One constant throughout the blockade mess was the weirdly distorted perspective of its apologists. The trivial risks of vaccination were elevated into mortal perils. The minor imposition of vaccine mandates was painted as a nightmarish assault on liberty.
The well-attested thuggishness of the protesters, meanwhile, was simply denied or whitewashed as “civil disobedience.” The extremist ideology of its leaders, the threats of violence, the dreams of overthrowing the government? They’re not really the leaders. That’s not what they meant. They couldn’t actually succeed.
But things were taken to another level after the police went in – the largest such operation in Canadian history, the most closely observed (hundreds of cellphone cameras documenting every move) and by all reasonable accounts one of the most restrained in its use of force.
In two days of close-quarters engagement, after literally hundreds of separate encounters between cops and protesters, the list of controversial incidents amounts to these: two people fell near a police horse as it went by; a guy got kneed in the back a couple of times as a police officer tried to subdue him; a few people got pepper-sprayed.
For anyone with any experience of even routine crowd-control operations, let alone one tasked with clearing out a deeply entrenched group of half-crazed anti-vaxxers, this was an almost miraculously clean rap sheet. Ground through the propaganda mills of the American right (and its Canadian subsidiaries), however, it emerged as Tiananmen, Hitler’s Germany and Guernica rolled up into one.
But it was the decision that preceded the police operation, the federal government’s invocation of the Emergencies Act, that excited the most controversy.
There were good arguments against invoking the Emergencies Act. The best was that the circumstances did not meet the stringent definition of an emergency set out in the law: threats to the security of Canada, exceeds capacity of the provinces, cannot be effectively dealt with under any other law etc. This, however, is a matter of opinion. As a matter of law, the opinion that counts is that of the courts; absent a court ruling the most anyone else can say is that it was unnecessary to invoke the act, not that it was illegal.
Was it unnecessary, though? There’s no serious dispute that the authorities had a legitimate problem on their hands: The occupation of Ottawa looked set to run indefinitely, with satellite blockades popping up across the country. But, so the argument runs, the police already had all the powers they needed to bring them to heel. They just weren’t using them.
That they had all the powers they needed to prevent the occupiers from setting up in the first place is undoubtedly true. And certainly they seem to have had all the powers they needed to break up the blockades at the Ambassador Bridge and elsewhere. But Ottawa was a different matter. The protesters having been allowed to dig in for so long, it was clear it would take quite extraordinary means to dig them out.
That the police did in fact dig them out after the Emergencies Act was invoked, where before they were stymied, is suggestive, if not probative. And the powers assigned to them under the act – notably, to cordon off part of downtown Ottawa; to conscript tow-truck operators into removing the trucks; to freeze the bank accounts of protest organizers and their financial backers – do seem to have been helpful.
But perhaps, as claimed, they could have done all these things under ordinary law or under the state of emergency Ontario had already declared. That, too, is a question best resolved by the courts.
One part of the operation that seems unambiguously to have required the Emergencies Act: putting all those officers from police forces across the country under one command, without having to go through the formalities of swearing them all in, a task that apparently would have taken days.
But suppose the critics are right: The police had all the powers they needed but didn’t use them. That, surely, is the point: They didn’t use them. For three solid weeks. They didn’t use the powers they had under the authority of the City of Ottawa. They didn’t use the powers they had under the authority of the Province of Ontario. Perhaps the point of invoking the federal Emergencies Act was not the emergencies part, but the federal part.
Federalizing the operation seemed to set in motion things that were not moving under either the city or the province. That’s unfortunate – we shouldn’t be invoking the Emergencies Act unless strictly necessary. Had the police acted before, it would not have been necessary. But they didn’t, so it was. Perhaps in the mandatory inquiry to follow we will learn why they did not act before; remedies can be put in place to ensure the feds do not have to step in again. But in the here and now that option was unavailable.
At any rate, the argument that the police already had all the “new” powers granted them under the act is hard to square with the opposition’s other main line of attack: that by invoking the act the government had opened a dark and repressive new chapter in the country’s history; that martial law had been imposed; that Parliamentary democracy had been replaced by an authoritarian dictatorship to rival China’s.
This was just remarkably silly – and looks even sillier now that the emergency is officially over. It was only declared on Feb. 14. To stay in effect beyond seven days required the support of a majority of MPs in a Parliament in which the government holds a minority. Even had it remained in effect after that, it would have expired automatically in 30 days – sooner, still, if a majority of MPs had voted to revoke it, as they could have at any time before then. The whole thing was subject to the Charter and is already facing two separate court challenges.
There’s no doubt that the powers police had at their command for the nine days the emergency was in effect were extraordinary. The potential for abuse was obvious. Actual instances of abuse, however, were hard to come by. The police checkpoints in downtown Ottawa that launched a thousand “papers, please” tweets applied within an area of roughly one-half square mile out of the roughly 3.8 million square miles to which Canadian law applies.
Suggestions that the government had given itself the power to seize bank accounts (it was the police, not the government, and they could only freeze them), retroactively (the measure applied only to actions taken after the emergency went into effect), from people who were not even directly involved in the protest but only donated to it (no specific example of this was ever produced, various unnamed claimants notwithstanding), can likewise be discounted. In any case, if you were one of the several dozen people whose accounts were frozen for a couple of days, you can relax: It was probably already on its way to being unfrozen even before the emergency was lifted.
A little proportion, in other words, would be helpful. Hauling out the Emergencies Act was a kludge, a messy, improvised fix for a messy situation. It should never have come to this; it should never have to come to this again. But this was hardly Darkness at Noon.
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