Ben Roback is Vice President of Public Affairs at Sard Verbinnen & Co.
Justin Trudeau announced new COVID-19 measures in November last year, the kind that civil liberties campaigners have become used to objecting to on a routine basis. Going further, in January he imposed a vaccine mandate for cross-border truckers that resulted in a 14-day quarantine for those who did not comply.
A tipping point for many beyond just the truckers directly affected, the Canadian capital of Ottawa then became the scene of mass protests and aggressive police intervention, prompting some of the most draconian legislative responses the democratic world has seen throughout the length of the pandemic.
Was this an inevitable outcome for an entire sector of skilled professionals who faced financial ruin if they did not comply with the vaccine mandate? Or the latest attempt by a government to pursue protection from coronavirus and cross-border transmission?
Announcing the measures, Trudeau cannot have expected to turn Canada into the unlikely global epicentre of protests against Covid measures. This is, after all, a country best known for politeness and jokingly mocked for being so quick to apologise.
Then truckers clashed with local police, prompting hundreds of arrests. The Prime Minister relocated to a secret safe location. The Government invoked emergency powers and used them to seize trucks, free personal and corporate bank accounts of those protesting, and declare specific areas as “no-go zones”. The heavy-handed response by the police led to the resignation of the capital’s police chief.
The convoy of trucks and truckers that arrived in January was accompanied by the kind of flags and slogans that we are used to seeing on the streets of Washington, DC. “Don’t tread on me” was waved next to “Choose freedom to choose”. The self-styled ‘Freedom Convoy’ inspired duplicates in France, New Zealand and the Netherlands.
Candace Owens, a famed anti-vaxxer and right-wing provocateur in the United States, even called for a US invasion of Canada in support of the convoy. (Joe Biden and Anthony Blinken, the Secretary of State, might have been preoccupied by a looming invasion of Ukraine at the time.)
The end of the protests, but an extension of the ’emergency measures’?
By and large, the protests led by truckers have come to an end, but the Government has cited trucks gathered on the outskirts of Ottawa as justification to extend its so-called emergency powers. The Canadian Parliament voted this week to extend The Emergencies Act, which provides the police the emergency powers deemed necessary to clear further protests should they arise.
The Government argues that it cannot abide further threats to trade and Canada’s strategically important sites like the Ambassador Bridge, the crossing that straddles Ontario and Detroit and which handles more than a quarter of US-Canada trade. It will argue that no one campaigns for fewer protections around the Suez Canal through which 12 per cent of global trade flows.
Hampered by leading a minority government, Trudeau was reliant on the New Democratic Party for support. Having to look outside of your own party to pass legislation is rarely a good look. The vote now moves up to the Senate, where defeat in the upper chamber would mean powers in the emergency act would be immediately revoked.
In parliaments around the world, governments continue to struggle to balance health fears with the concerns of elected representatives who urge freedom and personal responsibility. At home, we have seen a sudden shift towards the latter as the Cabinet signed off a plan to end all Covid restrictions and urge a return to normality.
On the one hand, it is reassuring to know we are not alone in this quagmire. On the other, as conservatives it is wrenching to see multiple administrations fail to listen to those making the nuanced case for greater freedom.
The Canadian protests started as a rally against mandatory vaccinations and have quickly spread into much more than a single-issue campaign. The movement has extended to anti-establishment causes gaining traction in cities around the world and, of course, on encrypted social media platforms. Trudeau called the protestors a “fringe minority”, reminiscent of a more polite version of Hillary Clinton referring to Donald Trump supporters as “a basket of deplorables”.
As the pandemic slowly turns to endemic around the world, where will these supposed “fringe minorities” go? Laurence Fox’s repeated failed political escapades prove that electoral systems rarely reward these kind of campaign groups. But a decades-long movement that culminated in Brexit proves that campaigning can be effective outside the regularity of election cycles.
Campaigners will continue to protest. Convoys may drive through Ottawa again. It is paramount that governments facilitate their ability to do so within reason, rather than rushing to inhibit freedom of expression and association. There can be no greater sign of a functioning democracy than the ability to openly criticise one’s own government.
They are unlikely to lose their voice, but it is possible that those who shout loudest will cease to make the most noise. Truckers took to the streets of Ottawa in protest at the vaccine mandate. For all the disruption and subsequent political attention caused, it is worth noting that the Canadian Trucking Alliance report that 85 per cent of truckers are vaccinated after all.