The Act is only to be invoked when all other measures have failed or when there are no other means or powers to solve a very serious emergency. The three week Truckers Freedom Convoy protest may have been a nuisance, an embarrassment, and affront to the Government but it was scarcely a dire crisis. It was a political problem which should have been solved by political means. These were never tried.
- The Canadian Association for Free Expression Inc. (CAFE) is a non-profit educational organization incorporated under Letters Patent in Ontario in 1983. Its brief is to promote the value of freedom of speech and to come to the support of those attacked for the non-violent expression of their political religious or artistic views. In pursuit of this goal CAFE has intervened in numerous legal and human right s cases over the years in Ontario, British Columbia and New Brunswick. http://cafe.nfshost.com
- I wish to offer my observations (to the Public Order Emergency Commission set to inquire into the circumstances that led to the declaration of emergency that was in place from February 14-23, 2022) on the freedom protests which led to the Truckers’ Freedom Convoy and which continue today in many cities across Canada, albeit with fewer numbers than before. This first hand and extensive experience may prove useful to the inquiry.
- I am a veteran of close to 100 freedom protests in 18 different Canadian cities in two provinces from April, 2020 to the present. Those cities are: Ottawa (m), Toronto(m), Mississauga, Burlington (m), Hamilton (m), Brantford (m), Simcoe, London, Stratford, Niagara Falls (m), Niagara-on-the-Lake, Burlington (m), Kelowna (m), Penticton (m), Oliver, Osoyoos (m), and Vancouver. [(m) indicates many times.]
BACKGROUND TO THE END THE LOCKDOWN RALLIES & THE TRUCKERS’ FREEDOM CONVOY
- The reactions of the federal, and the various provincial and territorial and municipal governments to the crisis caused by COVID (despite its 99.7% survival rate) resulted in the greatest restriction of the rights of Canadians at least since the Second World War.
- At various times, gatherings were limited or restricted, businesses declared non-essential and ordered closed, persons forbidden to practise their faith by gathering to worship. For months, the Province of Quebec was placed under curfew.
- People were compelled in many circumstances to wear masks. For months, people could not fly on Canadian airlines without showing proof of vaccination. A person’s right to determine what is introduced into his/her body (a vaccine) was negated. People were blackmailed into being vaccinated in order to keep or get a job. Thousands, including many medical people and civil servants were fired or put on unpaid leave of absence, if they wouldn’t take the vaccine or if they wouldn’t reveal their vaccination status [over 400 municipal workers in my home of Hamilton alone].
- Pastors who felt a higher calling — to heed the Biblical injunction for the People of God to worship together communally — were, in some provinces, jailed or heavily fined. The Church of Aylmer Ontario Pastor Henry Hildebrandt was actually padlocked and chained closed by police.
- Canadians who dissented from these measures as being wrong or an over-reaction to a virus were reviled in most the press and by most politicians as “conspiracy theorists” or selfish people who didn’t care if they killed grandma.
THE END THE LOCKDOWN PROTESTS & THE TRUCKERS’ FREEDOM CONVOY
- Thus, starting in Vancouver in mid-March, 2020, spreading to Toronto the next weekend and then to cities and even towns across Canada was the largest mass protest in living memory. People frustrated by the various COVID restrictions and the deafness of most politicians gathered to stand up for their individual rights and freedoms. Theirs was very much a freedom protest.
- At the July 1, 2020 Dominion Day rally on Parliament Hill, the sound of “”freedom, freedom” from a sea of Canadian flags and Red Ensigns was answered by “liberte, liberte” from a sea of Quebec bluefleur de lysflags and a few patriote flag from the rebellion of 1837. At a support rally at Queen’s Park in Toronto, the second Saturday of the Truckers’ Freedom Convoy gathering in Ottawa, I met a man wearing a Polish flag as a cape. We got talking and he explained his presence succinctly: “As a youth in Poland I marched with Solidarity for freedom; today, in Canada, I march for freedom in my new homeland. Both countries are threatened by totalitarianism.”
- These protests became weekly events in cities across Canada and in many places continue to this day. There has grown a dedicated freedom movement from coast to coast. The weekly nature of these rallies and their persistence for more than two and a half years is unprecedented. There is outrage and dedication fuelling the freedom movement, outrage at the casual ways politicians and even bureaucrats and businesses have stomped on individual rights, and disillusionment with most politicians who were mute or went along with these violations as did most of the media.
- In the 18 cities where I have attended these freedom rallies, I have never witnessed violence. Indeed, the atmosphere, as it was for much of the truckers’ three week protest in Ottawa, more resembled a 1960s era “happening”. People at these rallies, almost to a man or woman, were unmasked. Social distancing, of course, was not practised. People hugged and embraced complete strangers. Mary Lou Gutscher, a former leader of the Libertarian Party of Canada, greets all who attend the Sunday rallies in Penticton with a hug.
