A few days ago, Prime Minister Trudeau enacted the Emergencies Act in response to the protest in Ottawa. Some experts will say that this is the first time this legislation has been used. While this is technically true, it is for all intents and purposes a rebranded War Measures Act, the former being a post-Charter revision of the latter. The only two updates are that the emergency must be reviewed by Parliament and any temporary laws made under the act are subject to The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. These two provisions are essentially useless when we are discussing any type of resistance against elite agendas because Parliament will always side with the elites against any dissenters and the Charter is not worth the paper on which it is written. This, coupled with the lengths to which provinces have exercised their emergency powers for the past two years, paints a bleak picture for the future of dissent in Canada. Nova Scotia updated their state of emergency to include outlawing motor vehicle protests; Ontario claims it will throw someone in prison for up to a year for the crime of blocking a crosswalk. The latter have announced interest in making these measures permanent.
The enacting of the Emergencies Act may be deemed only temporary and thus would not seem a lasting threat to future dissenters and while it is almost certain that the government will eventually relinquish these powers, this is irrelevant. They have just created a precedent to enact them once again when the interests of the state face even the slightest pushback.
The War Measures Act has only been used three times before this week.
The Act was first used during World War One to intern Austrians, Hungarians, Germans, and even Ukrainians who were seen as a potential threat. The latter were included because most Ukrainian immigrants had come to Canada from Western Ukrainian provinces, which at the time were a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After the Russian Revolution in 1917, the government used its powers under The Act to outlaw membership in communist or socialist groups.
When The War Measures Act was enacted in World War Two they once again interned those who shared ethnicity with the enemy, most notably the Japanese but also some Germans and Italians. Fascists and Communists would also face internment as well as vocal opponents of conscription. More control of the economy was granted to the government in order to ensure the country’s industry efforts were being put to good use in the fight against The Axis and measures to control strikes and lockouts were also put in place so that production could be ensured.
In 1970 at the start of The October Crisis, Pierre Trudeau was challenged on the steps of Parliament by CBC reporter Tim Ralfe regarding the military presence in downtown Ottawa: “Sir, what is it with all these men with guns around here? [...] I’m worried about living in a town that is full of people with guns running around it.” Trudeau defended the government’s position citing the kidnapping of British diplomat James Cross and Quebec Minister of Labour Pierre Laporte. At the end of the exchange, Ralfe asked the Prime Minister “How far would you go?” to which Trudeau famously replied, “Well, just watch me.” Three days later he made the now controversial decision to enact the War Measures Act during peacetime.
Despite some challenges from the press, the use of the War Measures Act was actually quite popular among the general population both in Quebec and the rest of Canada at the time. Of course, overwhelming support for the suspension of rights does not come in a vacuum. The FLQ had been an active group in Quebec for 7 years by the time of the October Crisis, and in those seven years, they had detonated over 200 bombs throughout the province, targeting symbols of English and capitalist power in the province. The largest of these was the bombing of the Montreal Stock Exchange in 1969 which simultaneously destroyed a symbol of capitalism and English dominance in the province. The FLQ threat grew gradually for seven years before the first kidnapping. With James Cross in their custody, they issued their seven demands. One of these demands was met and the FLQ manifesto was published in various newspapers and read aloud on television, but the FLQ were cautioned that this would be the last of the government’s concessions. Three days later, Pierre LaPorte was kidnapped.
It was after this kidnapping that the War Measures Act was implemented. With two high-profile hostages taken in broad daylight within the same week, the government and Canadian people felt as if they had their backs up against the wall and that it would take drastic measures to get them out of the mess. The Act suspended habeas corpus, giving the police the right to detain citizens without cause and keep them from legal counsel. 497 people were detained and kept without charge or access to legal counsel, of which 430 would never even be charged with a crime. The day after Trudeau enacted the War Measures Act, Pierre LaPorte’s body was found in the trunk of a car. After 62 days of captivity for James Cross, the government gave in to the FLQ’s demand for safe passage to Cuba, and, with Fidel Castro’s permission, the five kidnappers were flown to Cuba on a Canadian Forces aircraft in exchange for Cross’ life. LaPorte’s killers were eventually found and convicted of his kidnapping and murder. After the October Crisis, the provincial and federal governments poured extensive resources into their fight against the FLQ and by 1973 the group essentially was no more.
Looking back, we can see that historically these measures have been used during wartime to quarantine foreign nations, to stifle antagonistic and or subversive politics, and to ensure the safety of production. In peacetime, they were used against a well-organized terrorist group that was kidnapping and killing people.
The Freedom Convoy has not engaged in any serious destruction of property, nor are they a threat to civilians and elected officials. Their biggest crime is the disruption of capital: note that the border blockades at Windsor and Coutts were cleared before the announcement to use the Emergencies Act.
The use of a last resort measure in response to a rather mild challenge to government power indicates that the federal government does not have confidence in itself or its authority. It seems they are insecure about the perception of their legitimacy and are using whatever measures possible to stop people from challenging it. Trudeau is no stranger to fraternizing with protests. He has even supported this exact protest tactic (when used in foreign countries). It would seem that a right to protest only exists when it’s in the name of a cause that elites support like BLM. In fact, Trudeau was quite happy to negotiate with protestors in 2020 who were blockading rail lines. Why not try a diplomatic solution? Why is it that the very idea that people can oppose elite agendas is met with a massively disproportionate response?
It seems that our elites feel their legitimacy is so fragile it is impossible for them to make any compromise with people who reject their agenda. Or perhaps they simply think working-class people are beneath contempt. It’s important to understand that the truckers’ protest and the official response to it underline the structural rot in our entire political system. The problem is not with Trudeau as a person, but with the whole class of elites and the institutions they occupy. Surely, Trudeau bears responsibility as the head of the government, but we must not forget all the conservative politicians who side with the government’s position. We must not forget the media who dishonestly call the protestors terrorists and threats to the public.
We are told we live in a free country, yet when faced with popular dissent against a government policy, our government seizes the donations given to the protestors and takes on extraordinary powers to put an end to their protest. When free citizens refuse to collaborate with the government’s fight against the protestors, the government compels them to do so by force. It is clear then that our system has failed in providing us with even those things which it espouses as its core aims. In short, the government’s declaration of martial law to suppress political dissent is just another symptom of a political system that is increasingly disconnected from reality and the interests of the people it rules.