Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 487, 23 February 2022

Canada: Imposition of national emergency, and the future of freedom convoy protests
Sarasi Ganguly

In the news
On 21 February 2022, Canada’s House of Commons voted to support the federal government in extending the Emergency Act. The 185-151 result made it clear that the lawmakers supported the government’s attempt to curb the Freedom Convoy protests. The Emergency Act was imposed by Prime Minister Trudeau last week to end the mass protests against Covid-19 and vaccination mandates. It is an unprecedented use of the Act that will give the Prime Minister special powers for 30 days. These powers include a ban on public assembly, travel restrictions, and the use of specific properties.
 
On 18 February, the emergency was invoked by Trudeau. Referring to the recent measures, Ottawa’s Interim Police Chief, Steve Bell, said: “Despite the successes of the past few days, we still require these measures to prevent unlawful protesters from returning.” Since last Friday, the streets have been cleared by several federal forces, and police have reported 196 arrests and towing of 115 vehicles.
 
Issues at large
First, The Freedom Convoy protests. Started as a rally of truckers protesting with their vehicles, the protest swept through Canada in early January following the compulsory vaccination of truck drivers crossing the US-Canada border. What started with truck drivers snowballed into a public outrage of right-wing groups using racist symbols, honking trucks on the road, and attacking small businesses. The city of Ottawa had the highest concentration of protestors resulting in public violence and property damage. The key route of Ambassador bridge was shut down by rigs on 8 February. The protests have continued for over two weeks and spread to all major cities of Canada. It became a reminder of the general frustration regarding pandemic restrictions, not only in Canada but parts of New Zealand, Australia, and Europe. 

Second, the State response. The Freedom Convoy protests brought out conflicting reactions from different political and social groups in Canada. The liberal government saw the protests as an attack on democracy and was concerned about public safety. The opposition groups in the Parliament were unsure of invoking an act that was never used to control the situation. They sought solutions through temporary blockades and restrictions. However, when the blocking of the Ambassador bridge posed an immense traffic problem, the opinions changed. The motion of invoking the Emergency Act was passed in the House of Commons that won by a majority. The opposing New Democratic Party leader saw the Emergency Act as a chance to clear out protestors who “undermined democracy.”

Third, the emergency act. It was imposed during the First and Second World Wars. It gave the cabinet special powers of restrictions on the grounds of public welfare. In 1970, this Act was used for the last time during the “October Crisis,” which gave the police power to suspect, arrest and detain anyone. The Act was repealed in 1988 and replaced by the Emergencies Act. Trudeau defended his decision by saying that the country’s situation “is still fragile.” At present, the Act can be justified as it has helped clear out protestors from the most important areas of the country.

In perspective
While there is talk of the Freedom Convoy protests coming to an end in Canada, there have been copycat protests in New Zealand and Australia against vaccine mandates. There may be a larger political repercussion regarding public health and mandates that were a common feature of the pandemic. Second, the three-week-long protest exhausted Ottawa police and called the protests a “siege.” It was not an easy task for the police and security forces to address the protests; how to deal with the protestors who are using the strategy as a part of their fundamental right is a big question for liberal democracies.

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