By invoking the Emergencies Act, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Ontario Premier Doug Ford have decided to co-operate in confronting the militants who have taken possession of downtown Ottawa.
Federal and provincial police will now have greater resources to restore control in the national capital, supplementing and perhaps supplanting the hapless Ottawa Police Service, while also choking off the financing of the occupation.
Much could go wrong. Violence is possible. But provided the military is never required, the public will support reasonable measures to restore the authority of government in the capital and at border crossings.
And it won’t have slipped the Prime Minister’s notice that, by federalizing the response to protesting truckers, he is further embarrassing the Conservative Party.
Mr. Ford and Mr. Trudeau share one thing in common: Each depends for his political survival on the support of suburban Ontario voters. Over the past four years, the two men have at times competed with each other and at other times co-operated, always with an eye to what each thought those voters wanted.
For the more than two weeks that the truckers have been occupying Ottawa, the Ford government was content to lie low, confident that any blame for the fiasco that extended beyond the city’s mismanagement would fall on Mr. Trudeau’s head.
But when protesters shut down Windsor’s Ambassador Bridge, threatening the province’s economy, the two governments worked together to dismantle the blockade. And Mr. Ford was supportive, Monday, of Mr. Trudeau’s decision to invoke the Emergencies Act.
Is invoking the act a mistake? Perhaps. In the long run, it could be seen as overreach. Popular opinion sided with Pierre Trudeau when he invoked the War Measures Act in 1970 during the FLQ crisis. Years later, sober reassessment concluded suspending civil liberties to fight a small band of terrorists was excessive.
But the whole purpose of the Emergencies Act, which in 1988 replaced the War Measures Act, is to give the federal government the necessary powers to deal with an emergency without having to suspend Charter rights.
The weeks-long occupation of downtown Ottawa has been supplemented by thousands more on weekends. At the border crossing in Coutts, Alta., police have allegedly found guns, ammunition and body armour.
The question is whether all of this amounts to a threat to the peace of the realm so serious that the act must be invoked. Both Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Ford think so, although several premiers fear the new measures will only embolden the protesters. It’s a fair concern.
Up until now, Mr. Trudeau has shown little interest in accepting responsibility for ending the protests. Monday, he took full responsibility. If the government mismanages occupations and blockades, public support will evaporate. He is taking a political risk.
But for the Conservatives Party, the situation is dire. The party supported the initial aim of the Ottawa protest, which was to end mandatory vaccinations for truck drivers crossing into the United States. But that protest has devolved into a populist, right-wing occupation of the parliamentary precinct with an aim to force an immediate end to all pandemic restrictions and maybe to bring down the government as well.
How will the Conservatives vote when the House is asked to affirm the emergency measures? From the tone of interim leader Candice Bergen’s comments Monday night – she called the measure “ham-fisted” – it seems likely the Conservatives will vote against authorizing the act, although there may be defections.
Perhaps, one day that vote will be seen as principled opposition to an abuse of power. But in the near term, siding with the truckers and their supporters discredits the party, which once valued keeping the peace over protecting those who disturb it.
Carleton MP Pierre Poilievre, the only declared candidate for the leadership, remains solidly committed to supporting the truckers. It is difficult to understate the alarm of the establishment arm of the Conservative Party at what Mr. Poilievre has been saying.
Future histories may also point to the role Mr. Trudeau played in escalating the crisis, by demonizing those who opposed federal measures to combat the pandemic. But for now, the people will support him. In times of trouble, Canadians expect their leaders to lead. They will welcome his leadership now.
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