Note: The commission investigating the federal government’s use of the Emergencies Act to end disruptive occupations in Ottawa, Windsor and Coutts, Alberta last year has reported. Here is what I wrote about the inquiry several months ago. It still holds.
As someone who lives in Ottawa, I have been asked by friends and acquaintances elsewhere what I think of the federal government’s use of the Emergencies Act during the three-week occupation of our city in February 2022. I supported what the government did then, and I have not changed my mind.
The matter is receiving a thorough airing during six weeks of hearings and testimony by the Public Order Emergency Commission into whether the use of the Emergencies Act met the threshold established for its implementation when the act was passed in 1988.
The commission may eventually decide that the government over-reached in using the act and various critics will say that they knew it all along. That is like armchair quarterbacks saying, after the fact, that they knew all along who would win the Grey Cup. I would remind those people that the occupation of downtown Ottawa presented a moving target. It was a time of confusion, chaos, and potential violence.
I have been involved in protests. This was not a protest. It was an occupation. The occupiers demanded that governments lift an array of measures taken to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, which has (by now) claimed the lives of 45,000 Canadians. No one elected them. They appointed themselves as arbiters of what Canadians should or should not do about the pandemic, and they came to shut down Ottawa until their demands were met. Depending upon who was using the bullhorn, they wanted no travel restrictions and no masking. They could have cared less about the medical advice provided by health experts. Others of Ottawa’s unwelcome guests spread wild conspiracy theories about the World Economic Forum taking over our country.
Ottawa police inept
The Ottawa Police Service, riven by toxic internal politics, proved itself thoroughly inept in anticipating the threat and in responding to it once it had arrived. The police chief and other senior officers naively believed protestors would turn their rigs around and leave after one weekend. The Ottawa police either did not read, or they disregarded, intelligence reports from the Ontario Provincial Police and others, warning that the occupiers were planning to disrupt and remain for a long time.
Ford missing in action
The occupation occurred in Ontario and thus required the attention of the province’s most senior politicians. Despite Premier Doug Ford’s recent claim that he stood “shoulder to shoulder” with the prime minister during the occupation, he was, in truth, missing in action. He and his attorney general both refused to participate in any meetings to head off or end the occupation, and now they are refusing subpoenas to testify at a commission that will hear from numerous federal cabinet ministers.
I repeat. The occupation presented a moving target. The Ottawa Police service was incompetent. City council was ineffective. Ontario’s premier was nowhere to be found. The OPP and the RCMP say that they had plans in place to end the occupation, but that the Ottawa Police Service refused to cooperate. Someone had to make decisions and the federal cabinet did so. The commission of inquiry may decide that they went a step too far, but at least they acted.
The occupiers claimed to be Canadian patriots. Hence their use the Canadian flag as a symbol adorning their trucks. They would have us believe that people in Ottawa welcomed them with open arms, and enjoyed their dance parties and hot tub antics. The reality on the ground was something quite different. They were not welcomed by locals.
Downtown Ottawa is home to fifteen thousand people, a population equivalent to that of many smaller Canadian cities. For three weeks, those people were prisoners in their own homes. Working people could not get to their jobs. Elderly people and sick children could not get to medical appointments. Many who ventured outside were harassed and threatened. There was no escaping the ear-splitting blare of air horns from the big trucks for twenty-four hours a day. Most businesses had to shut down and the cost to them was in the millions.
Class action suit
There is a $300 million class action lawsuit in progress against the occupiers, on behalf of downtown residents and businesses. Paul Champ is the lawyer prosecuting those suits. On the commission’s first day of hearings, he said he would see to it that the commission and the public would not lose sight of the truck convoy’s victims
Ottawa’s occupiers made another demand. They insisted that the Liberal government, re-elected in 2019, should resign. Their written manifesto called for the Governor-General dismiss the Trudeau government and then rule in some fashion with the self-appointed occupiers. Gary Mason, a columnist for the Globe and Mail, said at the time that the manifesto gave every impression of being written around a campfire after its authors had consumed too much beer.
Those speaking for the occupiers, and it was difficult to know who that was, claimed that it was the prime minister’s duty to meet with them, and to negotiate. Negotiate what? To resign and turn governing over to the mob? Their hatred for Justin Trudeau was palpable. Remember the signs saying F**k Trudeau? Describing him as a traitor? The signs showing him with a noose around his neck?
