The streets of Ottawa, for now at least, are empty once again.
…So as Saturday dawned, officers flooded downtown Ottawa. They came from across Ontario, Quebec, and beyond…
…It took three weeks, but on Sunday, the bouncy castles, barbecues and hot tubs were gone from Canada’s capital…
Ottawa Police News Conference Clip
We promised earlier this week that we would clear our streets and give them back to our residents. We promised that we would return our city to a state of normalcy. With every hour we are getting closer to that goal.
The clearing of a three-week occupation over the weekend has come at a great cost. And no, I’m not speaking here of millions and millions of dollars in police overtime. Before the cops moved in, pretty gently, all things considered, to take back these streets, Canada’s federal government took a totally unprecedented step.
The federal government has invoked the Emergencies Act to supplement provincial and territorial capacity to address the blockades and occupations.
The country can and undoubtedly will debate whether or not the Emergency Act was necessary to remove the protest and clear the streets. But regardless of where political opinion lands on the Trudeau government decision, the cat’s already out of the bag. Over the past month, Canada has seen a brand new type of protest and occupation, and, as mentioned, a completely unprecedented government response. And whatever you think of either the protest or the response, those aren’t exaggerations. So the question now is what do both the tactics and the response mean for the future of Canada’s National security and of Canadians personal freedoms?
I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings, this is The Big Story. Stephanie Carvin is a former national security analyst. She is the author of Stand on Guard: Reassessing Threats to Canada’s National Security . Steph, do we have to reassess the reassessment of threats to our national security right now?
It’s interesting, I think we will see a reassessment, but it’s not a brand new thing. This has been something that’s been going on for some time. The national security agencies, particularly the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, has in the last two-three years really identified espionage and foreign interference as the primary threat to national security. But when it comes to violence extremism, it has said now that ideologically motivated, violent extremism is now the priority threat in the extremism space. So we’ve been moving in this direction for some time, at least at the intelligence national security level, whether or not that’s reflected in the actions of municipal police or even the RCMP, I think, is yet to be determined.
Well, and now the government has given itself a brand new tool to combat it. So I want to begin there, because I know you’ve been speaking and thinking a lot about this. So short of like, reading it out loud to us, what is the best nonpartisan way to describe what the Emergencies Act actually means?
So the Emergencies Act is the replacement of the War Measures Act that was famously enacted in 1970. That was, of course, during the October Crisis, the FLQ crisis, where there was a series of individuals who were kidnapped and threats being made across Canada. And the only real tool that Pierre Trudeau felt that he had was this War Measures Act. And it’s just worth reflecting on that for a second, because the War Measures Act was serious legislation. It had enormous powers, far greater than what we have today. It suspended the habeas corpus, which is, of course, the right to not be thrown in jail forever without any kind of representation or speaking to anyone. It was the basis upon which tens of thousands of Japanese Canadians were put in camps effectively for no reason other than their nationality. So this was a very serious piece of legislation that would be in no way compliant with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms today.
So let’s fast forward to 1988. The government of Brian Mulroney introduces the Emergencies Act, and this is a piece of legislation that is meant to set a much higher standard for when the government can invoke the use of these kinds of extraordinary powers to deal with a crisis. And it’s also meant to be compliant with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Now, maybe we don’t want to get there yet, maybe we’ll get there in a few minutes. But the act effectively says that it defines an emergency as an urgent and critical situation of a temporary nature that either A, seriously endangers the life of Canadians in such a way that a province can’t handle it itself, or B, it seriously threatens the ability of the government to preserve the sovereignty, security and territorial integrity of Canada. And then there’s a third aspect here which says that it cannot be dealt with any other existing law of Canada. So there’s no other legislative tool that the government could use to solve this crisis. So that’s kind of what the Emergency’s Act is in a very short nutshell.
And we’re going to get into all the implications for it and whether or not we’re living under a state of tyranny, as Tucker Carlson would put it. But first, from your national security experience and from your experience living in the nation’s capital recently, was that necessary?
See, this is the million dollar question, and I think the answer I came up to was no/yes. Really, it should never have come to this. We do have laws at the provincial level, for example, in Ontario.
