By now, I have made my feelings on the Canadian trucker convoy crystal clear. Far from a “worker’s revolution” or “labor strike,” this is right-wing astroturfing, using owner-operator truckers to protest vaccine mandates. There is nothing left-wing about it, and as a leftist I do not support the goals of these petty bourgeois disruptors.
Paraphrasing Voltaire biographer Evelyn Beatrice Hall, however, I can disapprove of what these folks say while also defending to the death their right to say it. The right to protest, petition, assembly, and have your voice heard — no matter how onerous, odious, or obnoxious your beliefs — is a hallmark of any free society. It is this abiding principle which should make any small-d democrat outraged at Justin Trudeau crushing these protests under his heel.
Last night, the Canadian prime minister became the first in history to invoke the Emergencies Act, a 1988 law which grants the government extraordinary powers in the event of an “urgent and critical situation” that “seriously endangers the lives, health or safety of Canadians .” In invoking the act, Trudeau seemingly spoke to the former two. “The blockades are harming our economy and endangering public safety,” he said. “We cannot and will not allow illegal and dangerous activities to continue.”
Certainly, any lawbreaking should be prosecuted and threats to public safety investigated. There have been some incidents of rock-throwing and property damage in Ottawa — the Canadian capital and epicenter of the protest — and police there say they’ve opened dozens of investigations, including ones of possible hate crimes. Meanwhile, nearly 2,000 miles away, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) in Alberta seized 13 long guns, handguns, and multiple sets of body armor near Coutts, a border town that has been the site of a blockade. They arrested 11 individuals suspected of involvement.
Possible hate crimes and weapons caches are, of course, serious incidents warranting investigation. But a bit of perspective, please. Thousands of people turned out to protest in Ottawa alone. Considering this, the level of criminality has been relatively low. And while a small cache of weapons and body armor is alarming, it hardly constitutes a national emergency; no one is going to overthrow the government with such a paltry arsenal.
“This is January 6 in slow motion,” Ottawa city councilor Catherine McKenney told the New York Times. Except, it isn’t. By every metric, this is smaller and more peaceful than January 6 ever was. The more apt comparison seems to be the 2020 Black Lives Matter uprisings.
The widespread, organic uprisings against continued police brutality towards Black people in America following the murder of George Floyd were widely decried on the right. While there were some isolated incidents of violence and property damage, given the scope of the protests — global, and with millions taking to the streets in America alone — the uprisings were overwhelmingly peaceful.
Yet Senator Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas, still found cause to write a widely derided op-ed for the New York Times in which he advocated sending in the US military to quell the protests. Then-President Donald Trump gassed protesters for a photo-op. And in response to the movement, states like Florida and Oklahoma passed laws granting immunity to drivers who hit protesters blocking the streets.
The impetus for all of these was, of course, that the protests were “disruptive” — the same logic now being used by Trudeau. But protests are meant to be disruptive! Civil disobedience is, after all, a hallmark of nonviolent protests.
The civil rights movement in the United States filled the jails, closed down central business districts, and created enough noise that the nation had no choice but to listen. Similarly, the Black Lives Matter protests of the past few years have frequently closed freeways and occupied the streets.
Many of us on the left rightly cheered these actions on as loudly and resoundingly as we condemned both Tom Cotton’s op-ed and Trump’s use of state violence against peaceful protestors. Protests are a democratic right, we pointed out, while the actions of the Republicans were the hallmarks of an authoritarian regime — not of a democratic society.
While nothing so egregious has yet happened in Canada, the invocation of the Emergencies Act paves the way for such a gross violation of civil liberties. Trudeau may think he can get away with it because these protests are so unpopular; nearly three-quarters of Canadians want the convoy protests to cease. But the mark of a democratic society is not how it responds to popular views. It is how it tolerates unpopular and dissenting views. And right now, Canada is not meeting its mark.
The left can ill afford to remain silent as the civil liberties of Canadians are trampled on by an out-of-control state. Turnabout is fair play, and a precedent set here could one day be used to quell our own demonstrations. Beyond that, though, there is a democratic principle at stake. A tolerance for dissension, for opposing voices, for unpopular views is a requisite for freedom. No society that refuses to allow its people the freedom to assemble and demonstrate can dare call itself just.
Therefore, the left must respond with the same level of outrage towards Trudeau as we would have towards Trump. Just as a few random acts of property destruction did not warrant a crackdown on the protesters’ civil liberties in 2020, it does not warrant one now.
One needn’t agree with the truckers to agree with their right to be wrong — even loudly, even distastefully, even in the streets. For as much as I disapprove of these protesters’ message and goals, I much more strongly deplore the actions of a government trampling the very liberal ideals for which its ruling party purports to stand.