Over the last month, it’s fair to say things haven’t been going that well in Canada. Justin Trudeau, its Prime Minister, has been locked in a battle with huge numbers of lorry drivers, who have rejected the government’s requirement that they be vaccinated by January 15 – or else have to quarantine for 14 days after trips.
The truckers, many of whom have referred to themselves as the “Freedom Convoy”, have protested across different parts of Canada, including the Ambassador Bridge, which connects Michigan and Ontario, and the areas around parliament, causing enormous disruption, with some local businesses being forced to close.
The protests have been divisive to say the least. Watching media footage, it’s impossible to get a sense of who everyone involved is. Clearly a sizeable portion are hard working people, who simply reject the philosophical principle of vaccine mandates and want to make their feelings known.
But there have also been problematic elements, with reports of far-right groups infiltrating the protest. Police also recently detained 11 people involved, who had weapons including guns, ammunition and body armour. So the Canadian authorities understandably have concerns about where this will lead.
Trudeau’s management of the situation, however, has not helped things in the least. For one, he tends to lump protesters together and has implied everyone involved is a bigot in tweets. He has given no indication to listening to any worries people have about mandates, and his ability to diffuse the growing tensions appears non-existent.
Far from it, Trudeau has gone where no Canadian Prime Minister has gone before, and yesterday invoked the country’s Emergencies Act in order to show Canadians who’s boss. First passed in 1988, it means the authorities can take radical action to stop the protests, such as freezing bank accounts and vehicle insurance for anyone linked to them, without a court order. The police will also have more tools to tackle those involved.
Although Trudeau reassured the public that the measures would be “time-limited” and “reasonable and proportionate”, and that the military would not be called for, you wouldn’t bet on the latter, given how chaotic his strategy has been to date.
It’s not only the reaction of the protesters that could be an issue for the prime minister. Trudeau may have difficulty trying to enact the Emergencies Act, as it can only be used for specific issues, such as counter espionage or sabotage and foreign-influenced activities, among other things. Will disgruntled truckers really fit into this category? Trudeau will have to consult the premiers of those in impact provinces before putting it to parliament, and if they do not see its point here, the act has to be revoked. What will this do to his premiership?
That the Canadian government is threatening its citizens with financial punishment will shock many, given that it is often regarded as one of the world’s most progressive places to live. But it’s interesting that another democracy, previously considered as a liberal haven, is having similar difficulties. That is, New Zealand, where politicians are trying to contain protesters who also object to vaccine mandates.
Recently authorities tried to disperse protesters outside the country’s parliament by playing “annoying” music, such as songs written by James Blunt and the children’s anthem “Baby Shark”. Although you could say this was quite a “funny” way of getting back of them, there’s something sinister about a government, literally, infantilising its people.
What can you make of Canada and New Zealand? Surely the biggest conclusion is that governments can go too far in pushing for Covid legislation. Through the pandemic, it’s been countries like Sweden – and the UK at the beginning of the crisis – have been criticised for being lax over restrictions. Yet we have seen in the likes of Australia, where large protests erupted as people got sick of strict measures, that governments can be too extreme in the opposite direction – pushing people to breaking point.
Trudeau’s best tactic at this point is surely to retract all mandate threats, but he is clearly too far down the rabbit hole to see sense. Events are, at the very least, a reminder that, for all the accusations that the UK should have had stronger measures, there’s sometimes a worrying price to pay.