For example, Ontario, you can use administrative law at its disposal. It can actually suspend the licenses of people who are using cars in ways that they shouldn’t be used to block the ports of entry with the United States. I mean, it can use the Highway Traffic Act. And the Highway Traffic Act, by the way, doesn’t just apply to highways. It pretty much applies to almost every single road in the province. So there was a number of tools that I think could be used. We did see MPs raise these concerns that there are legislative tools that the provinces have, in some cases, used successfully. So the Ontario government, for example, was able to use its powers to stop the crowdfunding money from really entering Ontario or to getting into any of the bank accounts of the organizers. That was a big concern. And in addition, it’s been pointed out numerous times that the situations at pretty much all of the border checkpoints were resolved without the Federal Emergencies Act.
The problem is that we just didn’t see the provinces doing very much about this. So, I mean, the problem was where was the province of Ontario? This is a question that I don’t see asked enough. There was a big role here for the province. But while the police operation was going on in Ottawa this weekend, we saw Doug Ford tweeting about fishing. And I thought, this is such an odd thing to happen that you have the Emergencies Act, and the Premier of the province in which this massive police operation is taking place is tweeting about fishing, but here we are.
So the Federal Emergency Act did provide certain tools that are useful. So, for example, the towing companies. One of the big issues that the city of Ottawa had was that it was not able to get towing companies to help remove vehicles because either the towing companies were sympathetic to the cause of the convoy or, alternatively, they may just have simply been intimidated into not participating whatsoever. They just may have been scared for their own livelihoods. So the federal legislation allows the government to compel the tow truck companies, with compensation I should say, it’s not indentured servitude, into helping the police actually remove the vehicles.
A second tool that’s been really useful, according to police, is that it allowed officers from all over the country to come to Ottawa and they didn’t have to individually be sworn in as peace officers. And that can be a lengthy and cumbersome process. So you could bring thousands of people in to help with this operation and they could just kind of get right to it. You didn’t have to worry about making sure that everyone was operating under a certain authority.
But the big tools here that I think everyone’s been talking about and has been really discussed is the financial tools. In the first instance, requiring the crowdfunding sites to register with Fintrac, which is the agency that looks after money laundering or counterterrorism financing in Canada, to prevent any kind of suspicious transactions from going through. We have also seen some of the initiatives to suspend personal bank accounts. This is a huge thing for people who are involved. We call this either de-risking or de-banking. And the government can’t actually make the banks do it. But what they can do is provide guidance to the banks to direct them to look at certain individuals who may be involved in the convoy and reassess their relationship with them. And this is a really important point because the actual state of emergency, whatever happens to it, will end at maximum 30 days. But when you’re de-banked or de-risked, that can be forever. That’s a private bank decision. So this is something that goes on forever. So it has huge implications.
And this has, I think, been a touch point of this entire conversation. We want to kind of take what I’ve been calling the Al Capone approach to this convoy, to provide incentives for people not to participate or to end their participation in ways that are nonviolent. And one of the ways you can do that is targeting their insurance. You can target their driver’s licenses. You can target their commercial licenses or their bank accounts. You couldn’t get Al Capone on murder charges or racketeering charges or all the smuggling charges with regards to alcohol, but you could go after their income taxes. And so I think that was the approach that the government wanted to take. Let’s put as much pressure as we can to have this end as nonviolently as possible.
And it did end, at least for now, nonviolently. But the reason we wanted to talk to you is because I’m interested and slightly concerned, as I think probably a lot of Canadians are about what these tactics mean going forward, both government tactics and protester tactics. And we’ll talk about the protesters in just a minute. But the streets of downtown Ottawa right now are clear. As we talked about before the show, there are a few encampments not far outside the city where many of these trucks have gone. And when asked about the Emergencies Act, the Prime Minister said that he may leave the act in place for a while because of threats that the trucks may return. What kind of precedent does that set in your mind to kind of preemptively almost keep this act in place?
Well, if you look at the government’s arguments with regards to supporting this legislation. So basically, what the government has to do when it invokes the Emergencies Act is first set out an order in council. Which is just a fancy way of saying like cabinet declaration. It basically highlighted four things. It said that there is a political extremist group that is taking part here and that they have blockaded the ports of entry, causing economic damage. It’s wrecking our relations with the United States. And it’s also impacting the supply chain here in Canada. We were seeing people lose their job.