- People revelled in practising the freedoms that had been banned. In Toronto, for months a Chinese lady brought her home baking and generously shared with one and all. Small groups of various faiths prayed together with their co-religionists. There might be brief speeches and often music and dancing.
- These rallies brought together people from various points on the political spectrum. I encountered people who had voted Liberal, Conservative, NDP, Green and People’s Party in recent elections. What united people was a deeply felt sense of the loss of their freedom and frustration at a dismissive and unresponsive political class and a largely sneering media which, when it wasn’t ignoring these protests, demonized and dismissed participants as conspiracy theorists or anti-vaxxers. It was more complicated.
- The disappointment and anger at the loss of freedom was what united people. Some, like followers of Pastor Henry Hildebrandt whom I met a Toronto rallies, were dismayed at the trampling of their right to practise their faith. Others opposed the forced closure of businesses. Some opposed all vaccinations on religious or medical grounds. More were skeptical of the vaccines introduced in late 2020 which had been developed, as President Trump said, “at warp speed”.
- Many in 2020 worried about forced vaccination. Prime Minister Trudeau had said vaccination would be voluntary, but people noticed how policies changed from day to day. Early in 2020, Dr. Teresa Tam had said masks were of little use. My late Spring, masks were advisable and by Autumn, in many places, compulsory. Many at the rallies feared the same would be the case for COVID vaccines and, indeed, their fears came true.
- Most people at the rallies were Old Stock Canadians or quebecois de souchein Quebec. Nevertheless, the rallies attracted a number of native Indians, people from Asia, Blacks and some Sikhs. (Many Sikhs are involved in small trucking firms.)
- Many people at the rallies were furthered in their doubts about the various restrictive mandates by the unequal way in which they were applied. They noted that Prime Minister Trudeau had ignored social distancing and taken a knee at a large Black Lives Rally in Ottawa in June, 2020. Perhaps, the ever-present danger of COVID had taken a holiday that day so that the large gathering could occur. The then Toronto Chief of Police took a knee in a large crowd in the lobby of Toronto Police Headquarters. In June, 2020, a family of London Muslims was run over by a man in a truck. Various federal and provincial politicians, including Premier Ford and Prime Minister Trudeau, attended a large outdoor memorial, again in apparent defiance of mandates on the size of gatherings.
WHAT THE END THE LOCKDOWN FOLKS AND THE TRUCKERS’ FREEDOM CONVOY WANTED
- When the Truckers’ Freedom Convoy began to take shape early in January, 2022, it was initially to oppose a new order to compel cross border truckers to be vaccinated. The convoy received enthusiastic support from dissenters across the country. It grew in size and its message was an end to all COVID mandates. At numerous rallies in January, I heard great enthusiasm for the convoy as the spearhead of the discontent with COVID restrictions.
- People protest to get attention for their cause. There was a widespread disillusionment with being ignored by almost all politicians and most of the media when it wasn’t smearing the End the Lockdown and freedom rallies. It was hard to contact MPs. Few were available; many constituency offices were close. The universal excuse was COVID.
- The goal of the Truckers’ Freedom Convoy was to be heard. They wanted the politicians in Ottawa to pay attention to them and to listen to their concerns.
- One criticism made as the truckers converged on Ottawa was that they wanted to overthrow and replace the Trudeau government. Allegedly, they hoped to get the Senate and protest representatives with the Governor General to depose Justin Trudeau and form a new government. This foolish plan was the brain child of a tiny faction. Few people at the support rallies I attended had even heard of it and no one agreed. It was obviously unconstitutional and wildly impractical. There was no evidence even one senator agreed. The Governor-General is a creature of Ottawa politics and the federal civil service. That she would so rock the boat as to be part of such a plan is preposterous. Virtually nothing more was heard of this after the truckers arrived in Ottawa.
- Along the way, from coast to coast, people rallied to feed and cheer the convoy on its way. Mostly, it was bitter cold. The crowds were huge. In Hamilton, a welcome rally was planned for Thursday morning, January 27. It was brutally cold. I expected the organizers would be lucky to muster 200 people to greet the convoy coming up from Niagara. In fact, almost 2,000 people lined roads and snow banks cheering and singing and waving Canadian flags. Station wagons drove up and gave boxes of food and bottled water to the truckers. I followed the convoy along the Queen Elizabeth Way to Mississauga. On every overpass, there were between 30 and 300 people, sometimes even coming down the ramp to the highway, waving flags and cheering the convoy. They had waited for over an hour in what was a frigid wind tunnel. Others told me this was the pattern all to way to Ottawa. There was huge grassroots support for the convoy.
