What is going on in Canada? Usually a peaceful, democratic, well-governed land with a strong appreciation of individual liberties, it seems to have descended into authoritarianism with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau‘s extreme measures to combat the truck driver protests.
Truckers have been protesting in Canada following the introduction of a bill last month that asserted all truckers must be fully vaccinated in order to cross the US-Canada border. While about 90% of truckers are, many are nonetheless angry about what they see as a violation of bodily autonomy and an infringement on individual liberties.
Canada also relies overwhelmingly with trade on the US to survive: in 2020, over $22 billion of agricultural produce was exported from the US to Canada. Truckers were the “key workers” ensuring these supplies continued during the various coronavirus lockdowns. Perhaps like the unvaccinated NHS staff who faced the sack until the UK government backed down, they believe that their sacrifices during the pandemic have not been appreciated. That, despite all their essential work, they are now being ostracised because of a personal decision that should not be relevant to their ability to do their jobs.
These protests have also been caught up in the wider global debate surrounding vaccines and the extent to which governments can and should enforce vaccine mandates. In January, we saw the Novak Djokovic-vs-Australia saga, with the tennis champion eventually being deported from the country owing to his non-vaccinated status. Then we had the Joe Rogan and Spotify issue, with many calling on the platform to end its association with the podcaster because of the alleged spread of disinformation regarding Covid-19 and vaccines. Singer Neil Young said Spotify had to choose between him and Rogan; they chose the latter (perhaps because they had paid him $100 million for his podcast).
The trucker protests have morphed into a full-blown crisis for Trudeau and the Canadian government. A state of emergency has been declared in Ottawa, with the truckers blocking key roads and bringing the capital to a standstill. Rather like France’s gilet jaunes, the protests have morphed into a wider anti-establishment movement that is calling for an end to all Covid-related restrictions in the country. They have also inspired similar protests in countries around the world, particularly those which still have strict Covid rules like Australia and New Zealand.
Under pressure, Trudeau has declared a national public order emergency. He has invoked the powers given to him under the Emergencies Act, which is usually reserved for “an emergency that arises from threats to the security of Canada and that is so serious as to be a national emergency,” as well as other extreme cases like war or natural disaster. This gives the government the power to freeze truckers’ personal and corporate bank accounts, suspend insurance on their trucks and forcibly remove vehicles. No court order is required to do this: it can be done if the police merely suspect an individual might be linked to the protests. The police, intelligence agencies and banks are obliged to share any information the authorities believe to be relevant. Financial institutions must report anybody who is involved in the protests (such as by donating to the truckers’ crowdfund) to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. The Act was last invoked by former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, when terrorists had bombed numerous targets across Canada and a cabinet minister had been kidnapped and murdered. Is this situation comparable?
The country’s Civil Liberties Association has expressed concerns that this is an unjustified overreaction. As a minor concession, Trudeau has said he won’t use the military to restore order (which raises the question as to whether this really is a war-like situation after all).
The Canadian government has focused its attention on crowd funding platforms and payments in a bid to stifle the truckers’ access to the cash that is funding its protest. Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland announced that: “we are broadening the scope of Canada’s anti-money laundering and terrorist financing rules so that they cover Crowd Funding Platforms and the payment service providers they use.” Payments made via crypto and the blockchain have also been targeted under these emergency powers. The truckers are causing disruption – as all protests do to an extent – but can they really be called “terrorists?” Are those protesting against Covid restrictions really on par with, say, ISIS or Al-Qaeda? This has echoes of former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s absurd decision to invoke anti-terrorism laws against the country of Iceland during the IceSave crisis. It must be said that the truckers look fairly unintimidating for supposed “terrorists:”
For the sake of balance, though, it’s worth pointing out some commentators in Canada do genuinely seem to believe such people are “domestic terrorists:”
Trudeau’s move raises a further question about the rights of protest groups to access cash. If, as Trudeau has done, you are going to prevent people donating to groups with which you do not agree, then you are opening yourself up to accusations of hypocrisy. The Black Lives Matter protests in the US and the Extinction Rebellion protests in the UK also caused disruption, but it would be very dangerous to try and stop their crowdfunding efforts, or declare members “domestic terrorists” (which they plainly aren’t). The rights of assembly and freedom to protest peacefully are guaranteed under the UN charter, of which Canada is a founding signatory. All should have the right to associate with anybody they please, and donate to any group they wish, provided no criminal activity is involved.
The concept of civil disobedience is well-established in political philosophy as a legitimate means of protest when the usual routes have not worked. Given Trudeau’s sheer intransigence on this issue – and a complete lack of any engagement – you would be hard pressed to argue that the truckers aren’t within their rights to protest in this way. Particularly when there is a high degree of support for their cause: two-thirds of Canadians now support dropping all Covid-related restrictions.
Indeed, the right to protest is one that Trudeau has been very quick to promote when adversaries like Russia have displayed similarly lax attitudes towards peaceful protestors like Alexei Navalny:
If you are going to assert that private individuals do not have the right to donate money to groups with which you do not agree, then you also surely must look at the sponsorship deals of major corporations. Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble, Visa, Toyota, Airbnb and Panasonic have collectively paid at least $1 billion to sponsor the Beijing Winter Olympics – which has been dubbed the “Genocide Games” owing to the Chinese government’s repression of the minority Uyghur population in Xinjiang. And that’s not to mention its crushing of democratic rights and freedom of expression in Hong Kong.
So billions of dollars in sponsorship fees to associate with a government that has been widely accused of human rights violations is legitimate and completely legal? But private citizens donating small amounts of their hard-earned money, to help support peaceful civil disobedience against its government, is equivalent to terrorist funding? Something doesn’t seem right. It seems increasingly likely that Trudeau is misusing his power to bully the little guy into compliance with his political ends, while being unwilling to address the much more important question of how the world’s biggest corporations behave. Of course, this would have absolutely nothing to do with the questionable businesses and individuals his foundation accepts money from, including Chinese Communist Party officials.
Welcome to Canada: where CCP representatives can pay for access to the prime minister, but it is illegal to donate to peaceful protest movements.
The truckers have raised some awkward questions about government power, individual liberties, and political hypocrisy. The movement has exposed inconsistencies in approach and a worrying authoritarian tendency in a founding member of the UN, a G7 country and one of the world’s most important democracies. The silence on the part of those who would usually jump to condemn such actions is also deafening.
What is more worrying still is that what should be the actual issue – Canada’s response to the coronavirus – no longer seems important. Indeed, infections and deaths have been steadily falling throughout the protests. Rather, we are now discussing what the relationship between the governors and the governed looks like: to what extent governments can legitimately restrict the lives of those who inconvenience or embarrass them. That is a much more important question, one which will remain relevant long after this pandemic is consigned to history.
Author: Harry Clynch
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