Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has taken the unprecedented step of invoking the Emergencies Act to crack down on anti-vaccine mandate protests.
Supporters and truckers front the Parliament Hill during a protest in downtown of Ottawa, Canada, on February 12, 2022. The truck protest in central Ottawa is now in its third week. Photo: AFP
Trudeau said the scope of the measures would be “time-limited” and “reasonable and proportionate”. The military will not be called to assist.
Without a court order, banks will be able freeze personal accounts of anyone linked with the protests.
Trudeau faces widespread criticism for his handling of the protests.
“This is about keeping Canadians safe, protecting people’s jobs,” he said.
He said the police would be given “more tools” to imprison or fine protesters and protect critical infrastructure.
The extraordinary move by Trudeau comes as demonstrations across Canada enter their third week. It is his most aggressive move since the protests began.
On Sunday, law enforcement cleared anti-mandate protesters at the Ambassador Bridge in Windsor – a critical pathway for Canada-US trade – after a week-long stalemate.
Last week, Ontario Premier Doug Ford called for a state of emergency in the province in response to the protests.
Following the money’
Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said banks will be able freeze personal accounts of anyone linked with the protests without any need for a court order.
Vehicle insurance of anyone involved with the demonstrations can also be suspended, she added.
She said they were broadening Canada’s “Terrorist Financing” rules to cover cryptocurrencies and crowdfunding platforms, as part of the effort to clamp down on the protests.
“It’s all about following the money,” she said.
The Emergencies Act, passed in 1988, demands a high legal bar to be invoked. It may only be used in an “urgent and critical situation” that “seriously endangers the lives, health or safety of Canadians”. Lawful protests do not qualify.
Speaking on Monday, Canada’s Justice Minister David Lametti said the government believes these conditions have been met, saying the current crisis is national in scope and exceeds the power of existing laws and Canada’s provinces to respond.
Lametti and Trudeau stressed that the enormous power of the legislation would be applied temporarily, and in a highly specific manner. But the decision has already been met with criticism.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford, a Conservative, said he supported the federal government.
But the premiers of Quebec, Manitoba, Alberta and Saskatchewan said the emergency powers were not needed in their regions.
Before Trudeau’s announcement, Quebec Premier Francois Legault said invoking the Emergencies Act would “not help the social climate”.
“We really don’t need to throw oil on the fire,” he added.
Asked about Legault’s comments later on Monday, Trudeau said only that his “focus was on Canadians”.
To invoke the law, Trudeau must consult with the premiers of all affected provinces, before putting the move before Parliament. If the act does not pass a vote there, the proclamation will be revoked.
Conservative MPs in Parliament denounced the move. Calgary MP Michelle Rempel Garner said that “to date, Trudeau has been virtually unresponsive on illegal blockades”.
“His ‘last resort’ is actually his first foray. He needs to make a case as to why this extreme measure is necessary particularly in light of his lack of action.”
New Democratic Party leader Jagmeet Singh called the Liberal prime minister’s move “proof of a failure of leadership” and accused him of allowing protests “to go on for weeks and weeks without doing anything about it”.
But he said that his party will support the resolution, most likely allowing it to pass through the minority Parliament.
Carlton University International Affairs Professor Leah West tweeted that she was sceptical that the protests had risen to the level of national threat.
“I have serious doubts that this definition is met,” she wrote.
“Can it truly be said the security of Canada is threatened by largely non-violent protests? Certainly, our sovereignty and territorial integrity are not at risk.”
Hundreds of trucks remain in centre of capital
Protests are ongoing in various parts of the country.
In Ottawa, the nation’s capital, between 400 to 500 trucks have been parked in the city centre for 18 days.
Protesters have paralysed parts of the city, mainly on streets around parliament. The city of Ottawa declared a state of emergency over a week ago.
Weekend protests have also taken place in cities across Canada, including Toronto and Winnipeg.
On Monday, police in Alberta announced that 11 protesters at Coutts – on the US-Canada border – had been arrested and a cache of firearms were seized.
The demonstrations have been both disruptive and expensive. The trade disruption caused by the week-long partial closure of the Ambassador Bridge and other trade routes has been estimated to cost some $C380 million ($NZ451m).
What began as a protest against a new rule that all truckers must be vaccinated to cross the US-Canada border, or quarantine upon return, has grown into a broader challenge to all Covid-19 health restrictions.
The prime minister himself has become the specific target of many protesters; some have held signs with anti-Trudeau epithets.
Last year, Trudeau drew the ire of the Indian prime minister for voicing his support for farmers in India who blocked major highways to New Delhi for a year. “Canada will always be there to defend the right of peaceful protest,” Trudeau said at the time.
Though the Emergencies Act has never been used before, an earlier iteration of the law, called the War Measures Act, was invoked in 1970 by Trudeau’s father, former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, to suspend civil liberties.
The senior Trudeau used the now-defunct legislation in response to a political kidnapping by a Quebec terrorist group, known as the Front de liberation du Quebec (FLQ). More than 1000 troops and military tanks descended upon the francophone province as a result.