BY RICHARD C. GROSS
“Where you see wrong or inequality or injustice, speak out, because this is your country. This is your democracy. Make it. Protect it. Pass it on.”
Thurgood Marshall, associate Supreme Court Justice, 1967–1991.
Things really must be getting bad if polite, deferential, calm and peaceable Canadians get all upset and start protesting in the streets.
Canadians mostly live up to their worldwide reputation as civilized people despite their three weeks of protests in their capital of Ottawa, more than two at the Ambassador Bridge across the Detroit River from Windsor, Ontario, to the Motor City and in the rural western provinces.
Truckers illegally parked hundreds of their huge “Freedom Convoy” rigs by the grounds of Parliament, blocking traffic and blowing their blaring horns for days, to protest pandemic restrictions requiring vaccines and other means of combatting COVID-19.
But unlike American demonstrators egged on by their surly president in Washington, D.C., more than a year ago, nobody stormed their historic building, no one died and there were few, if any, injuries.
In an age when the first instinct of a rogue American leader is to deploy military troops to control demonstrators, liberal Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau should be applauded for his restraint in assuring the public he had no intent to rely on soldiers to end the protests by truckers and other civilians.
“I’ve been absolutely clear that using military forces against civilian populations, in Canada, or in any other democracy, is something to avoid at all costs,” Trudeau said.
Hear that, Trump?
Trudeau stuck to his promise to the people when he, probably reluctantly, invoked the Emergencies Act of 1988 that gave him nearly unlimited powers. Martin Luther King Jr., a passionate believer in and practitioner of nonviolent demonstrations, would have been proud of him.
The demonstrators, chanting “freedom,” carrying their red and white national flags, its red maple leaf prominent, and some singing their national anthem, “O Canada,” are said by economists to have caused millions of dollars of damage to the economies of the United States and Canada.
That included the automobile industries in both countries because protesters’ semis, pickups and cars blocked border trade routes between the two countries. Tough. Not everything should be about money, particularly at a time of immense financial inequality. The corporations will survive.
Either we North Americans live in democracies or we don’t. In the United States, the very First Amendment to the Constitution says, among other rights, “Congress shall make no law . . . prohibiting . . . the right of the people peaceably to assemble.”
The only amendment Trump and his far-right minions recognize is the Second.
The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, adopted in 1982, when Queen Elizabeth II declared Canada’s independence from the British Parliament, says among its Fundamental freedoms, the people are “also free to meet with anyone we wish and participate in peaceful demonstrations. This includes the right to protest against a government action or institution.”
Despite enormous pressure from both the White House and Canadians opposed to the unrelenting disruptions, this is what Trudeau was respecting; the Charter just wasn’t a collection of words. It was based on a constitutional reform resolution introduced to the House of Commons by his father, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.
The younger Trudeau repeatedly tried persuasion instead of force, but his repeated pleading didn’t work until he instituted the Emergencies Act, which meant he could call on what he earlier termed “an increasingly robust police intervention.”
“This blockade of our economy that is hurting Canadians countrywide, Canadians who have been impacted by these blockades — this conflict must end,” Trudeau said at one point. Protesters ignored him.
Enter the Emergencies Act. It worked, initially. The protesters began drifting off Feb. 13 and the Ambassador Bridge reopened. The predecessor of the Emergencies Act first went into force in 1970 during a Quebec crisis.
But many truckers stubbornly refused to move from Ottawa, forcing hundreds of city police to start breaking up the demonstration Friday, 22 days after the protest began. Clashes broke out between the demonstrators and the police, leading to the arrests of more than 100 people, including a leader of the protest movement, Tamara Lich, of Medicine Hat, Alberta, many on the serious charge of mischief, according to The New York Times.
It ended Sunday after heavy tow trucks lugged away 57 vehicles and 191 protesters were arrested, police said. The demonstrators’ determination to hang in as long as possible seemed to signal they will stage more disruptions.
Days before the police, aided by two military vehicles, swept into the demonstrators, the mostly peaceful protests against the vaccine mandates and other virus limitations such as lockdowns had their copycats in France, Australia and New Zealand. They led to the arrests of 11 people in Coutts, Alberta, across from Montana, and the seizure of 13 long guns, a machete, high-capacity magazines “and a large quantity of ammunition.”
The Alberta Royal Canadian Mounted Police said the group “was said to have a willingness to use force against the police if any attempts were made to disrupt the blockade.”
Sounds familiar. Meet the Canadian far right. It has been illegal since 1977 for Canadian civilians to own automatic weapons and sawed-off shotguns. Are Washington and American gun control activists paying attention?
“The protesters are a small and somewhat atypical portion of the populace, but there are enough of them to cause considerable mayhem,” wrote Robert D. Bott, 76, in an email to former United Press International colleagues on its worldwide listserv. He is a writer and editor from Calgary, Alberta, about 300 miles north of Coutts. “Moreover, they have recognized that motor vehicles can be powerful force multipliers.”
About 85 percent of some 37 million Canadians are double vaccinated, 5.5 million not jabbed, he said. That includes 90 percent of truck drivers. But about 40,000 other truckers aren’t, he said.
Bott estimated between 50,000 and 100,000 Canadians “may be participating in, supporting and funding the current protests across Canada. They may be no more than three-tenths of the population, but there are enough of them to cause significant disruption.” Many of the groups he referred to as “far-right actors” “have their strongest support in rural areas, especially in the prairie provinces.”
“The vast majority of Canadians and their political leaders are still polite and deferential,” Bott wrote. But things are changing. “This national virtue is now being tested by minorities within minorities.”
Perhaps one counter-protester in the capital, apparently fed up with the demonstrations shaking the usually sleepy and staid city, said it all for the majority of Canadians with a simple sign that reportedly said, “Make Ottawa boring again.”
Richard C. Gross, a correspondent, bureau chief and foreign editor of United Press International, retired as the opinion page editor of The Baltimore Sun.