Conservatives and selfies
Pierre Poilievre, now the Conservative leader, and some members of the caucus met with the occupiers, had dinner with them, took selfies with them. They also say that Justin Trudeau should have met with the intruders. One Conservative said recently that MPs should meet with anybody. Strange then that when some months ago I attended an polite event on Parliament Hill where Muslim leaders had come to lobby MPs, there was not a conservative MP to be seen. The Liberals, NDP and the Greens were there, but somehow the Conservatives missed that one.
The government did invoke the Emergencies Act. Combined police forces, coincidentally or otherwise, deftly cleared Ottawa’s downtown streets at just that time. No one was seriously injured. The government withdrew the act after just a few days. It had been applied only to Ottawa and a few other sites, such as the Ambassador Bridge in Windsor, where protestors had erected blockades. Now, as mandated, the Public Order Emergency Commission is reviewing what happened. All of this is a script befitting a mature liberal democracy, rather than the mob rule that played out in our streets for three weeks in winter.
Thank-you, Dennis, for this balanced and thoughtful article. I’d only add that I’m very pleased that there is a public enquiry — as is required by law — and to be able to follow the proceedings. We are already learning a lot and will learn even more when the Commissioner summarizes the testimony and produces conclusions and recommendations. As a general proposition, I’d say that too much information-passing and decision-making takes place outside of public scrutiny, and from the perspective of democratic practice, this process is salutatory. Lawrence
Thanks for the comment Lawrence. I, too, am pleased that there is an inquiry, as mandated by the act. That is what I had in mind when I mentioned the workings of a mature democracy.
Absolutely right and well said. I would add that I sent the following to my (our?) local (Liberal) MP on February 2, participated in several counter-demos during the occupation and was both surprised and happy to see the Trudeau government take the action it did, despite my not having voted for them.
Hon. Mr. Naqvi:
I am writing as a private citizen and a constituent.
I believe it is clear that an illegal occupation of public spaces in Ottawa, including in the Parliamentary Precinct is taking place.
I would be very pleased to hear that the national security apparatus is working with local, provincial and national police forces and other government agencies to:
1) Identify all the people participating in, organizing and supporting these unauthorized and illegal operations;
2) Identify their places of work and home addresses;
3) Identify their assets including but not limited to insurance policies, vehicles, bank deposits, stocks, other financial institutions and their business and personal properties;
4) Identify any other sources of income or revenue they have;
5) Prepare writs to seize any property which may be involved in this illegal occupation;
6) Prepare writs to seize and hold, pending legal proceedings, any and all assets of the participants which might be of use in making reparations to both private citizens affected by the illegal actions and to governments for the public costs, including penalties, arising from them;
7) To release this information widely as soon as it may be convenient to the public interest;
8) To take anticipatory action against any such further occupations and demonstrations which ignore or purport to ignore reasonable limits on the rights of the rest of the public; and
9) To execute all writs of seizure as noted above with respect to any person who continues to be involved in the occupation on one hour’s notice, given publicly.
This is an unconscionable demonstration of ego and lawlessness which defies and degrades the rights of every other Canadian citizen and particularly those who live in Ottawa.
I urge you to take up these possibilities with your colleagues in government.
Thanks for your comment. Your letter to MP Naqvi was certainly detailed. I also agree with your description of the occupation as “an unconscionable demonstration of ego and lawlessness.”
Thanks for you comment Bill. You have much context from which to judge the use of this latest act since you were a Member of Parliament when the War Measures Act was introduced in 1970.
re detail in my letter to Naqvi: Overkill, perhaps, but “if a complete outsider can see the obvious course ahead and provide a concrete plan, what’s the hold-up?”
Very good. The sheer limitations, reviews, etc. in this act gave me much comfort in its use versus the open ended War Measures Act when used in 1970, which I opposed. This action was justified, particularly in its narrow scope.
I believe the federal government did the right thing at a time when chaos dominated the situation in Ottawa especially in the area in front of the Parliament buildings. Several people I know, including my son, were unable to sleep because of the overnight noise. There were negative economic consequences for business in the downtown area as well. The police at every level were incompetent and Premier Ford was totally absent. The federal government implemented the Emergencies Act to deal with this situation because no other actors were able to clear the occupiers. I believe the action was justified given the damage being caused by the occupiers.
Thanks for your comment Fran. The fact that your son had to deal with constantly blaring air horns gives the lie to those who want to describe their presence in Ottawa as a love-in.
Thanks , Dennis. Totally agree.