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Any barfly who has hung around a joint long enough to see the lights go on and the music stop has heard something like this: Buddy, you don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here. And anyone who has ever found themselves in that position, regardless of their state of mind at 3 a.m., knows this much: Even if you decline to make for the exits, the doormen will get you there, one way or the other.

From coast to coast – from the Ambassador Bridge in Windsor, Ont., to the highway near Coutts, Alta.; from the U.S. border in Emerson, Man., to the streets of downtown Ottawa – it’s after 3 a.m. It’s closing time. And you can’t stay here.

Unless we want to throw in the towel on government that is based on democratic legitimacy, then our duly elected governments, and the police responsible to them, have to say that loudly and clearly. And they have to make it stick.

When a protest crosses the line and starts breaking the law, there is always room for negotiating exactly how and when it will end. Police don’t always move in right away, and they shouldn’t. They politely remind the lawbreakers that, hey, will you look at the clock, you really should be leaving. They pour some coffee, keep talking, and remind them so more.

But the more the law is bent, and the longer its dominion goes unrecognized, the more lawlessness starts to look like it is now the sheriff.

The right to protest is a constitutional right – guaranteed by law, and circumscribed by law. It’s a right to communicate in a public place, but not to impose anything on the public by force.

It’s a right to speak, not to take the audience hostage.

That’s why if anyone wanted to hold daily rallies on foot on the lawn of Parliament, or hand out leaflets near the Ambassador Bridge, the police would be happy to assist them. The legal problem with these protests is not with what the protestors are saying. It’s what they’re doing.

Contrary to the Trudeau government’s favourite talking point, the issue is not the opinions of the protestors. A protest does not become illegal because you don’t like its message. It becomes illegal when its manner of getting its message out crosses the line.

And these protests crossed that line a long time ago. Search the Charter of Rights, the federal Criminal Code and the various provincial traffic acts; get back to us when you find where it says that a few hundred people with farm equipment, big rigs or pickups have an inalienable right to block highways.

A minority with a beef do not get to decide that auto plants in Southern Ontario will have to close, due to lack of supplies, or that thousands of truckers will be forced to spend days trying to detour around blockades. The right to protest doesn’t include the power to rewrite the traffic code, or to force other Canadians out of work.

The authorities have to stop being so passive. That means the federal government. It also means provincial governments, notably that of Ontario’s strangely quiet Premier Doug Ford.

Ministers, mayors, premiers and prime ministers do not have the authority to direct police officers to arrest certain people or lay particular charges. And that is a very good thing. In Canada, police have the autonomy to make their best judgments as to how to uphold the law, at arm’s length from the elected officials who make the laws.

Have any police forces been incompetent or reluctant in the face of law-breaking? Then elected officials can replace the chiefs of those police services with more competent leaders.

However, what police facing blockades may be lacking is not spine but resources. In some cases, they need more officers. In others, they need better legal tools. Fines for various offences on roads or at borders could be increased, or the terms of what constitutes a breach of the law broadened. There likely would be all-party support at Queen’s Park and in Parliament to do that, immediately.

And many of the trucks blocking streets are licensed commercial vehicles. A bar that violates its licensing terms will lose its liquor license, and go out of business. Why aren’t commercial vehicles that break the law under similar threat?

Reasonable people can debate vaccine passports, mandates and public-health measures. This isn’t about that. Get off the road, or else.

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