Trudeau invokes Emergencies Act as police toe thin blue line on “Freedom Convoy” blockades

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has invoked the Emergencies Act to deal with anti-vaccine protests that have morphed into an occupation of the nation’s capital and blockades of Canada-U.S.-border crossings. 

There are differences of opinion on whether the move announced on Monday is necessary. The Canadian Civil Liberties Association says that the current situation “has not met the threshold necessary to invoke the Emergencies Act.” Others have observed that provincial and municipal law enforcement agencies already have all the powers they need to deal with the protests. And there’s the elephant in the room.

For three weeks, while protestors have occupied the streets of Ottawa – and a handful of border crossings – Canadians have watched with dismay as Ottawa police and members of various other forces called in to provide backup have seemed unwilling to do anything about it.

Indeed, it was Ottawa residents frustrated by police inaction that blocked streets over the weekend as police seemed to be clearing the way for more convoy supporters to get into the city. 

The Trudeau government’s move to invoke the Act will now give the RCMP, the federal police service, powers to enforce provincial offences and municipal bylaws. 

The Emergencies Act has also given the feds power to order banks to freeze the accounts of commercial vehicle operators among the convoy protestors. Ottawa also announced that all crowdfunding and payment service providers that have been funnelling funds – including cryptocurrencies – to blockade organizers, will now be subject to the provisions of anti-terrorism laws. That means they will now be required to report any suspicious financial transactions to FINTRAC, the arms-length agency that monitors money laundering and terrorism financing activities in Canada.

The federal government’s efforts to choke off the convoy’s financial lifeline is a necessary end-run around the inability (or unwillingness) shown by Ottawa police, OPP and others – including Ontario Premier Doug Ford – to enforce existing laws. 

The narrative offered by Ottawa civic leaders and chief Peter Sloly is that Ottawa police are ill-equipped to handle the occupation. The claim just doesn’t jibe with the facts.

The Ottawa force has a tactical unit. It’s one of the most sophisticated police forces in the country. It has to be by virtue of the fact that it polices the seat of the national government. Its ties to provincial and federal law enforcement run deeper than other municipal police forces.

The unfortunate truth is that senior command within the force and rank-and-file officers have failed to take the steps necessary to clear protestors.

The reasons for that are complex. They begin with the internal backlash over Sloly’s efforts to modernize the force since he took over as chief in 2019.

But the seeming abandonment of duty also has to do with the widespread view among police not only in Ottawa but across the country that the anti-vaccine protests and calls for “freedom” are also a response to so-called “woke culture” and the perception that efforts behind racial and social injustice have run amok. Police forces in Canada have been caught in that crossfire after the choking death of George Floyd in the U.S. in 2020 led to widespread charges of racism and calls to defund police forces in Canada and across the globe. It’s no coincidence that the convoy protests have been compared to the Black Lives Matter protests post-Floyd.

A “Blue Lives Matter” movement sprung up in response to Floyd, with police officers in Canada adopting a “thin blue line” on Canadian flag patches worn on their uniforms. The patches, according to police, are meant to signify solidarity among officers. But they’re also widely viewed by critics as symbolizing (and fostering) an “us versus them” mentality.

Indeed, the Edmonton police force flew the symbol above their headquarters to mark the anniversary of Floyd’s death in 2021. Other police forces in Canada have prohibited the symbol’s use. Last year, Sloly issued an order against its use by Ottawa police. Not all departments have followed the protocol. Police dispatched to deal with convoy protestors in Montreal have been photographed wearing the patch.

Part of what we’re now seeing in Ottawa is the fallout and response – essentially a refusal by police to enforce the law – and, worse, blackmail the public it looks like (what else can you call it?) to protect their budgets. Officers who have come out publicly in support of the convoy protestors say they’ve sworn an oath to uphold the Charter. But peace officers don’t swear an oath to the Charter; they swear an oath to “faithfully, honestly and impartially” perform their duties to the public. Their duties are outlined in the Police Services Act. Those include “preserving the peace” and “performing lawful duties that the police chief assigns.” Those duties also ban engaging in political activity.

On Tuesday, Sloly’s enemies among the rank and file and police union got their pound of flesh. Sloly announced he would be resigning as chief. Clearly, it had become an untenable situation. But he was also the one to warn that the occupation would not be resolved without the intervention of the army.

The “utmost confidence” in police

During his press conference on Friday to declare a state of emergency over the Ottawa protests and blocking of the Ambassador Bridge in Windsor, Doug Ford said that he had “the utmost confidence” in police to do their jobs. Police have yet to move on protestors in Ottawa. 

In Windsor, it took police the entire weekend to remove a few dozen protestors and a handful of trucks occupying the roadway leading to the bridge, a corridor that accounts for some $700 million in trade daily. That was after standing idly by for a week while auto plants in Windsor were forced to close over the disruption.

In Coutts, Alberta, meanwhile, a few dozen protestors have been allowed to block the border crossing there for almost three weeks while the RCMP mostly looked on. 

On Monday, the RCMP announced the seizure of long arms and handguns as well as body armour and the arrests of 11 individuals involved in the Coutts standoff.

The presence of firearms provided the impetus needed for the RCMP to finally move in, as did an attempt by one of the protestors to break through a police checkpoint. A large farm vehicle and truck were also reportedly involved in an attempt to ram a police vehicle. A spokesperson for the RCMP suggested that police were aware of the presence of firearms early in the blockade and were only waiting for the right moment to move.

The seizure of firearms confirms the presence of armed anti-government militias among convoy protestors. Three of those arrested have been charged with conspiracy to murder.

On Monday night, some organizers of the convoy protests released a YouTube video encouraging protestors in Coutts “to stand your ground” saying that reinforcements were coming from the “south.”

Trudeau mentioned during his statement on Monday that Canada Border Services Agency officials have been turning back individuals from the U.S. headed for protests in Ottawa.

It’s becoming clearer that the convoy protests have the tacit blessing of hundreds of former and current police officers across the country. The effort is also being largely funded by U.S. money.

Last week, the House of Commons public safety and national security committee voted to study the extent to which ideologically motivated violent extremism, or IMVE, is being fuelled in Canada by “foreign actors” and online crowdfunding platforms. The Liberal-dominated committee also voted to investigate the role played by online payment processors like GoFundMe in the funnelling of funds to the cause of violent extremism in Canada.

The online fundraising platform recently refunded money to thousands of individuals who donated more than $10 million to Freedom Convoy organizers, citing concerns over the promotion of violence. Donations for the convoy were moved by organizers to GiveSendGo, another online donation platform. But the province of Ontario received authorization from the Ontario Superior court last Thursday to freeze donations, citing Criminal Code sections against offences to property.

As the convoy protests have spread, there is growing concern among federal MPs of “the influence of foreign and domestic actors” in funding and supporting violent extremism in Canada. Alistair MacGregor, an NDP member of the committee, equated the actions of protests in Ottawa to terrorism. 

He pointed out that the Criminal Code’s definition of terrorism includes “disruptions of essential services and facilities…, which any casual observer looking at Ottawa could probably make the link,” he says.

Bloc committee member Kristina Michaud noted that crowdfunding sites are not regulated under existing money laundering and anti-terrorism funding laws in Canada, since those sites sprang up years after the laws were passed.

“The current state of the law is not adapted to the new reality of the internet and the virtual reality that we are faced with,” she says.


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