That was further spelled out in something called a section 58 justification. And I’m getting a little bit into nerdville here, but bear with me. The section 58 justification for this is more in detail what the government means when it is invoking this legislation. And one of the themes that we did see throughout that Section 58 justification was this idea that there is this political extremist threat and that it’s growing, that this is not something that’s actually going away, that in some ways it could be getting worse. And there’s a couple of reasons for that I think we’ve seen the Minister of Public Safety, Marco Mendicino, reference in partial detail. The first is that we have seen attempts to retake the border crossing at Surrey, which was actually successful temporarily this weekend, but also there was an attempt at the Ambassador Bridge in Ontario last week.
There’s also a much more disturbing concern here, which is following events from Coutts, Alberta. And what we know is that during a routine check of one of the vehicles, they found numerous arms and weapons on individuals associated with the blockade at Coutts, Alberta, and I believe somewhere around 13 individuals have been arrested and four individuals have been charged with a plot to kill RCMP officers, a list of RCMP officers. The concern there is that there was an individual in that movement who is associated with a violent extremist group called Diagalon, and this is a group of neofascist accelerationists. These are people who believe that society is corrupt and that it’s ultimately going to fall apart and they want to make that happen faster. That’s the acceleration part. They want to help society collapse faster, and so you can have the rebirth of a white ethnostate.
The individual who was arrested, Chris Lysak, he was very much involved in this violent extremist organization. The Minister of Public safety has now suggested that this may have actually been coordinated with individuals who were in Ottawa participating in the protest. So this may actually feed into the government’s logic here that yes, the blockades may be gone, yes, Ottawa may be clear, but the threat of violent extremism associated with this particular movement, whether it was at the heart of the movement or in the case of Diagalon that had tried to jump onto it, in other words, taking advantage of the fact that they were more interested in mayhem than mandates, is a part, I think, of the calculus that the government is making.
But is that dangerous? I mean, I don’t want to be someone who engages in hyperbole about taking the road down to a police state, as a lot of critics of the government have said. But as you mentioned in your initial description of the Emergencies Act, it’s supposed to be temporary. These groups aren’t going away. They’ve been around for a while. They’re continuing to increase in popularity. They don’t seem to be getting less aggressive, if anything, more aggressive. So when does this temporary emergency end? When we get rid of all of Diagalon or all hate groups in Canada? And I’m just being the Devil’s advocate a little bit. But this is what I think about when we talk about the precedent that this sets.
I agree. And this is why I’m very uncomfortable with the use of this document. It never should have gotten to this point. I think a lot of people have suggested that a lot of the threats that we’ve been dealing with are really that of the criminal variety. We’ve dealt with violent extremist groups in Canada before, and we can do so again under our normal laws. The fact is that this is something that I agree, Canadians should be uncomfortable with this. This is not a normal state of affairs. We are using a very significant instrument, and it is in a lot of ways of sledgehammer. I do believe the government has found a way to kind of refine it a bit. So we’re not using it so much as a sledgehammer, but more of a scalpel. But nevertheless, the potential for that sledgehammer is there. And it may make sense to be fair to the government that we need these financial tools to be in place for at least 30 days. But yeah, you’re right. We can’t keep this forever.
And more to your point, I do think that there is a concern and concerns, rightly expressed by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and the Center for Constitutional Freedoms, two groups that are on very different ends of the political spectrum I should say, that this is an overreach, and there is the potential here now for other governments who may have a very different idea as to what constitutes a threat to the security of Canada to use it against groups that they don’t like. This is a Pandora’s box. And you may say, okay, we’ve only opened Pandora’s box a little, but once Pandora’s box is open, it’s opened. And this is a really big concern going forward that we do need to think about the risks here in terms of why we got here. And it’s my expectation that this will end in 30 days. I don’t know if the government would have the support in the House to continue it beyond the 30 days.
