directly with the truckers to clear residential streets. However, the completion of that agreement was interrupted by the prime minister’s proclamation the “peaceful assembly that may reasonably be expected to lead to a breach of the peace” had gone on long enough.
In a strange twist, after invoking the Emergencies Act Mr. Trudeau’s government urged the Government of Cuba to respect protesters rights to “freedom of expression and peaceful assembly free from intimidation,” as he had earlier remonstrated the Government of India to dialogue with protesters in New Delhi. Would that he had demonstrated such inclination for free expression, peaceful assembly, and dialogue with citizens in his own country.
There is much to lament from the events of recent days. I cried for Canada on Friday.