Skip to main content
opinion

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrives with Minister of Justice and Attorney General David Lametti, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Chrystia Freeland and Minister of Public Safety Marco Mendicino at a news conference to announce that the Emergencies Act is being revoked, in Ottawa, on Feb. 23.PATRICK DOYLE/Reuters

There is still an important question about whether the federal government was legally justified in invoking the Emergencies Act to clear trucker blockades. But Justin Trudeau’s government knew pretty clearly that one big political question was going to be about how long it lasted.

Ten days. Police have all the powers they need from here on in, Mr. Trudeau told reporters, which really does make you wonder just which emergency powers were necessary a week ago.

As much as the feds wanted to look like they were taking action Feb. 14, getting the Emergencies Act over with was becoming a political necessity by Feb. 23.

Ottawa’s streets are mostly clear, though some near Parliament are still fenced off, and calls to not let the emergency powers last one day more than necessary were getting louder.

From a purely political perspective, it was obvious that Mr. Trudeau had to revoke the Emergencies Act orders quickly. With each passing day, the political debate was more about the Emergencies Act, and potential overreach, and less about what the Liberals want it to be about: the blockades and whether they had to be broken up.

Most Canadians, opinion polls told us pretty convincingly, were against the blockades, and wanted police to shut them down. But using the Emergencies Act? That’s likely to have more opponents. Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre, the front-runner for the party’s leadership, has de-emphasized his support for the convoys while working up social-media attacks on the Emergencies Act.

There will still be two legally required reviews – a quick parliamentary-committee review followed by an inquiry that can last up to a year – that could question whether the government met the legal threshold for invoking the Emergencies Act, or if the measures adopted under emergency orders were unnecessary, or heavy-handed.

But their short duration will allow the Liberals to argue that if there were oversteps, they were minor mistakes that didn’t last long. You know – merely a brief intermission from some civil liberties. The most momentary soupçon of overreach.

The thing is, there really was a need for something to be done. That’s what Mr. Trudeau wants people to focus on now: the convoys, the obstruction of bridges, the disruption, and the fact that it had to be stopped.

There can’t be much doubt that blockading border crossings is a major disruption and a threat to the country’s economy, and no one should deny that the blockading of downtown Ottawa, with some incidents of harassment and intimidation, was both illegal and abusive for its residents.

And oddly enough, it was done mostly without extraordinary powers. The police action on the ground in Ottawa – the thousands of officers forming lines and forcing back protesters, arresting drivers of campers blocking intersections, and pushing them away from blocked roads – appeared to be within the bounds of regular police powers. Organizers were arrested, but charged with regular Criminal Code offences.

The way emergency financial powers were used to freeze bank accounts is still murky, although the police effectively denied claims by Conservative MPs that they were used against folks who were merely convoy donors, and stated that many frozen accounts have been unfrozen. It was striking when Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland said Wednesday that accounts were just frozen to persuade people who took part in the convoys “to listen to reason.”

In a strange way, the lightness of the measures lends credence to the argument that they were not needed. And let’s remember, the Emergencies Act states that it can only be invoked for an emergency that “cannot be effectively dealt with under any other law of Canada.”

So far, Mr. Trudeau’s government hasn’t made a convincing case that it met that threshold. It seems more likely that his government was frustrated by the blockades, and by the weeks of inaction of police, who are under local or provincial authority, and felt politically squeezed by the people screaming for the Prime Minister to take charge. The feds didn’t have a lot of powers to take charge, or even to revoke truckers’ licences. They had the Emergencies Act, so they used it.

But that’s not what Mr. Trudeau wants people to remember after all this. You could see it on Wednesday. The inquiries will review the use of the Emergencies Act, but he said he wants them to talk about what led up to it – about misinformation, about what led so many people to disregard laws, and foreign funding.

He’ll be glad to talk about other things.

For subscribers: Get exclusive political news and analysis by signing up for the Politics Briefing.