By TAYTYN BADGER
On Feb. 14, the Canadian government under Prime Minister Trudeau invoked the Emergencies Act in response to urban and border blockades set up by the so-called “Freedom Convoy” and their sympathizers. Rather than a strike against the right, this suspension of civil rights and due process represents the setting of a dangerous precedent for the left.
The Freedom Convoy began nominally as a protest against the institution of vaccination requirements for truckers crossing the border between Canada and the United States. Demands quickly expanded to removing regulations meant to limit the spread of COVID-19 more generally, and the removal of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau from power on the grounds of tyranny and corruption.
Far from a grassroots movement of truckers opposed to COVID restrictions, 90% of cross-border truckers are already vaccinated, and the Freedom Convoy is led by figures with a long history in the far right, including Tamara Lich, D.J. Dichter, and Pat King. It has attracted a panoply of forces in addition to actual truckers and workers alienated by the government’s disastrous handling of the pandemic and economic distress for whom no alternative on the left is available, such as reactionaries, and neo-Nazis, with most of the “truckers” in attendance being company owners.
Convoys associated with the Freedom Convoy began traveling to Ottawa for the purpose of delivering their demands and occupying the capital on Jan. 22. Since arriving on the 29th, they have paralyzed much of the city centre while harassing the local populace. They have assaulted and harassed paramedics, people wearing masks, BIPOC, and workers at a soup kitchen serving the local homeless, the last while demanding free food. They have marched carrying Confederate flags, swastikas, and Gadsden flags (“Don’t tread on me”). At the same time, they have appropriated and mocked Indigenous peoples and traditions with burlesques of pipe ceremonies, dances, drum circles, and mocked Residential School survivors by calling for an “Orange Shirt Day” against school COVID-19 restrictions.
On the same day the Freedom Convoy arrived in Ottawa, sympathizers erected a blockade at Coutts, Alberta, blocking travel through one of the largest commercial border crossings in Western Canada. Ambassador Bridge, between Ontario and Michigan, was similarly blocked beginning on Feb. 7, and the Pacific Highway Crossing on the 12th. These latter two blockades were removed on the 13th, and the Coutts blockade on the 15th.
On Feb. 18, police began removing the blockade in Ottawa, using officers on horseback and wielding automatic rifles to clear the streets. There were some skirmishes with protesters; over 100 were arrested and a number of vehicles were towed away.
Notwithstanding the recent arrests, The Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Ottawa Police Service, and other police forces have handled the Freedom Convoy with the softest of touches, particularly when compared to their treatment of Indigenous people, Black people, and people of color in general. The OPS has largely refused to enforce existing laws and injunctions, and has been described by convoy leaders as “having our backs while we have theirs.” Large numbers of retired and current police officers have been seen taking part in and supporting the convoys and blockades. RCMP officers have even been filmed hugging and shaking hands with protesters at the Coutts blockade as they dispersed on Feb. 15. All this serves to highlight the fact that the police consist largely of reactionaries and right-wingers, fitting their purpose of upholding the rule and interests of settler-capitalism and the state acting on capital’s behalf.
The federal government around Trudeau has responded by invoking the Emergencies Act. The Emergencies Act is the modern iteration of the War Measures Act, first used to justify suppression of the left and the imprisonment and deportation of immigrants during World War I, once again during the Second World War, and a third time by Trudeau’s father in peacetime in response to the 1970 October Crisis. The Emergencies Act grants the federal government legal authority to suspend freedom of assembly and travel along with a variety of other civil rights, as long as it is not rescinded by Parliament. It may be invoked in response to the threat of foreign or domestic sabotage or espionage, threat or use of violence by ideological and political organizations, and attempts to overthrow the state.
This suspension of civil liberties is being deliberately justified in terms that might just as easily be applied to the Wet’suwet’en blockades and sympathy protests two years ago, setting the stage for later use against Indigenous activists and the left. The rationale expressed by Trudeau and state representatives has largely revolved around the threat of “illegal blockades,” and the importance of “protecting critical infrastructure.” The invocation, Trudeau declared, would be used to “designate, secure, and protect places and infrastructure that are critical to the economy [and prohibit] the use of property to fund or support illegal blockades.”
