Trudeau’s Emergencies Act reappraised – how the Canadian Maple fell without a sound

What happened in Canada earlier this year has been almost forgotten in the light of the war in Ukraine. Yet Justin Trudeau’s response to the truckers’ protest shocked the world. As Alex Story argues here, it is a reminder about the fragility of Western democratic values and is too troubling to ignore. Let it be a lesson to us all.

“If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” 

THAT QUESTION troubled many of our greatest philosophers over generations. Last month, however, the question was finally answered. The sturdy and tough Canadian Maple tree fell in plain sight. The fall barely making a sound.

Democracy ended overnight – with little to no fuss, and some encouragement from neighbours and friends. 

To deal with an old fashioned, “grease under your fingernails” workingman’s protest, Trudeau, Canada’s Prime Minister, invoked the Emergencies Act on the 14th of February. 

Barely a week later, his party, with the support of the New Democratic Party, ganged-up to pass the measure by 185 votes to 151. The Conservatives and Bloc Québécois voted against the use of the sweeping enforcement measures, accusing the prime minister of overreach. The Canadian government granted itself powers it did not have before.

These included the power to impose restrictions on public assembly and travel, to mobilize federal support for local and provincial police, impose fines on violations of the act, whatever that might mean in practice. 

The police were given the ability to arrest without warrant those who were directly or indirectly “assisting others” in what it considered “criminal activities” – no justifications required.  Added to physical restrictions, the Emergencies Act allowed banks and financial institutions to freeze accounts, again without court order, of those suspected of supporting the blockades – that is to say, directly or indirectly. 

What the passing of the Act meant in practice was summed up by Steve Bell, Ottowa’s interim Police Chief, during a press conference on February 20th 2022. After seemingly imploring people to “go home”, Steve Bell revealed the reality behind the Emergencies Act: “if you are involved in this protest we will actively look to identify you and follow up with financial sanctions and criminal charges”. 

Living in fear of the state

To make sure the message was understood, he clarified – anybody involved in this protest, will live in fear from the State “for months to come”. From losing access to personal bank accounts, to professional licences, to criminal charges and municipal breaches of court order, those who protested against the government’s narrow vaccine mandate and broader Covid policy, joined the new caste of the damned. 

The Emergencies Act, as written by the Canadian Department of Justice, was rather specific. It stated that a national emergency “is an urgent, temporary and critical situation that seriously endangers the health and safety of Canadians or that seriously threatens the ability of the Government of Canada to preserve the sovereignty, security and territorial integrity of Canada”. 

Importantly, it added that it must be “a situation that cannot be effectively dealt with by the provinces and territories, or by any other law of Canada”. 

Over its first four weeks, none of these prerequisites for the act even to have been considered were met. The Freedom Convoy seemed at worse an inconvenience; at best a carnival. To some it was incommodious; to others emancipating. As it was, the embarrassment for an administration that too quickly resorted to slander and opprobrium, seems to have been that the truckers and their followers were too well behaved and reassuringly civilised. 

It was, by any measure, very peaceful.  

Had there been acts of violence, looting or property destruction of any kind, the entire world would have been told with alacrity. Honest Constable Steve Bell would have delighted in telling us who the thugs were, had there been any. But, thugs there were none – or too few to mention. 

He knew it, so when asked about them and about protestors allegedly in possession of firearms, he waffled and swiftly moved on to generalities and threats. The contrast between the celebratory mood on the ground and the paranoid, Bourbon-type, response from Trudeau and his administration is and will remain the greatest of all mysteries. 

The Truckers demands were clear and simple: an end to Covid restrictions, in particular vaccine mandates for Truckers who work the cross-border route between the United States and Canada. 

The usual vaxxer, anti-vaxxer dichotomy, was tried for a short while until, early on in the protest, the Canadian Trucking Alliance reminded the world that “around 90% of Canada’s 120,000 cross-border truckers are vaccinated, in line with the country’s adult population”.

Then, having tried vilification, Trudeau escaped in fear before the great unwashed – in an Opera-Bouffereplay of Louix XVI’s 1791 flight from Paris. 

However, the Freedom Convoy, with simple demands and cheery smiles witnessed in a short few weeks the majority of the country’s 10 provinces – including Ontario and Quebec – lifting much of COVID’s egregious restrictions.

“The world is done with (the pandemic), so let’s just move forward,” Ontario Premier Doug Ford said on Tuesday February 15th. 

Not to be left behind, on February 23rd, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney called Trudeau’s doubling down on repression and defamation “the biggest mistake of any modern Canadian Government”. 

He added that the Emergencies Act was “introduced for no good reason”.

Trudeau panicked and overreacted “with this use of extreme powers”, Kenney continued. He ended his piece to camera by saying that “the chief enforcement officer of Canada has said that if he disagrees with your opinions”, he “might freeze and seize your bank account without going to court”. 

Where lies Canada now?

How can Canada still be considered a democracy in such circumstances? 

Protest, in particular when respectfully conducted, as the Freedom Convoy seems to have been, is the sine qua non of democratic governance – as are the twins of consent and compromise. 

Trudeau never deigned to seek to understand the protesters. The ordinary world is too distant, quaint and old fashioned for him. To spend time trying to understand the yearning for normalcy and freedom would have required wasting it speaking to people, who are not included in the Progressive Programme. 

Of note, and perhaps most worryingly of all though, is, when it happened, how silent the fall of Canada’s democracy was. No Western country bore witness to the euphemistically titled “overreach”. Perhaps, they were too distracted with troubles on the Ukraine-Russian border. Or perhaps not. 

Be that as it may, the take-away is that in the UK, as in other Western countries, we really could well be just one election – or Act – away from a Trudeau-type coup against the people. And that should keep us up at nights. 

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Alex Story lives in Salzburg and is a senior manager at a City brokerage, where he works closely with hedge funds and other financial institutions. A rower, he represented Great Britain at the Olympic Games and won the Boat Race for Cambridge on two occasions. His team still holds the course record. @alexpstory

Photo of Convoy for Freedom 2022 in Ottawa; trucks, tractors and pick-ups protesting in the streets with flags, signs and smiles – by aetb from Adobe Stock