MPs who stood with illegal protesters bear some responsibility
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The Ontario Provincial Police was bang-on when it warned last winter that politicians who openly supported the lawbreakers who occupied downtown Ottawa and terrorized its citizens for three weeks would encourage further lawlessness.
That’s precisely what occurred after MPs such as now-Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre and others lent their support to the so-called “freedom convoy.” As parliamentarians, their actions should face the same level of scrutiny as the federal government, whose response to the occupation is now under review by an independent commission.
“The apparent support from Canadian political figures is certain to further embolden those organizing and participating in the blockade, lending credibility and validating their tactics,” read an OPP report, submitted to the inquiry. “Any such validation may also motivate further blockades elsewhere in the country, such as those in Alberta.”
It did. Gaining the political support of politicians such as Poilievre and others (some of whom posed for pictures with the occupiers and promoted their cause on social media) gave them a boost. It granted them a moral licence to continue employing lawless tactics to promote their twisted message that public-health measures designed to save lives and prevent the collapse of hospitals infringed on their personal freedoms.
It validated their efforts, which included calls by some protesters to overthrow the government. As the OPP predicted, it sparked similar actions in other parts of the country, including a three-week, unlawful occupation in front of the Manitoba Legislative Building, where large vehicles clogged up streets and protesters tormented area residents with frequent and sustained train horn blasts.
Poilievre and other MPs who supported the illegal activity (which, in Ottawa, ended only after the Emergencies Act was invoked and multiple law enforcement agencies were tapped to arrest law-breakers) showed no interest in restoring public peace in Ottawa. Their sole objective was to exploit the occupation for political gain, to weaponize it against their political opponents.
It was one of the most shameless betrayals of country Canadians have seen from a group of parliamentarians in recent history.
It was one of the most shameless betrayals of country Canadians have seen from a group of parliamentarians in recent history. Those actions, and the effects they had on prolonging and intensifying the occupation, warrants further investigation.
The Public Order Emergency Commission, headed by Ontario Appeal Court Justice Paul Rouleau, has heard a wide range of testimony so far, including from Ottawa residents who described the fear they felt from the hooliganism that engulfed their community. Local businesses were crippled, streets became impassable and some area residents were forced to flee their homes.
The inquiry has also heard that local police and municipal authorities were ill-prepared for the occupation and how an incoherent strategy to respond to the crisis allowed it to get out of hand. Those operational issues, and whether the legal threshold was met for the federal government to invoke the Emergencies Act, will be fully probed by the commission, as required by law. It is important to know whether federal officials overstepped their legal authority by using the extraordinary measures in the act, or whether it was justifiable.
Either way, a significant and co-ordinated police response was required to restore order in Ottawa. Whether that could have been done without the use of the Emergencies Act is in question. What we shouldn’t lose sight of is none of this would have been necessary if the occupiers — some of whom are now facing criminal charges — had limited their activity to lawful, peaceful protest. Had they done so, there would have been no need for extraordinary police measures, nor an expensive inquiry.
The fact they were supported by a handful of parliamentarians is problematic. When elected officials who swear to uphold the rule of law — and who themselves make law — support the kind of lawlessness Canadians saw during this occupation, it undermines our democratic institutions. It says loudly and clearly that if you don’t like what your government is doing, it’s acceptable to take the law into your own hands and terrorize a community. Those MPs should not be let off the hook.
Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.