The Order-in-Council for the implementation of the Emergencies Act repeats much of the same. Here, the emergency is defined as including “activities … against persons or property, including critical infrastructure, for the purpose of achieving a political or ideological objective within Canada … the protection of critical infrastructure … threats to its economic security resulting from the impacts of blockades on critical infrastructure … adverse effects resulting from … the blockades on Canada’s relationship with its trading partners [and] breakdown in the distribution chain and availability of essential goods, services and resources caused by the existing blockades.”
All this is despite the fact that the Ottawa protests had already dwindled to a fraction of their original size, two of the border blockades had already been cleared the day before, and the last was cleared a day after the invocation—without the use of any of its powers.
Many opposing the Freedom Convoy have taken the stance of calling on the police and state to take a more forceful approach to dispersing the protesters and supporting the invocation of the Emergencies Act. Reflecting the inability of the majority of Canadians to imagine a solution to right-wing demonstrations other than turning to and reinforcing the power of the settler-capitalist state, polling by the Angus Reid Institute has found that 23% of Canadians support calling in the military, with an additional 45% demanding the police enforce existing laws to remove the protesters.
However, in reality turning to and empowering the state and its institutions to rein in the right serves primarily to undermine the ability of workers, leftists, and oppressed groups to fight on their own behalf and for their own interests. Ultimately, the right does not pose a threat to the rule of capitalism. Not only that, far-right organizations are useful to keep on hand as a tool to be used to suppress working class and oppressed organizations. This may go so far as open support for fascism if the capitalist class is under imminent threat of revolution. As a result, the tools granted to the state will be used against the right only when forced to by popular pressure.
Already, the Freedom Convoy has revealed how existing laws and ordinances are not applied to reactionaries and the right. The Ontario Police Service offered the laughable argument that their refusal to engage the Freedom Convoy was due to the threat posed to officers by “aggressive, illegal behavior by many demonstrators,” seeming to imply police could not be expected to fulfill their entire supposed purpose. This is when police forces across the land occupied by Canada moved swiftly and violently against the Wet’suwet’en and sympathizers when they delayed pipeline construction and blockaded rail lines, and earlier against the Toronto G20 Summit.
The real solution to the growth of the right wing and their demonstrations is represented in the increasing number of counter-protests that have materialized across the country in response to the Freedom Convoy. As many as 4000 counter-protesters (with support from labor unions, including the PSAC) marched in Ottawa on Feb. 12, vastly outnumbering the Freedom Convoy. On Feb. 13, what was initially planned as a small demonstration to delay a Freedom Convoy procession in Ottawa became a counter-protest of up to a thousand people who stopped 35 vehicles in their tracks. The procession was held up until sundown, after which they were allowed to leave—one at a time and only after surrendering their flags, Freedom Convoy symbols, and supplies.
Tellingly, these counter-protests have faced far greater police opposition than the Freedom Convoy itself. The Ottawa Police Service initially responded to the Feb. 13 counter-protesters by attempting to forcefully remove them and allow the convoy to go through. In Edmonton, officers brandishing billy clubs succeeded in doing the same to counter-protesters similarly attempting to block a Freedom Convoy procession. To successfully fight the right, the answer is not to place power and trust in the hands of the capitalist state and its enforcers, but mobilization of oppressed peoples and the working class.
If we are to successfully fight the growth of the far-right—as well as exploitation, oppression, and the myriad crises the world is facing today—we cannot rely on the settler-capitalist state or organizations and leaderships that work to sidetrack movements into participation or attempts to reform them. What working and oppressed people need is to build their own organizations, and force their existing organizations to break from the liberal democratic system and adopt the use of democratic decision-making and mass mobilizations to achieve their ends. Through this, we can build the class consciousness and experience necessary to unite the working class and oppressed groups behind a revolutionary party and program to take power and finally defeat the right and capital.
The author would like to thank Ben Rostoker for assistance in writing and editing this article.
Photo: Police clear the blockade on Feb. 18 in Ottawa. (Lars Hagberg / Reuters)