By David Bloom
Throngs of workers shut down key roads in protest of a law they believe is unjust. Their protest punches above its weight, and despite their relatively unpopular views, the protestors manage to disrupt traffic in the capital city and some cross border trade. The protestors remain mostly peaceful, but as the economic costs mount, the government invokes emergency powers. Police clear protestors under the threat of force, and the intelligence agency freezes the bank accounts of many protestors and their sympathizers who donated to the cause. The streets are cleared, and order is restored.
Was the government right to crack down on the protest? For many people, the answer might depend on the protestor’s cause. I suspect that most liberals, myself included, would condemn a crackdown on a protest for the religious rights of an oppressed minority or against police brutality in a heartbeat. When you agree with the protest’s goals, there isn’t any moral dilemma: if a protest’s goals are good, it is bad to stop the protest from achieving their goals.
It is far more uncomfortable to ponder these questions when you disagree with the protest group’s aims and politics. Between January 28th and February 20th, a majority of Canadians faced this exact choice when a group of truckers blockaded key roads and disrupted traffic in central Ottawa. The law they believed was unjust: a requirement that anyone who crosses the US-Canada border, including truckers, be vaccinated against COVID-19. There is no doubt that these truckers represented a fringe view in Canadian politics. A plethora of polls show that a majority of Canadians support vaccine mandates, and disagreed with the protestor’s aims. Indeed, 90% of truckers are vaccinated, so even within their occupation, the protestors held a minority view. Given the economic costs the protestors have imposed, one can hardly blame most Canadians for opposing the protests. The Retail Council of Canada estimated that Ottowa’s biggest shopping mall lost CA$20 million of revenue in the first week of protests alone, while the closure of the Ambassador Bridge between the US and Canada may have cost $850 in lost revenue for the auto industry.
By February 14th, the Canadian government was fed up, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau invoked the Emergency Act, a law that grants law enforcement new powers to arrest the protestors and freeze their bank accounts. Most protestors in Ottawa dispersed peacefully, but the police did have to use pepper spray to disperse some stragglers and arrested those who refused to leave.
While it may have been the popular thing to do, it was wrong to invoke the Emergency Act. Temporary economic disruption is not sufficient cause to justify cracking down on an otherwise peaceful protest, especially when the most dangerous and potentially violent elements of the protest were already being suppressed by law enforcement.
The Emergency Act simply was not meant to be invoked in response to protests which, like the trucker protests, do not threaten Canada’s national security. The Emergency Act is to be invoked when a situation either “seriously endangers the lives, health or safety of Canadians and is of such proportions or nature as to exceed the capacity or authority of a province to deal with it,” or “seriously threatens the ability of the Government of Canada to preserve the sovereignty, security and territorial integrity of Canada.” The trucker protests, which were domestic in nature, nonviolent, and did not threaten or target the effectiveness of Canada’s military, were clearly not a threat to Canada’s “sovereignty, security, and territorial integrity.” While they may have “seriously [endangered] the […] safety of Canadians,” local police forces would have been capable of responding, since police ordinarily have the authority to arrest and investigate illegal behavior, and did not require the extra powers the Emergency Act granted them. For example, the police set up a hotline to coordinate their responses to incidents of hate speech, and arrested individual protestors who violated laws around carrying weapons or vandalizing public property. Despite the fact that the Act does not specify that economic disruptions qualify as a national emergency, one of the Federal Governments’ stated reasons for invoking the Emergency Act was to “protect jobs, trade, and our economy.”
By stretching the letter of the law, Trudeau has set a dangerous precedent that lowers the threshold for the application of force against peaceful protests in the future. The Canadian Civil Liberties Association has filed an application to declare the invocation of the Emergency Act illegal in Canadian Federal Court. If the court rules in favor of the government, any future government which finds itself facing an unpopular and economically disruptive protest, regardless of the protest’s cause, will have the option to invoke the Emergency Act and quash the protest. Moreover, if future governments know that the current government’s loose interpretation of the Emergency Act stood, they may be tempted to stretch the letter of the law further and crack down on protests which they argue threatens national security in other ill-defined ways besides economic harms.
To be clear, this is not an argument in favor of the trucker protests, or their aims. You can believe that a vaccine mandate for travelers who cross the US-Canada border is a sensible and legitimate policy, while still believing that the Canadian government’s response to the trucker protest was illegitimate. The reason why is simple: the precedent set by invoking the Emergency Act is not confined to the protests that you disagree with. Imagine that an indigenous group uses similar protest tactics to oppose the construction of an oil pipeline over their land. Now imagine the Canadian government, invoking the precedent that Trudeau has just set, argues that Canada’s energy industry is part of its national security interests, and uses the Emergency Act to clear the protestors and freeze the bank accounts of allies who donated to them. There is no reason to think that, going forward, this scenario is less likely than crackdowns against ‘bad’ protests that advocate for goals that liberals may disagree with. Even people who are vehemently opposed to the goals of the Canadian truckers should be dismayed to see the Trudeau government assuming Emergency Powers to suppress their legitimate expression of discontent with the laws they live under.
David Bloom is a first-year in Timothy Dwight college and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.