But in some ways, invoking the Emergencies Act was the easy part. The hard part is going to be, what do we do now? You’re right, we have extremist groups that are part of this movement that may be emboldened by what happened. But there’s also kind of just the fact that you have a number of people who for whatever reason, believe they are being isolated from society or feel isolated from society, and we can have a whole conversation about whether or not that’s a legitimate grievance that they hold. The fact is they feel this way, and they felt that the best way to make themselves heard was to effectively take the capital city hostage for three weeks. These people are still here. They’re now better networked. They raised a lot of money. They have a lot of enthusiasm. And given the fact that when faced with a crisis like this, we kind of seem to have ended up with a case of jurisdictional hot potato, I’m not necessarily that optimistic that we have it within us to maybe have some of the difficult conversations or take some of the hard steps that are going to be necessary going forward.
Well, the last thing that I will ask you then, and I think it’s important because I’ve certainly seen lots of speculation, to put it mildly, about this. What are the chances that the timing of this has anything to do with Russia pushing forward into Ukraine or even with American extremists trying to embolden their Canadian cousins? We’ve heard a lot about like, this isn’t Canada, this is coming from foreign influence. From a national security perspective, is that true?
So I’m so glad you asked this question because it’s been one that I’ve heard a lot in recent weeks. That this doesn’t seem like Canada. How could Canadians possibly do this to each other? And my answer to this is there isn’t actually a lot of evidence for this being a foreign interference issue. It wouldn’t surprise me if there’s some kind of forensic analysis of all the tweets and social media posts that are made, that there is in the end, some Russian bots or bots from another country picked up these issues and tried to amplify them. That’s something that we expect now. These bots or sock puppet accounts are trained to find socially divisive issues and amplify them as much as possible. But that’s not really what happened here. Most of the support that’s international has been very overt, not covert. This isn’t Russia 2016.
And more importantly, this whole convoy was started up by a bunch of Canadians who hold antigovernment views, conspiratorial world views, Islamophobic views, and some of them have even echoed QAnon sentiments. This is a Canadian thing. This wasn’t driven by foreign interference. This isn’t Russia. It has nothing to do with the unfortunate situation in Russia/Ukraine right now. The only evidence we have is that there were a number of stolen Facebook accounts that were pro-trucker, but they seem to have been mostly to grift rather than to radicalize. People were just trying to make money off of this. And I think this is an important thing for us to kind of reckon with. This is not foreign interference. This is a very much a Canadian problem, and it’s going to require a Canadian solution.
One last question then, because I lied. Given everything that’s happened over the past month in Ottawa, in terms of the federal response, what keeps you up at night about it?
That’s a good question. The thing that keeps me up at night is the extent to which this is the continuation of trends that we’ve been seeing in this country for some time. I mean, it’s true we are less divisive than the United States. We don’t have a Fox News that really amplifies things, but we do have a far right press in Canada that really has been pumping out anti mandate, anti lockdown and anti vaccine information over a long period of time. We saw in the election in August of last year someone through gravel at the Prime Minister’s head. We have seen the Prime Minister when he’s campaigning having to wear a bulletproof vest. These are all very new and scary things and now we have this particular event in Ottawa. I do worry that for whatever reason people have lost faith in our political institutions in a big way and are trying to make their points across using again, these kind of apolitical means.
Protest is political, but this wasn’t about protest. This was about compelling. This was trying to force the government through a kind of hostage taking. And unless we find a way to bring people back from that mindset, we’re going to see a lot more of this in Canada and that’s going to be a very hard thing I think for us to reckon with and it could change the overall nature of our politics for some time to come.
and with that, another cheerful conversation is in the books at The Big Story. Thanks Stephanie.
Thank you. Maybe in my next life I’ll specialize in fluffy bunnies.
Stephanie Carvin, former national security analyst. Our favorite person to talk to when things look particularly dark.
That was The Big Story. For more from us head to thebigstorypodcast.ca. And in an effort to provide my life with a little more variety because I have now said this exact spiel almost 900 times I am begging for some input. If you guys would like me to read some of the letters we get or the responses we get to our tweets, I will do it but you got to tell me you want to hear it because I don’t want to waste your time, but I would appreciate something different.
Thanks for listening, I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings, we’ll talk tomorrow.
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