Andrew Cohen is a journalist, a professor at Carleton University and author of Two Days in June: John F. Kennedy and the 48 Hours That Made History.
For Justin Trudeau, the occupation of the national capital represents the greatest challenge to the legitimacy of the federal government in a generation. This is the October Crisis, revisited.
For a week and a half, the Freedom Convoy has paralyzed the downtown. Ottawa cannot handle “the insurrection.” On Sunday, the mayor confirmed the city had lost control and declared a state of emergency.
The scene is part carnival, part encampment, part absurdist theatre. Across from Parliament, revellers have erected bouncy castles, which would normally bring a little levity to the most earnest city in Canada. Now the barricades of Bytown evoke the Paris Commune of 1871.
So far, the mayhem has been mostly confined to the Parliamentary Precinct. So far, this is a very Canadian version of an attempted coup – – slow, restrained, amorphous – which has generated a very Canadian response of ambiguity and acquiescence. As befuddled authorities scoff and scold, militants dig in.
It is now a hostage taking. Pay the ransom, the kidnappers demand, or we’ll hold your community captive. While Mr. Trudeau’s minority government manages the pandemic and economic recovery, the activists gleefully use extortion to erode the state, just like their anti-democratic soulmates elsewhere.
It is a thin line from opéra bouffe to coup d’état. Democracy? Majority rule? Elections? Oh, they’re now an advisory exercise. See Turkey, Hungary, Hong Kong, Russia and the United States.
We’ve been here before. In October, 1970, the Front de libération du Québec (FLQ), a cadre of violent separatists that had been sowing chaos since 1963, kidnapped James Cross, the British trade commissioner in Montreal. Then it abducted and murdered Pierre Laporte, a provincial cabinet minister. It issued a manifesto of impossible demands.
Fearing the provincial government might collapse, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau invoked the War Measures Act, suspended civil liberties and sent troops into Montreal. Pressed to defend his draconian response, he declared: “There’s a lot of bleeding hearts around that just don’t like to see people with helmets and guns. Well, all I can say is, go on and bleed, but it’s more important to keep law and order in this society.”
Pressed how far he would go, his answer for the ages: “Just watch me.”
In embattled English-speaking Montreal, we cheered. Our hearts didn’t bleed at the sight of soldiers; we welcomed them.
The kidnappers released Mr. Cross and won safe passage to Cuba. But Mr. Trudeau’s use of force majeure – whatever its regrettable excesses – crushed the FLQ. While the Baader-Meinhof Gang in Germany and the Red Brigades in Italy ran amok in the 1970s, Canada was spared.
The Freedom Convoy is not the FLQ. Justin Trudeau is not Pierre Trudeau. But once again, he can learn from his father the imperative of clarity, authority and principle.
At minimum, Mr. Trudeau has to be more visible. Even if he has COVID-19, he looked weak moving to a secret location. If the mob wants to bay at the gates of Rideau Cottage, let it.
Justin need not be Pierre, who defied protesters at the St-Jean-Baptiste Day parade in Montreal in 1968, refusing to leave the reviewing stand under a volley of rocks and bottles while others fled. Nor need he be “the gunslinger” – legs astride, fingers hooked in belt, defying everyone in his way.
But Mr. Trudeau must show leadership amid civil authorities as feckless as Quebec premier Robert Bourassa was in 1970. He must be bold. An eminent friend tells me he must stop channelling Mackenzie King – “doing nothing by halves which can be done by quarters,” as poet, jurist and advocate Frank Scott elegantly put it. Justin will never be his father, the strong man who slayed the sovereigntists and drove landmark constitutional change in the single greatest act of nation-building in our history. But it’s no time for caution.
He must tell Canadians what matters here and reclaim the narrative. This is no longer about vaccine mandates, the faux right of dissent and woolly-minded expressions of flag-draped freedom. It’s about democracy, the integrity of the state, the preservation of order, and freedom from this noisy caravan of anarchy, prejudice and harassment.
While the Conservatives demand he extend “an olive branch,” Mr. Trudeau is right to decline. Concessions only embolden anti-democrats.
If facing them down means mobilizing the military, as aid to the civil power, he should do it, much as he is reluctant to be the second Trudeau to call in the army. If it means using lesser force – after working back channels, exhausting the RCMP and offering protesters a face-saving retreat as his father extended to the FLQ in 1970 – he should do it.
Democracy is under siege today, not the city of Ottawa. In that struggle, Justin Trudeau can give no quarter.
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