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Dispatch from the Front Line: We just don't trust you, Mr. Trudeau
The protest in Ottawa disperses; what now for the Emergencies Act?
Hello, Line readers.
We delayed this dispatch so we could watch police close in on the the three-week-old protest/blockade in Ottawa. We normally publish our week-end dispatches on Friday, but our sources, combined with the events unfolding before our eyes, made it clear that Friday was gonna be an awfully busy news day. So we waited until we felt we could could safely comment on all that has been unfolding.
Let's be blunt at the outset: this is still a very "dynamic" situation, if you'll spot us a little cop talk. Your Line editors know damn well that everything we write and publish could become obsolete very quickly. As such, we are offering sensible observations and takes that we hope will withstand news developments, but the police operation in Ottawa is a very complicated and dangerous situation. We are nervous, and we don't mind saying so.
All that above being said, let's see what we can see.
The first key point: at time of writing, the Ottawa clearing operation has generally gone well. There have been incidents, including a charge by mounted police that shocked a lot of the protesters and many observers (more on those sweet naifs in a moment). A Fox News personality recklessly told her more than one million Twitter followers that a protester, an elderly woman with a walker, had been killed by that charge. This is false and she has admitted it, with an apology.
Police have arrested more than 100 people, and some of those arrests were violent. Protesters have threatened journalists. Police hit the crowd with pepper spray. It's all ugly stuff, but it's not nearly as ugly as we feared.
The RCMP raid last week in Coutts Ab., in which numerous weapons and body armour was seized and more than a dozen were arrested, was a major turning point in this crisis. It clearly shocked and demoralized some of the protesters who genuinely believed they were all just good patriotic Canadians singing the anthem and rallying for freedom at a peaceful event. The Coutts blockade dispersed the day after that raid, and the Ottawa protest has likewise seen some trucks and people bleeding off ever since. Government officials had been most worried about Coutts and the sudden and peaceful resolution there allowed all available resources to be brought to bear in Ottawa.
And gosh, about those resources. This is a massive effort.
Matt Gurney sketched out the Ottawa operation here last week, and it has basically gone as he'd predicted, with one exception. It is a straightforward kettle, in which police are blockading the blockaders, letting them out of a secured perimeter person by person and truck by truck. This breaks the mob mentality and encourages the crowd to break up and go home. But rather than the police dividing the crowd with physical barriers, like dump trucks or buses or concrete barrier segments, the Ottawa police have just poured an enormous number of people into the effort.
Reinforcements from the OPP, RCMP and other large Ontario forces weren't a surprise. But there are also police from the Sûreté du Québec, the Calgary and Vancouver services, and probably others we haven't seen. We suspect every damned cop that could be spared from the entire country is in Ottawa, which is what has allowed a successful (thus far) clearing operation. But jeepers, that ain't sustainable. It's good, for a lot of reasons, that we didn't use the military in a law enforcement role. The fact that the only other option was to literally fly in cops from across the goddamn continent shows you how stretched resources are. That's something we'll have to think about.
But back to the protesters: your Line editors haven't covered many massive police operations from up close, but we've seen a skirmish line or two, and everything happening in Ottawa is ... pretty normal? Like, this is what it looks like when a large body of police officers try to disperse a crowd. We can debate tactics and the uneven application of force on different communities — we should debate these things. But when police do move en masse, this is what it looks like, and if we may say, this seems to be a better, more cautious operation than many others. The lessons of the G20 fiasco in Toronto have clearly been learned.
We haven't gotten too drunk on cop Kool Aid, don't worry. We think the police are facing a lot of questions that need answering. But overall, this kind of operation is what we expected and from our eyes, from afar, it seems to have gone very well.
The fact that so many of the protesters seem absolutely and sincerely shocked to see what this looks up close tells us, in general, three interesting things.
The first is, of course, that these guys were way, way too far into their own information ecosystem. Reports from the scene suggest that these protesters sincerely thought that waving a white flag was some magical forcefield of invincibility, or that taping a copy of the bill of rights to your illegally parked truck was a trump card that would leave the cops powerless.
Police marched in three weeks after the protest began and after the protesters received plenty of warning. Anyone who was genuinely shocked to see them make arrests was so far into the far-right's looking glass of bullshit that they really believed that the cops were with them, that the military would revolt, and that the people would support them. We don't say this in mockery. We say this as warning — many of these people have flown right through their frickin' fail-safe points, folks. We need to understand just how detached from reality they are, because that is a major complicating factor.
