Before the crackdown of the Emergencies Act a year ago, there was a policing failure. Before the policing failure, there was a failure of intelligence gathering and analysis.
And before both those things, there was a deeper political failure, most notably by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
There is much to ponder, and some to disagree with, in the exhaustive report that Justice Paul Rouleau has shared with Parliament and the public on the decision by the federal government to invoke the Emergencies Act to shut down the disruptive protest occupying the streets of Ottawa.
We disagree, for instance, with his conclusion that the invocation was justified. Justice Rouleau is prepared to give the Liberal government the benefit of the doubt for not establishing that existing policing plans and powers were not up to the task of ending the protests. That generosity stretches too far, in our view.
Justice Rouleau does note that the factual basis for his conclusions “is not overwhelming” and that reasonable people could reach a different conclusion. And he points out that his opinion is not legally binding, and that it will be up to the courts to render a decisive verdict.
Separate from that yet-to-be-decided legal issue is the more fundamental question of how this country became so badly divided that thousands of Canadians evidently felt their only recourse was to occupy the nation’s capital, and that the federal cabinet evidently believed its only option was to curtail civil rights to oust them.
Wesley Wark: What the Emergencies Act inquiry report got right – and wrong
On that question, Justice Rouleau’s report makes some critical points that Mr. Trudeau, and all Canadians, would do well to think about.
One is the role of misinformation in the Freedom Convoy protests of last winter, often taken to mean the susceptibility of the protesters to conspiracy theories. But Justice Rouleau points out that misinformation moved in all directions.
There were “extreme elements” within the protest, he wrote, but “many and perhaps most” of the protesters were simply looking to protest lawfully. Yet, much of the media coverage simply lumped the protesters together with a handful that espoused loathsome and violent views.
So did the Prime Minister. As the protesters made their way to Ottawa, Mr. Trudeau called them a “small fringe minority of people” that held “unacceptable views.”
That demonization was part of an unfortunate pattern from the Prime Minister, who during the 2021 election campaign had labelled anti-vaccine protesters as “very often misogynistic and racist.” More broadly, Mr. Trudeau used vaccination as a wedge issue against his Conservative rivals in that campaign, a move that even one of his own MPs later criticized as a decision “to divide, and to stigmatize.”
Justice Rouleau is circumspect in his critique of Mr. Trudeau’s comments, inferring that he was not referring to all Freedom Convoy participants. That is an overly optimistic assessment, and one that ignores the political motivations at work for the Liberals as they sought first to delegitimize the protest by painting it as a nest of neo-Nazism, and then to tie it to the Conservatives.
But the justice does go on to point out what the Prime Minister and others should have been saying: that the majority of protesters were “exercising their fundamental democratic rights.” Encouragingly, Mr. Trudeau seems to have taken that part of Mr. Rouleau’s report to heart. Queried by reporters on Friday, Mr. Trudeau said he wished he had chosen different words. Yes, there are a “small number of people that spread misinformation,” he said. “That is a small subset of people who were just hurting, and worried and wanting to be heard.”
That is a welcome, if overdue, change of tone. Imagine how differently the campaign of 2021 and the events of last February would have proceeded if Mr. Trudeau had stuck with empathy rather than deliberate division.
Of course, the Prime Minister had company in his failure of empathy. A large swath of the Freedom Convoy protesters seemed to delight in tormenting the people of Ottawa, as if they were to blame for the deprivations they had suffered during the pandemic. The people of Ottawa returned the favour, seeing the protesters as occupiers, not fellow citizens.
That cycle of enmity did not end with the invocation of the Emergencies Act, or the dispersal of the Freedom Convoy protests, or with Justice Rouleau’s report.
The divisions, and failures, of last winter linger.