THE REACTION OF THE GOVERNMENT
- There has long been a rift in Canada between what is sometimes called the Laurentian Elite — the Montreal-Ottawa-Toronto Axis and much of the rest of the country, especially small town-rural-small city Canada. Many in the latter group believe they are looked down on as unsophisticated, backward people who must be directed and led, for their own good, of course.
- The demarcation lines are not perfect, of course. Many of the freedom protesters came from big cities, like Calgary, Edmonton, Toronto and Montreal.
- Perhaps, a hint of the reaction of much of Canada’s political class occurred in the wake of the first End the Lockdown ally in Toronto in late March, 2020. Premier Doug Ford dismissed the protesters as “a bunch of yahoos.” He had headed the populist Ford Nation and ridden to victory in the 2018 provincial election on a wave of populism. Ford Nation was to die from the totalitarian restrictions and lockdowns imposed by the premier is response to COVID.
- As the convoy gathered and headed toward Ottawa, the reactions of the government were hostile and abusive. This was not very astute nor fair, passing judgments on people the Prime Minister had never met. Surely, in Canada’s system of representative government an MP must listen to his/her constituents and attempt to represent their views as best as possible, but at the very least the MP should respectfully listen. The same obligation falls upon the First Minister, who spectacularly did not listen.
- Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who refused to meet the truckers, denounced them as a “fringe group”, with “unacceptable” views, who were “misogynistic” and racist and adherents of unscientific ideas. These accusations were made before the convoy even got to Ottawa. This was quite a blast at a group he hadn’t met! There was also much fretting about “violence”. There was much talk of bigotry and “hate”, although the issue of the truckers and their supporters was regaining freedom and an end to government mandates.
- These accusations were false. As I have indicated, I noticed no violence or threats of violence at the close to 100 freedom rallies I’ve attended. Police testimony already before the Inquiry indicates there was remarkably little violence resulting from a three weeks protest by such a large crowd.
- Representative government is imperiled when only certain views are deemed “acceptable” to even be heard. Similarly, whether an opinion is that of the majority or a minority (hence, perhaps, “fringe”) it should be heard. The government is loud in its loyalty to “diversity” and “inclusion”. [It even has a Ministry of Housing, Diversity and Inclusion.] One might hope that diversity and inclusion would apply to ideas as well.
- The smear of “misogyny” was especially offensive and ludicrous. Women played a key role in the Truckers’ Freedom Convoy. One of the major organizers was Tamara Lich, who raised over $10-million in a Go Fund Me appeal within just a few weeks in January. It was subsequently stolen [that is, all but about $1-million, by a judge’s order did not go to the intended recipients, the truckers.] Women were often the majority at End the Lockdown rallies. Indeed, David Lindsay leader of the weekly C.L.E.A.R.-BC freedom protests in Kelowna said to me in the Fall of 2020: “Where are the guys? Seventy per cent of our supporters at these rallies are women.”
- It would seem that the Prime Minister, much of the political class and many in the media sought to marginalize the Truckers’ Freedom Convoy with a torrent of baseless weaponized words.
- The Prime Minister, instead of being open to hearing the convoy’s concerns, refused to meet with them and oozed a visceral disdain and contempt for them. In July, 2021, during the federal election the Prime Minister made a startling remark in French that was not reported in the English language press until January of 2022. The Toronto Sun (January 6, 2022) reported his comment: ““They are extremists who don’t believe in science, they’re often misogynists, also often racists. It’s a small group that muscles in, and we have to make a choice in terms of leaders, in terms of the country. Do we tolerate these people?” So, far from negotiation, the Prime Minister questioned whether COVID dissenters should even be tolerated. With such visceral rejection we may see why the Emergencies Act was invoked to smash the uprising of people he saw, in Hillary Clinton’s words, as “deplorables.”
