In Defense of Invoking the Emergencies Act
Before we forget about the weeks of testimony at the Public Order Emergency Commission, we ought to take a moment to reflect on how we ended up with one in the first place.
Faced with entrenched rows of semi-trucks littering the streets of Ottawa and blockades at two U.S.-Canada border crossings, the Trudeau government took the unprecedented step last winter of invoking Canada’s Emergencies Act. The move gave the government tools to handle the crisis, which local authorities had been slow to manage. It also mandated a subsequent commission to review the government’s actions to ensure they were appropriate—a necessary check on an extraordinary measure.
Eleven days ago the Public Order Emergency Commission wrapped up seven weeks of public hearings. Now that we have a little distance between the heat of the moment testimony, we ought to reflect on what we learned ahead of the Commission’s report to Parliament in February.
Between October 13th and December 2nd, each weekday, those who appeared before the commission gave testimony that revealed a story anyone who lived through the occupation already knew. The so-called “Freedom Convoy” had nothing to do with freedom and everything to do with reactionary white grievance politics. The so-called “protesters” were nothing of the sort. They were occupiers. They paralyzed the city with trucks and tents and shanty towns and terrorized residents for weeks.
Ottawa’s Victoria De La Ronde testified at the commission about the effects of the occupation on her health, calling them “quite extensive.” The trucks ran their engine for days and honked their horns incessantly just outside of people’s homes. “I, certainly during the experience, had difficulty sleeping,” De La Ronde said. “I had an effect on my lungs and my throat because of the fumes and other smells. And I also have long-term effects, she said. Those effects include “loss of hearing, loss of balance, some vertigo, triggered by the sound of any horn now,” and more.
Another Ottawa resident, Zexi Li, who is suing organizers as the lead plaintiff in a class action suit, tells how “the snow was often coloured yellow or brown due to the public urination and defecation that took place gratuitously.”
As Ottawa residents were being terrorized, the country was suffering economic harm. Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland told the commission during her testimony that the Biden administration was concerned about the blockade of the Ambassador Bridge.
"This was so worrying to me,” Freeland said, “because I could see really for the first time ever the Americans having this amber light flashing in Canada, and this amber light that said to them: 'You know what, the Canadian supply chain could be a vulnerability’.” The blockades cost the country CAD $3-6 billion.
Throughout the crisis, local and provincial officials were missing in action, unable or willing to act, and incompetent. Ontario premier Doug Ford didn’t seem to consider it a priority. Communication between orders of government was, at best, inconsistent and strained. Police and local officials dropped the ball. They hadn’t prepared for the occupation, and they didn’t know how to respond to it. No one was driving the bus.
Some who were meant to protect the community may have been facilitating the occupation. Ottawa police are investigating possible leaks from police to organizers. Convoy lawyer Keith Wilson said police were leaking information to the group. Tom Marazzo, who served as a spokesperson for the convoy, echoed this point; he testified that it was “his understanding” that police officers sympathetic to the cause were sharing operational details.
By invoking the act, the government facilitated an end to the occupation in Ottawa. And while one cannot prove a negative, it is reasonable to conclude it kept the blockades, which were coming down before the act was invoked, from popping up again. Canadians seem to agree. They supported invoking the Act last February and two out of three of them do now.
Opponents of the decision to invoke the Emergencies Act cite concerns that its use will become normalized as reasons for their opposition. That concern is understandable, but I’m not sure which future government members who saw these proceedings would be keen to ask for a big ol’ heap of that. None the less, we ought to guard against the overuse of any extraordinary state measure.
They also claim the government had no grounds to invoke the Act since the occupation and blockades didn’t rise to the level of a public order emergency as defined by the act. Sorting that out is what the Commission is all about, but looking at the situation from the perspective and context of the time, it certainly seemed to be.
I was in Ottawa during the occupation. Not only was I writing about it—a task that yielded endless grief and hate mail from so-called “freedom” supporters—I was living it. My apartment was a short walk from Parliament Hill and the besieged Wellington Street. It was just a slightly longer one to the neighborhoods where the occupiers were terrorizing residents.
Society has a right to defend itself. At the time, we had no idea who was in charge in Ottawa, no idea whether violence would escalate, and no idea when the occupation would end. The occupiers were, in essence, calling for a coup. There was a log jam that needed breaking. By invoking the Act, the government seems to have done just that. And there’s evidence from Commission testimony that supports that common sense take.
During testimony Ottawa’s interim police chief, Steve Bell, said the Emergencies Act was “helpful” in ending the occupation. He cited “four key areas” of assistance, including speeding up external police support by “swearing in members” from outside of the city, lowering barriers to mobilizing tow trucks to remove the semi-trucks, and providing financial tools to investigate funding.
Bell said the “main benefit” of the Act was that it provided “a legal framework for us to be able to operating within.” In essence, the Act was a foundation. As Bell put it, “It allowed for us to very clearly articular to our frontline officers what their powers were…so that they could understand what to do and how to execute it.”
Money was essential to keeping the occupation in place. By removing or restricting funds, the government helped clear a path to end the stalemate. The Emergencies Act facilitated the rapid freezing of bank accounts associated with the blockades and occupation. It also instructed insurance companies “to cancel or suspend the insurance policy for any vehicle taking part in a prohibited assembly.” Plus, it “subjected crowdfunding platforms and payment service providers”—two of the main sources of occupation donations and funding—"to the registration and reporting requirements under the Proceeds of Crime (Money Laundering) and Terrorist Financing Act.” That measure that is now permanent.
The same characters returned to Ottawa post-occupation, but subsequent visits were met by a city prepared. There is talk of another convoy—an “Olive Branch Edition”—descending on the city in February. Organizer James Bauder says the “Freedom Convoy reunion” is necessary “Because the simple fact is we can't have Unity without Reconciliation which has to come from ‘We The People’ and not from our Gov.”
No doubt, the city, indeed the country, will once again be prepared. It’s unlikely the Emergencies Act will be required again. That’s because it worked the first time.