Government overreach, especially invoking special powers that place restrictions on the public, is to be avoided.
From that angle, the Public Order Emergency Commission looking into the federal government’s use of the Emergencies Act makes sense. If the exercise was just a matter of taking a too-big stick to the so-called “Freedom Convoy” protestors, most Canadians have few concerns.
Those who descended on Ottawa last winter were in theory truck drivers opposed to vaccine mandates. The protest quickly morphed into a wider anti-government affair joined by all kinds of groups unrelated to trucking. Not, of course, that the truckers did themselves any favours with their disruptive tactics: this was no simple protest on Parliament Hill.
More troubling was the presence of extremist groups. The initial antics in Ottawa quickly grew, fuelled by social media and the influx of millions of dollars, typically from US-based far-right groups. This was no grassroots rally, but an astroturfed event.
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The “others” there outnumbered truckers, themselves only a small minority of truck drivers. The Canadian Truck Alliance, which disavowed the convoy, said fewer than 10 per cent of drivers were unvaccinated and therefore subject to cross-border restrictions, the ostensible root of the protest.
It’s clear that backlashes against public health measures in the vein of the convoy are rooted in a longstanding movement that combined libertarianism with a mistrust of government and officials in general. Not a populist movement, it was the creation of those with economic goals they saw could be fostered by tampering with politics.
The protest had little, if any merit. The antics on the streets of Ottawa were far too disruptive and had to be ended. Was the Emergencies Act needed? Probably not, but that makes the government’s actions open to scrutiny, not conspiracy theories, the go-to argument of extremists.
The current inquiry is looking at the appropriateness of invoking the act. If the event deemed a “siege” by the chief of police and an “occupation” by the premier was just about rowdy truckers – though rowdy doesn’t seem to cover the actions at the Cenotaph and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, not to mention the presence of Nazi flags – then the Emergencies Act was an overreach. That would have been a local policing issue.
What became more difficult to square were threats against officials, the collection of potentially dangerous materials and the prospect of extremist activities. At one point, organizers were not only making ridiculous requests to “negotiate” with the government, but were calling on the governor general, for instance, to disband the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Given the events of Jan. 6, 2021 in Washington, officials could be forgiven for drawing parallels when doing a threat assessment. That Canada has a much less polarized population – and far, far, far fewer guns – than in the US weighed in favour of a civil-society outcome, but the possibilities had to be explored.
Social-media amplification took what should have been a small, largely bogus and irrelevant “protest” from a simple local police matter to something on the radar of national security agencies such as CSIS.
Decades of effort to undermine the status quo – in some cases deservedly, though that was not always the intent – made almost inevitable the politicization of fights we’ve seen about vaccines, mask mandates and other measures put in place to combat the pandemic. Organized extremist groups did take advantage of the climate, that was clear. What remained an unknown was just how out of hand the situation might get.
Maybe there was an overreaction in using the Emergencies Act, though the actual application was muted and had no tangible impact on the vast majority of Canadians. Government power must always be checked, but that doesn’t mean every protest is valid.