The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trudeau’s unjustified overreach is adding fuel to the truckers protest

A sign is seen on Feb. 16 as truckers and supporters continue to protest coronavirus vaccine mandates in Ottawa. (Chris Helgren/Reuters)
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When Justin Trudeau first became prime minister of Canada, many wondered to what extent his tenure would resemble that of his father, the influential former prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau. This week saw the most unsettling parallel between the two men to date.

On Oct. 16, 1970, the elder Trudeau controversially invoked the powers of what was then known as the “War Measures Act” in response to a worsening state of French Canadian separatist violence in Quebec. His move led to 497 Canadians detained on suspicion of terrorist ties and thousands searched without warrants as part of a state of emergency that lasted until May of 1971.

The younger Trudeau has now become the first prime minister to invoke the powers of the War Measures Act’s successor, the Emergencies Act of 1988. His rationalization is considerably less persuasive than his father’s, however, with a correspondingly higher risk of permanently staining his legacy with a shocking episode of unjustified authoritarianism.

Ottawa has been occupied by truckers and protesters since Jan. 28 rallying against covid-19 restrictions and the Trudeau government more broadly. Their “Freedom Convoy” has been undeniably obnoxious and enormously disruptive to the capital, both practically and economically, with a copycat blockade at the Ambassador Bridge estimated to have drained more than a quarter of a billion dollars from the continent’s integrated automobile sector.

Yet there’s been no real violence beyond occasional screaming matches between truckers and the locals they’re bothering. Indeed, the Globe and Mail — whose reporting has been consistently critical of the protests — had to resort to some creative redefinitions of what constitutes “violence” to dismiss descriptions of the truckers as “peaceful.” At the very least, Ottawa in 2022 has seen nothing remotely comparable to Quebec in 1970, when two men, Quebec’s deputy premier and a British diplomat, were kidnapped by separatist radicals and their lives ransomed (the politician was murdered shortly after emergency powers were declared).

In those days, opposition parties were sharply critical of Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s decision to wield the War Measures Act. Ample evidence can be found in the excellent National Film Board of Canada documentary “Action: The October Crisis of 1970,” which features plenty of extended quotes from leading partisans of the time, including then-New Democratic Party head Tommy Douglas, who’s seen warning that “when you give these kinds of powers to local authorities you no longer know what kind of use or abuse they are going to make of those powers.”

Douglas worried specifically that the Trudeau government’s claim of an “apprehended state of insurrection” (which he didn’t think they had proved) would be abused to crush political dissent more broadly.

Times have changed since then. Today, Ottawa’s enemy is not Marxist-aligned Quebec nationalists, but right-wing truckers from the western provinces, characterized by the prime minister and his supporters as racist U.S. puppets and science-hating misogynists, embodying everything Canadians should fear and loathe. The public safety minister has described them as being “driven by an ideology to overthrow the government,” while Douglas’s successor as NDP leader, Jagmeet Singh, says, “this is not a protest; this is an act to try to overthrow the government.” (Singh’s party has pledged parliamentary support to extend the national emergency declaration after its initial seven-day window expires.)

While some truckers clearly entertain fantasies of deposing Trudeau’s “illegitimate regime,” it shouldn’t be understated that most of what makes the truckers so troubling to authorities is simply their physical presence: it’s incredibly difficult to move a gigantic parked truck, which is why, among other emergency powers, the government is now able to draft private towing companies into clearing the streets. Such logistical challenges, however, only emphasize the comparatively gratuitous parts of the emergency order that aspire to criminalize the protests themselves, establishing “no-go zones” that make it illegal to join the demonstrations and banning anyone from giving money to protest organizers. As a tool to derail a movement already inclined toward paranoia of government tyranny, it’s pouring gasoline on a fire.

The October Crisis of 1970 was largely resolved not through arrests or detentions but negotiation — the leaders of the “Liberation cell,” who kidnapped the British trade commissioner, were permitted to flee to Cuba in exchange for his safe return. Such a concession to blackmail was controversial, but at some point the government realized that doing so was an easier, and more moral solution than indefinitely suspending civil liberties to extinguish a fairly ambiguous plot against Canadian democracy.

Compared with ensuring the survival of a hostage, preserving the sanctity of covid-19 restrictions at a time when they’re already being softened across Canada is an odd cause to stiffen Trudeau’s spine to this extraordinary extent. It certainly doesn’t appear to be the sort of thing his father would have considered beyond the realm of compromise.