The second point, as Line editor Gerson noted so aptly in our weekly video, is that on top of whatever toll misinformation has taken, it's also clear these protesters were neither politically sophisticated, nor experienced activists. These people have clearly never spent any time around a homeless encampment scheduled for clearing out nor an Idle No More rally that wore out its welcome. Again, the police tactics being used this weekend are pretty measured and controlled, but protesters seemed honestly shocked to be confronted by ... disciplined and measured crowd-control tactics after fair warning to disperse had been given.
In this way, the comments from many commentators about the uneven hand of policing in Canada is bang-on: no black Canadians, or Indigenous Canadian, or even anyone who's taken part in any of the more exuberant anti-capitalism protests we've seen in North America in recent years would have had any illusions about what the cops were going to do. Yet a lot of these convoyers had no clue. Why did you guys think the horsies were there at all, guys?
The third thing, of course, is that lessons will be learned. We really believe that a lot of these guys will slink home sheepishly and realize in the coming days that maybe camping out on Wellington St. for many weeks was a bad idea, especially for their employment prospects. Others will be hardened and radicalized. Lessons will be learned. Peaceful protests will be discredited. And this could all just be the start of some very unpleasant things indeed.
But for now, Ottawa is largely cleared out, no one has been killed, and our fingers remain tightly crossed.
Here are your friendly neighbourhood Line editors shooting the shot about this week’s happenings. If audio visual is more your jam, do enjoy.
As the protest in Ottawa winds down, your Line editors are beginning to ask themselves, perhaps too optimistically: what happens after the emergency is over?
The Liberal government has arrogated to itself enormous powers through the Emergencies Act: the most notable among them, the ability to freeze assets of protest participants without any kind of prior judicial approval or warrant. It's not entirely clear to us what would constitute an offence that the government would consider serious enough to justify using this power.
If someone gave $500 to the protest movement three weeks ago, would that merit freezing a bank account? Is the number $5,000? Or $50,000? Would this act apply to independent media livestreaming the protests?
Complicating matters, on Wednesday, Justice Minister David Lametti gave an interview with CTV's host Evan Soloman. Solomon asked whether ordinary people who donated to the trucker convoy should be worried about the provisions in the Emergencies Act. Lametti responded:
"If you are a member of a pro-Trump movement who is donating hundreds of thousands of dollars, and millions of dollars to this kind of thing, then you ought to be worried," said Lametti.
Excuse us, but … wtf?
Threatening people who are donating cash to anything that can be construed as a "pro-Trump" movement suggests that attempts to freeze assets aren't directed toward criminal behaviour, but are rather politically motivated.
We asked Lametti's office for response to his "pro-Trump" comments and this was his response:
“We always ask our police forces as well as our prosecutors to act reasonably, where they're going to work with the banks to ensure that they act reasonably. Obviously there are going to be judgment calls that will be made and serious contributors will be treated more seriously. But, as always, we're going to leave it to law enforcement to work with the banks, as they already do in other areas that already exist. Such as in anti-terrorism financing and in other areas through FINTRAC.”
This is, frankly, not much of an answer. It amounts to "we will be reasonable. Trust us!"
Well, we don't. We don't trust NDP leader Jagmeet Singh to hold this government to account in Parliament. We don't trust the left to clue into the fact that the tactics used against the convoy will be used against their causes in turn. We don't trust conservatives to show more principle or restraint when in power.
Look, no one can accuse The Line of being naive about the protest/occupation/freedom/whatever convoy. Many of the protesters do simply object to vaccine mandates and lockdowns. Some of these people are deluded; many appear to believe in conspiracy theories, and we do think there is evidence of a hard, and potentially militant edge to this movement that most of the protesters themselves seem to be oblivious to.
Further, we do understand the rationale for going after protest-connected assets. We should not allow blockades and unlawful gatherings to become lucrative in and of themselves. As long as organizers and the like are collecting enormous sums of money for continuing their protest, they will have every financial incentive to stick around and even escalate tensions with cops and residents.
But once the protest is over, the rationale for freezing assets ought to disappear. Governments can't just go around blocking access to the bank accounts of activists and political opponents unless those individuals are criminals. And if the government has reasonable grounds to suspect criminal behaviour, then they can do as they've always done and procure a goddamn warrant.