- Further to the Prime Minister’s mindset, in an article entitled “Convoy was no ‘occupation'”, Ottawa writer Rupa Subramanya says: “In the ultimate analysis, the narrative tone was set from the outset by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and it continues to this day. Commenting on the actions of Ontario Premier Doug Ford, Trudeau praised Ford for ‘standing with the people of Ottawa, of Ontario and of Canada, and not others.’ Unless the prime minister believes, contrary to the evidence, that members of the Freedom Convoy came from Mars, or at any rate from outside Canada, he’s quite literally “othering” fellow Canadians. Trudeau is no longer even bothering with the pretense that he governs for all Canadians, and not just the minority (not even a plurality) who voted for him.” (National Post, October 29, 2022)
- With the exception of a small number of Conservative MPs who met with and greeted the truckers, Ottawa’s political class was decidedly frosty and unwelcoming in its approach. Former Liberal Cabinet member Catherine McKenna called for censorship of the Internet: “Time for Canada to regulate social media companies so they stop promoting violence and hate” (National Post, February 1, 2022). The then Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole flip flopped. At first, he refused to meet members of the convoy but eventually agreed to meet some truckers but away from Parliament Hill. Why, as if they were some disreputable people who could not be seen publicly in decent company? Still, he had to scold those he hadn’t even yet met: “There are other groups using the plight of truckers to bring division, hatred, and we need to call that out and stamp it out,” said O’Toole, with no specifics as to what hatred or who those groups were (CBC January 27, 2022). NDP leader Jagmeet Singh leads a party that for generations has billed itself as the voice of the workingman. He, too, would not meet with these workingmen and women. Sounding a lot like Trudeau and O’Toole, he said that “some of the people behind the demonstration are pushing ‘false information’ through ‘inflammatory, divisive and hateful comments'” (CBC, January 26, 2022).
NEGOTIATIONS: THE ROUTE NOT TAKEN
- The main goal of the convoy and its supporters was to the heard by the politicians and especially by the government, to be treated respectfully and seriously. This would have been a reasonable political solution. The government might have invited the convoy to send a delegation of spokesmen to sit down with the Prime Minister and/or a team of Cabinet ministers to discuss their concerns with a view to ending the protests. This was never done.
- The Inquiry has heard testimony from then-Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson that he had, in fact, negotiated with the Convoy leadership to begin moving their vehicles out of residential neighbourhoods and that the agreement held. “In a statement released on Sunday, the Freedom Convoy Board said it agreed with the mayor’s request to begin moving operations out of residential neighbourhoods. ‘We have made a plan to consolidate our protest efforts around Parliament Hill. We will be working hard over the next 24 hours to get buy in from the truckers. We hope to start repositioning our trucks on Monday,’ reads a letter from the board.” (Global News, February 15, 2022) The conclusion is clear: Negotiations — that is a political settlement — were indeed possible.
- In early 2020, just before COVID hit, radical Indians and radical environmentalists occupied several railway lines. The most critical was the CN line across the top of Lake Ontario. The two week blockade cost over $300-million in losses for delayed deliveries. The government’s reaction to these manifestly illegal blockades was very different from its approach to the truckers. There were no angry denunciations. In the end, there were negotiations. Note the non-judgmental and conciliatory language used by Minister Marc Miller in regards to the blockades: “Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller says there is a clear ‘path forward’ to defuse the ongoing tensions caused by protests that have hamstrung the country’s transportation network, despite some Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs refusing to meet until the RCMP leave their territory. ‘I know that the recent events in B.C. and in various places across the country are deeply concerning to all Canadians. It is a very difficult situation for everyone — for those people who are non-Indigenous but especially if they are Indigenous,’ said Miller during an emergency debate in the House of Commons Tuesday night. ‘All of Canada is hurting, and we are all hoping and working for a peaceful resolution'” (CBC, February 19, 2020).
- Although the demands by the Indian and environmentalist blockaders might well be seen as extremist or fringe, there was no such denunciation in the minister’s language.
- Similarly, while the Black Lives Matter protests in Canada during June and July, 2020, were mostly peaceful, their demand for defunding the police could be viewed as “fringe” or “extreme” but the Prime Minister was glad to greet BLM in Ottawa, meet with them and take a knee.
- There was a political solution to the three week protest in Ottawa. An early meeting with the Truckers’ Freedom Convoy leaders might well have ended the protest after the first weekend. It is clear the truckers were amenable to negotiation and were reasonable. Their main goal was to feature their grievances in a mass protest (in that they succeeded) and to get the attention of the nation’s political leadership, especially the government. In that they got the equivalent of the bloody cavalry charge unleashed on peaceful protesters in 1905 in St. Petersburg by the Czar, at least as portrayed in the 1960s movie Dr. Zhivago. The Prime Minister’s remarks, even before the convoy arrived dripped with hostility and contempt, as did much of the media coverage. This was politically clumsy at best. The Emergencies Act is meant to be used as a last resort in a dire emergency In our submission, the peaceful Truckers’ Freedom Convoy may have been an annoyance and disruption but it was not a dire emergency. The federal government had not tried other means, especially political negotiations, to resolve the situation Instead, their response was to reach for the nuclear weapon of responses — the freedom stealing, money thieving Emergencies Act. Prime Minister Trudeau has, on occasion, expressed admiration for the Communist Chinese system because, being a dictatorship, it can make decisions quickly and take action quickly, without the messy interference of Parliament or laws. That may be their system but it is not the Canadian way!