“Somebody really ought to do something about those convoy protests.”
This has been the refrain coming out of the mouths of politicians at all levels. Lots of calls for action to remove protesters from Ottawa and Winnipeg, and to end blockades at critically important border crossings.
But after calling for action, what action do they want to see? Well, that’s another matter altogether.
Consider this excerpt from an email sent around last weekend by Coun. Kevin Klein, who is currently considering a mayoral bid for this fall. Although he doesn’t represent the downtown where the trucker convoy has been the most disruptive, Klein none the less “asks for action.”
“People have the right to protest, and I will fight for that right when necessary,” Klein wrote on February 12. “But, disrupting your fellow Canadians who have done nothing only creates more division. I do not want any more division in our city. Instead, we must heal and focus on rebuilding our economy and communities.”
Klein mentioned in his email that he moved a motion last week to force the city seek a court-ordered injunction to remove the convoy protesters from the streets around the Manitoba Legislature. Court injunctions are typically the way governments label a protest “unlawful” and gain specific, legal authority to bring a protest to an end. However, injunctions in and of themselves do not specify the methods by which that protest is ended.
Councillor Kevin Klein. (RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)
Klein’s call to action no doubt resonates with Winnipeggers; there is growing frustration all across the country about a perceived tolerance of the convoy protests. But seeking an injunction is not action and it does not provide many ideas on how to disperse a protest without inciting violence, which is no doubt the primary concern that law enforcement has right now.
Klein is not alone is proposing less than a full idea of how to deal with these protests. Premier Heather Stefanson and Justice Minister Kelvin Goertzen have been masterful in both calling for more direct action – particularly to reopen border crossings – and failing to specify what action they want someone to take.
Since the protests began, Stefanson has refused to directly ask the protesters to leave Winnipeg. Instead, she has said she will leave the job of dispersing the protest to “the professionals,” which is code for the Winnipeg Police Service.
Stefanson also made it clear that she does not consider the protests a provincial responsibility. The protest in Winnipeg is mostly a municipal responsibility; the border-crossing problem falls to the federal government. Stefanson and Goertzen have repeatedly called on the federal Liberal government to take steps to remove the border blockades. They just haven’t been willing to say how far Ottawa should go to achieve that goal.
Premier Heather Stefanson. (MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES)
And then on Monday, after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau enacted the Emergencies Act – which gives Ottawa sweeping powers to deal with any emergency, natural or human-made – Stefanson criticized him for going too far. “We need to think carefully and clearly before going in that direction,” Stefanson said on Monday. “What we don’t want to do is escalate situations.”
Stefanson is really trying to have it both ways. Off-loading responsibility to Ottawa and Winnipeg to do something, while expressing great tolerance for the protesters. Stefanson’s response to the current situation begs a question: is activating the Emergencies Act an escalation of the current situation, or the beginning of a peaceful conclusion to the protests?
First off, the Emergencies Act is not the War Measures Act, an infamous piece of legislation used by Trudeau’s father, former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, to quash the 1970 FLQ separatist uprising, often referred to as the October Crisis. The images of soldiers and tanks in the streets of Quebec cities not only shocked Canadians from coast to coast, it set the stage for two referendums on independence and decades of political uncertainty.
The Emergencies Act gives the federal government the authority to contain, remove, arrest and charge anyone involved in a threat to national security without going through all of the legal hoops that would normally be required. It also allows Ottawa to second private tow trucks and other private businesses to aid them in the clearing.
Two quick observations about how the Emergency Act is being applied in this instance. First, EA provisions are not designed to “provoke” a violent response; quite the contrary. And second, the EA was never intended to be used to crush lawful protests, a point that many critics pointed out on Monday.
All of which is to say, this is all about politics, not public safety.
Klein wants to be mayor of Winnipeg, so he has to take a tough stance against the protests. But without specifying how far he’s willing to go, he has plausible deniability in case the police move in and it turns out badly.
Stefanson doesn’t like the protests, thinks they’ve made their point, but won’t directly ask them to leave because of the potential political blowback. The protesters do not represent a significant portion of Manitoba society. But on a riding-by-riding basis, these activists could make real trouble for Stefanson’s Tories in the 2023 election. So, Stefanson seeks “balance,” a word that may play well with protesters but which is making political opponents go nuts.
It's particularly maddening since former Premier Brian Pallister took such an aggressive stand against Indigenous railway protests two years ago this month. Pallister sought an injunction against a blockade in northern Manitoba within a few days of it going up. And, he passed legislation to impose stiffer fines and longer jail sentences against anyone involved in protest blockades that affect critical infrastructure.
For those NFA readers who want to label me Captain Obvious for this last observation, guilty as charged.
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