Canadians remain divided about the Freedom Convoy truckers' protest in Ottawa in January and February of 2022. Some Canadians saw the truckers as heroes resisting unjust laws, while government-funded media portrayed thousands of peaceful protesters as a harmful nuisance at best, and as dangerous racists and violent criminals at worst.
I know people who live in Ottawa who tell me there was significant inconvenience for some individuals living in the downtown core. I have no reason to doubt their word. However, for 99 percent (or more) of the 1,423,000 Ottawa-Gatineau residents, life went on quite normally while Canadians exercised their Charter freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly in their nation's capital.
The peaceful protests included parking trucks in the downtown core of Ottawa, honking horns, holding placards, a concert stage, bouncy castles for children, and other peaceful forms of protest. From late January through to mid-February, tens of thousands of Canadians attended, some sleeping in their vehicles while others stayed in hotels, rentals, and private homes. Many more participated by displaying flags, singing and dancing, giving truckers food and fuel, voicing support online and donating money to the cause.
During this time, one Ottawa resident tried to set fire to an apartment building. Politicians and government-funded media seized on this as an "example" of how dangerous the protesting truckers were, but eventually the truth came out: Ottawa police admitted that the would-be arsonist had nothing to do with the out-of-town protesters. In contrast to the violent vandalism of a GasLink pipeline site in BC (fires lit, and roadway blocked with downed trees, tar covered stumps, boards with spikes in them) in February 2022, the Ottawa protests saw no looting, shooting, vandalism or violence. The peaceful nature of these events in Ottawa is remarkable when considering the huge numbers of protesters, the protest's lengthy duration of several weeks, and the protesters' high degree of passion for lifting lockdowns and vaccine mandates.
Yet the Government of Canada declared a public order emergency under the Emergencies Act on February 14, 2022. The government then froze the bank accounts of hundreds of Canadians without due process, court oversight, or any opportunity for account owners to defend themselves against what amounted to accusations of funding terrorism or other violence. The federal government designated restricted zones, prohibiting people from bringing food and fuel to the protesters, and even prohibiting people from going to Ottawa to join the protest. The police deployed horse-mounted units, batons and tear gas to disperse peaceful demonstrators, many of them suffering injuries.
Whether one agrees or disagrees with mandatory vaccination policies, this rather violent crack-down on a peaceful protest horrified people around the world, especially those who saw Canada as an advanced democracy which respects human rights and constitutional freedoms
This was the first time in Canadian history that the Emergencies Act was invoked. The other historical comparisons in Canada, under the former War Measures Act, include the internment of Japanese Canadians during World War II, and a crack-down on members and supporters (and suspected members and supporters) of the violent, terrorist Front de liberation du Québec (FLQ) in October 1970. The War Measures Act was also used during World War I to intern Canadians of Ukrainian, German, Croatian, Slovak, Czech, Turkish and Bulgarian descent. There was no formal public inquiry to investigate or review the federal government's use of the War Measures Act against the FLQ or against ethnic minorities.
Fortunately, the Emergencies Act requires that an inquiry into the declaration of emergency be held. In April 2022, the Government of Canada established the Public Order Emergency Commission to conduct this mandatory inquiry into the circumstances that led to the declaration of emergency and the government's use of emergency powers. The Commission has announced that it expects to hear from 65 witnesses within the next six weeks.
The Emergencies Act may only be invoked if the federal government has reasonable grounds to believe that a national emergency exists, and that it cannot be quelled by way of existing federal, provincial and municipal laws. The federal government will try to persuade the Commission that the truckers "seriously endangered" the lives, health or safety of Canadians, and that they did so in a way that exceeded "the capacity or authority of a province to deal with it."
On the first day of the inquiry hearing, Ontario Provincial Police lawyer Christopher Diana said "there was sufficient legal authority [in the absence of the Emergencies Act] to deal with the protest activities that took place …" Ottawa's municipal bylaws, statutory injunctions under the Municipal Act, issuing tickets for violating the Highway Traffic Act and the Trespass to Property Act, civil remedies, and provincial emergency powers were tools at the government's disposal.
Instead of using these available tools, the government resorted to draconian measures which had previously been used to deal with bombs, kidnapping, hostage-taking and murder in Quebec; to forcibly remove from the BC coast an ethnic minority suspected of being likely to support a war-time invasion by Imperial Japan; and to imprison Canadians of the "wrong" ethnicities during the First World War.
Those who love truth would be well-advised to watch the Commission's proceedings closely.
John Carpay, B.A., LL.B., is president of the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (jccf.ca), which is providing legal representation to several of the Freedom Convoy participants and has full participatory standing before the Commission.
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