Canada’s Liberal government invoked the Emergencies Act on February 14, formally tabling the emergency declaration in the House of Commons on February 16, ahead of several days of debate scheduled over the weekend.
This is the first time the act has been invoked since its passage in 1988, when it replaced the War Measures Act. The War Measures Act was last invoked, coincidentally, by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s father, then-PM Pierre Trudeau, to clamp down on leftist movements in Quebec. It enabled the arrests without charge of 465 people, including numerous union organisers.
Invoking the Emergencies Act is being justified by the government as a response to the Freedom Convoys blockades and occupations across the country. It gives the government new powers to ban travel to protest sites and to prohibit minors from attending protests. Showing concern with the costs to business by the convoys, the act specifically prohibits public assemblies that interfere with the movement of goods. It restricts access to parliamentary precincts, hospitals, airports, trade corridors, bridges and areas near “critical infrastructure”, such as water, gas, sanitation and telecommunications facilities.
The act permits fines up to CA$500 on summary conviction, or imprisonment for six months. An indictment (felony conviction) brings a $5000 fine or up to five years in jail.
The act also authorises banks and insurance companies to freeze peoples’ accounts and cancel their vehicle insurance.
Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland announced that under the act, crowd-funding platforms and their payment service providers must now register with the Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Centre of Canada (FINTRAC), the national financial intelligence agency, to which they must report large or suspicious transactions.
While many people are fundamentally opposed to the far-right convoys and occupations, or are simply tired of them, this move by the government should be viewed as a danger to community organisers — particularly in the Indigenous and Black peoples’ movements — and to unions and the left. These sectors are already targets for surveillance, suppression and state violence.
Policing and the convoys
The state already has instruments ready at hand for removing convoys and blockades. These are the same instruments that governments regularly deploy, without hesitation, against Indigenous land defenders and allies, unhoused people, anti-poverty activists and striking workers. They are police, bylaw enforcement, injunctions and courts.
The state has not used these instruments against the Freedom Convoys, which reflects the latter's composition as predominantly white, middle strata and owner operators. It also reflects the convoy’s positioning as a ”patriotic” movement (note the garden of Canadian flags on display) that does not actually oppose the state or capital per se. They simply want to “Make Canada ‘Anglo-Saxon’ Again” and the Canadian state has always been able to accommodate white supremacy.
That police have chosen to mingle with the occupying convoys, help them set up, or expressed support for them, even hugging them en masse, is a reflection on the nature of policing (always a force of colonial military occupation itself) rather than a sign of police failure or incapacity.
Provincial governments have already crafted exceptional legislation that targets economic disruption and impediments to “critical infrastructure”. They have done so explicitly in the context of Indigenous land defence and movements against resource extraction and pipeline developments. The Critical Infrastructure Defence Act was introduced into Alberta’s Legislative Assembly only last year, in response to the 2020 #ShutDownCanada pipeline and railway blockades. It could, of course, be deployed against striking workers.
Police do not hesitate against Indigenous or Black movements or the left
Police have never had trouble making mass arrests of land defenders, movements for Black lives, leftists, or union members. Last year, police in several cities engaged in large-scale arrests of unhoused people defending their tent encampments, with 26 arrests at one encampment alone. In Ottawa, as recently as 2020, a protest that occupied a single intersection to express outrage over the police killing of a young Black man, was cleared within days with a dozen people being charged.
Mass arrests of more than a thousand people have been carried out several times over the last decade or so. During protests against the G20 in Toronto, more than 1100 people were arrested, including workers simply out on the streets on their way to work. More than 3500 were arrested during weeks of student strikes in Quebec in 2012. About 1200 people have been arrested during months of actions to block the logging of old growth forest at Fairy Creek, British Columbia.
This is nothing new or recent.
The state sent the military in to assault Mohawk communities opposed to the construction of a high-end golf course on their lands in 1990. More than 400 Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers laid landmines, blew up a supply truck and fired more than 75,000 live rounds at Indigenous people trying to practice ceremony on their territory at Gustafsen Lake in 1995. Police used horses and truncheons in Toronto in 2001 to bludgeon unhoused people and their supporters who were simply trying to speak in the provincial legislature to tell politicians how their policies were literally killing them. More than 30 people were arrested and charged.
All of these police actions were carried out without the Emergencies Act.
The state and capital are the emergency
The federal government has mishandled the pandemic response throughout, preferring its favoured neoliberal approach stressing individual responsibility (and blame) rather than a truly social approach of organised collective care. Some governments in Canada also used COVID as cover to enact more authoritarian polices.
The government could have created or expanded health care resources — whether hospitals or clinics. It could have socialised private long-term care facilities — where many of the worst outbreaks occurred. It could have supported workers with increased hazard pay, more and longer paid leave, heightened health and safety protections. It could have provided more extensive and lengthier income supports — paid directly to workers who lost work or jobs, or perhaps a guaranteed income, as some called for. It could have suspended rent payments. It could have supported schooling outside of classrooms, with material resources for students and teachers learning and teaching online.
Instead, the federal government chose to take an individualistic approach, excoriating people to wear masks and get vaccines. Eventually this came to blaming unvaccinated people for the new waves that inevitably followed from government decisions not to provide the supports mentioned above.
COVID-19 has been an emergency for working-class people. The real emergency though has been the actions of governments and capital, seeking to keep business and profits flowing, while overseeing a massive transfer of wealth upwards amidst unemployment, precarious employment and automation. As workers went to work and died.
This has stoked intense anger and resentment, with reason. In this context, and the absence of serious real-world alternatives from the left, the far-right has offered a lightning rod and, not surprisingly, grown. The Emergencies Act will not resolve this. In a way it is another gift to the right.
While being nothing more than an unnecessary, heavy-handed piece of government overreach, the act will no doubt serve as a further mobilising tool for the far-right. What better evidence for them to reinforce their claims about government tyranny. And, in the end, it will most likely be yet another weapon to be used against the left.