Yuan Yi Zhu is a research fellow at the University of Oxford.
According to ostensibly serious political scientists, the Public Order Bill, which among other things will criminalize harmless activities such as gluing yourself to the road in central London or disrupting national transportation infrastructure, may be an “attack on civil liberties” and evidence that the UK is entering a phase of “democratic backsliding”.
How they would love Canada. When protesters blocked roads with trucks in Ottawa earlier this year to protest vaccine mandates and other sundry grievances as part of a “Freedom Convoy”, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government froze their bank accounts, made it illegal not only to participate in but to travel to the protests, cancelled their car insurance (no small matter in such a large country), and outlawed fundraising in support of them.
All of this would be extraordinary enough, were it not for the fact that the Canadian government did all of it by executive decree under the Emergencies Act, an extraordinary enabling act designed to ensure “the protection of the values of the body politic and the preservation of the sovereignty, security and territorial integrity of the state”, the first time this piece of legislation has ever been used.
The Emergencies Act’s predecessor was the War Measures Act, enacted to allow the government to rule by fiat during wartime, and mostly famously invoked by Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Justin’s father and predecessor, against Quebec separatist terrorists in 1970, when they kidnapped a provincial minister and a British trade envoy, ultimately murdering the former. Tanks were parked on Parliament’s lawns and habeas corpus was suspended as Trudeau Sr cracked combative witticisms to journalists.
Granted, the Ottawa protesters are hardly in the same category: for one thing, unlike the Quebec terrorists of the 1970s, you will be hard-pressed to find any member of the Canadian intelligentsia defending them. And there is no doubt many members of the Freedom Convoy behaved obnoxiously, flying white nationalist flags, blaring deafening horns, defecating on private property and the like —though if the Emergencies Act were invoked every time anyone publicly defecated in Ottawa the city would never come out under it.
But even the most obnoxious protesters still have rights. And whilst the Emergencies Act is explicitly designed to be invoked as a last resort only, there is strong evidence that the police could have dealt with the protests using their existing powers, without needing to break the butterfly upon that particular wheel. Indeed, the blockade of the Ambassador Bridge between Canada and the United States was ended by the police a day before the Emergencies Act was invoked, using ordinary police powers and methods.
Cynics also point to the fact that Trudeau did not see fit to invoke the Emergencies Act when protesters blocked Canada’s railways in 2020 to shut down the construction of a natural gas pipeline, which is a far more critical piece of national infrastructure than a few streets in semi-deserted central Ottawa. In fairness, the political optics in that case would have been more awkward given that his environment minister has previously pled guilty to a criminal charge related to his environmental activism.
All in all, the impression for many is that the Trudeau government invoked this draconian piece of legislation as a show of muscular progressivism to shore up its voter base more than anything else. And the evidence presented at the Public Order Emergency Commission, established to examine whether the invocation of the Emergency Act has met the relevant legal threshold, has tended to support such a conclusion.
In fact, as I was writing this column, the Commission was shown an email from the Commissioner of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to the chief of staff of the Minister of Public Safety which said that “I am of the view that we have not yet exhausted all available tools that are already available through the existing legislation.”
Given that the federal government justified its invocation of the Emergency Act by arguing precisely the opposite, this email introduces a degree of awkwardness for everyone involved (both the Commissioner and the Minister are currently embroiled in unrelated scandals: Canadian politics rarely matters but it is never dull.)
All this may well be water under the bridge: the protests have long been cleared, almost all the Covid restrictions which they were protesting have been lifted, and both the Government and the Conservative opposition want to move on. One or more reports about the use of the Emergencies Act will be published, no one will read them, and life will move on – a muddle, in true Canadian fashion.
But it is a salutary reminder that Trudeau, for all the stereotypes about him, is a ruthless operator, in the image of his late father. Some in this country like to accuse Boris Johnson of being an authoritarian; next to Trudeau Jr, he looks like an anarchist hippie.