What’s Really Happening in Canada?

A precise way of describing the trucker convoy that drove across the huge land mass that is Canada and has settled in Ottawa is an unpopular uprising. In a nation with fewer people than California, Canada is all over the news in the United States because of a popular demonstration that is unpopular with the Canadian people.

What the convoy and all of its hangers-on are actually protesting isn’t perfectly clear. We can include “freedom,” in a generic sense, and append things such as anti-mask and anti-vax. But it’s more than this – it’s really a collective ennui that two years after the pandemic began, well, here we still are.

One of the greatest valid criticisms of the past weeks is that the Ottawa police have been useless in dealing with this crisis – this resulted in their Chief of Police stepping down this week. One of the things that Canada will need to reckon with after this is over is our collective relationship with our police forces and their place in Canadian society. 

Ironically, what has been happening – or, more precisely, not happening – in Ottawa is the perfect catalyst for serious conversations about defunding police in Canada. While not yet as much in the public imagination as it is in the United States, the totally absent policing these past weeks in Ottawa has given weight to at least more broadly examining the question of what we want police to do and be in our cities. This video from Monday afternoon of police letting a driver get away with whatever he wanted is a perfect example of the kind of content that has justifiably gone viral.

And that’s an important issue that hasn’t been discussed enough in any city these kinds of demonstrations are held. Tim George, a lawyer not far from the Canadian border in Erie, Pennsylvania, reminds us that what we see in the media rarely takes into account the real costs of these actions:

“When we see these kinds of demonstrations, whether here or north of the border, we sometimes forget about the huge costs that accompany them. Administrative costs, cleanup costs, extra police staffing costs, and, of course, legal costs, are costs that state, local, and national governments may be required to incur.”

On Monday afternoon, an actual plan finally emerged, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau invoking the Emergencies Act. Trudeau confirmed late on Monday that he is invoking the never-before-used Emergencies Act, which was created in 1988 to give the federal government powers not normally available to them to handle complex issues of national importance such as these protests.

The first-ever application of the Emergencies Act (1988) will allow six specific things to happen over the coming days:

  1.  Assemblies that lead to breaches of the peace, such as what’s happening in Ottawa, will be prohibited.
  2. Where assemblies are in fact prohibited, police and others (Trudeau has promised no military for now, but that could change) can secure the venue.
  3. Banks and FINTRAC, the Canadian financial regulator, can stop things such as cryptocurrency and GoFundMe payments.
  4. The government can pay for necessary services, such as towing the trucks in the demonstration.
  5. The national police – the RCMP – can be directed to enforce any or all of these measures.
  6. As yet unspecified fines and other penalties can be imposed under the Emergencies Act.

The Emergencies Act is limited to an initial period of 30 days, though it is intended to be used for as brief a period as possible. The Canadian Civil Liberties Association commented that it does not believe the threshold needed to invoke the Emergencies Act. has been met, since the qualifications for applying it is that no other law in Canada can solve the situation. The argument here – and it’s a compelling one – is that the laws would have worked had the Ottawa police simply enforced them. 

On Thursday morning, Prime Minister Trudeau’s invocation of the Emergencies Act was debated in a vitriolic Parliament. While the Conservatives, whose interim leader, Candice Bergen, said that theirs was the “party of law and order” and would not support the Prime Minister, it is widely believed that he has enough votes to have the invocation of the Act pass. 

So this is exactly where we find ourselves in Canada this week. As more and more TV cameras from around the world descend upon Ottawa, what they’re likely to find isn’t at all unique: a city and nation deeply hurting and in massive disarray. For people watching from places such as the United States, France, Germany, England, and Brazil, this may look and feel very much like home.