Ottawa is a city full of government. The Prime Minister of Canada is here, and a Parliament where his opponents face him. There are provincial government offices, a National Capital Commission, a city hall and a Police Services Board overseeing a police chief. And yet, for 11 days, there has been an absence of leadership.
So on Monday, five Liberal cabinet ministers, conscious of the public frustration, went out to suggest that the Ottawa police and the Ontario provincial government have the tools to dismantle the truckers’ protests – which have frozen the downtown core and left locals complaining of honking and harassment.
But hey – something was missing. There was no appearance by the Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, at the news conference, or in question period on Monday. He had been absent from the public eye through another weekend of protests. When he didn’t show up in question period, one had to wonder: Where is the Prime Minister? Has he got nothing? What is he doing about this?
It was a reasonable thing to ask – although a lot less reasonable when the person doing the asking during question period was interim Conservative Leader Candice Bergen. After all, she had egged on the convoy. She told Tory MPs last week the party should not call on the truckers to go home because she wanted to make it Mr. Trudeau’s problem.
The Official Opposition, the proverbial government-in-waiting, is now effectively endorsing the use of heavy-machinery blockades to force policy changes. Unfortunately, Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre, a convoy supporter who announced by tweet Saturday that he is running to be prime minister – via a bid for his party’s leadership – wasn’t around to explain how that will work if he takes power one day.
But still, the Prime Minister’s absence exemplified the leadership void. And the murmurs about that must have come to Mr. Trudeau’s ears. He was back in the Commons at 7:15 p.m. for an emergency debate, declaring that the protests outside had become an affront to democracy and urging unity.
There was an election only months ago, he said, and Canadians chose vaccine mandates. He acknowledged that everyone is frustrated by wearing masks, but promised pandemic restrictions are not forever. But while Conservatives across the aisle asked him to take back derisive comments about the protesters, Mr. Trudeau insisted that Canadians were largely united and not defined by “a few people shouting and waving swastikas.”
Tucked into his comments was another tone. After Ottawa’s mayor asked for a huge surge of police, Mr. Trudeau promised the feds would make available the resources the city needs to end the protests. He said Transport Minister Omar Alghabra would work with provincial authorities to ensure protesters face consequences.
But this was a belated effort 11 days into an episode that has seen authorities of all levels and politicians of all stripes fall short of actual leadership.
For several days, Ottawa Police Chief Peter Sloly told the public he didn’t think there was a policing solution, and gave the impression he didn’t know what to do. Police didn’t even hand out many tickets until Sunday, when police also closed down a support location, removed a couple of structures and confiscated a fuel tank.
In the meantime, municipal politicians had issued bizarre calls for the whole police mess to become federal jurisdiction, which it isn’t. But it sure looked like police in Quebec City and Toronto had found a better way to handle the weekend protests in those cities.
The Ontario government, meanwhile, has washed its hands, insisting it has given the Ottawa police all the help it has requested – without really using such basic tools as the rules of the road.
The Ottawa protest wasn’t about people – it never drew one of the capital’s biggest protest crowds, and it has dwindled to a small number of people. It is the trucks that made it a blockade, and, as Mr. Alghabra noted Wednesday, the provincial government has powers over road safety and vehicle registration, and can threaten to revoke the truckers permits to operate commercial vehicles.
Yet so far, the one effective act of leadership in the whole thing has come from a private citizen, Ottawa lawyer Paul Champ, who won a court injunction Monday afternoon barring the convoy truckers from honking their horns.
By comparison, Mr. Trudeau’s surprise evening appearance was a belated attempt to throw something into the void of leadership – one that Ottawa residents have now seen at every level, and from every stripe.
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