Complicating this matter, we're also not sure that the government understands the nuances of cryptocurrency well enough to effectively shut it down or regulate it. Hell, we don't understand very much about crypto (and if you do, and would like to explain it to us, please reach out!)
We will note here a response to the Emergencies Act from one crypto wallet app called Edge. This company just told the government "no" it wouldn't hand over the assets of protesters and — more importantly — could not do so if it wanted to.
We're getting big Napster energy from all of this. Watching a central authority suppress a decentralized resource looks a lot like an exterminator trying to kill a swarm of cockroaches with a toothpick. If deep encryption is so baked into the system that the wallets themselves can't identify their users, well, good luck Government of Canada! We're just not convinced our authorities have the clout or technical capacity to deal with crypto at scale at the moment.
More broadly, the invocation of the Emergency Measures Act has created a lot of procedural questions that we just can't answer. What happens if the protests dissipate before the bill can be decided upon by the senate? How can individuals with wrongly frozen assets appeal the decision?
The Emergencies Act may have been necessary — we're far from convinced of this position, but we're open to the argument — but the potential for overreach and abuse is so high that it reaches near certainty. Bluntly, we don't trust this government. We don't trust its judgment. Nothing we've seen in the last three weeks has given us pause to reconsider this assessment.
If the Liberals don't drop the Emergencies Act and return to ordinary judicial processes as soon as possible after the protester camps have disbanded, we are going to have a very big problem on our hands. On top of all the ones we already had. *glances in direction of Ukraine*
Lastly, your Line editors pondered as the week drew to a close: How much of all the current ugliness should be laid at the feet of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau? He's certainly getting a lot of criticism. How much is fair? How much is deranged? How much is just politics-as-usual?
Let’s be clear right from the outset, before any of the PM's reflexive supporters get too upset with us: We absolutely think some of the criticism of Trudeau and his handling of this crisis is warranted, but as ever, we think a ton of it is overheated and unrealistic. It is a symptom of our badly fragmented politics today that we will face so much blowback for stating the blindingly obvious — the Prime Minister hasn’t done great, but he didn’t create this problem from scratch, either.
In a column in the Globe and Mail, columnist John Ibbitson offered very strong words of criticism for Trudeau, slamming him for his divisive rhetoric and his personal role in fanning the flames of the populist anger we are all now dealing with. We agree with much of what Ibbitson said. But there was also a lot missing from the column, and we think it is unfair to the Prime Minister to leave it out.
Your Line editors have been clear since the election in August that the prime minister had a choice. He could either be empathetic with those who disagreed with him, including the unvaccinated, and to lower the national temperature; or he could use vaccination mandates as a baton to whack the Conservatives over the head in order to secure electoral victory. He chose the baton and set to whackin'.
This was undoubtedly smart politics, which is why Trudeau is Prime Minister and former Conservative leader Erin O’Toole is now former Conservative leader Erin O’Toole. Trudeau‘s vaccine mandate worked as a wedge issue. But his electoral success, by the slimmest of margins, came at a cost to social cohesion, and some of that cost is getting shoved off the streets of Ottawa now.
On that score, Ibbitson is entirely right — Trudeau must indeed bear the blame for what he's done. But what the column did not do is contextualize the current rage with the broader populist fury that's been roiling our liberal-democratic peers. We like ragging on Trudeau as much as the next guys, believe us — he gives us a ton of material. But Trudeau did not create the conditions that led to the election of Donald Trump, to Brexit and BoJo, or that led to the populist surge we’ve seen across many of the European liberal democracies. Something is happening here that is way, way bigger than Canada and Trudeau, and if you write an entire column assessing his share of the responsibility and you don’t mention that, we’re not really sure what you’re doing.
So let us give you the straightest take we can: liberal democracies are struggling with populism, and that wave has controversial and complicated origins. A hard-right-wing alternate media ecosystem, cowardice or outright complicity among conservative politicians and parties, the destabilizing societal impact of social media and conspiracy theories, genuine failures in domestic and foreign policy by governing elites that have damaged trust in our institutions and leaders, profoundly transformative economic changes, and, of course, the slow-motion nightmare of a two-year pandemic, have all played their part, and you can't pin much of that on Trudeau or his socks.
Against the backdrop of this global upheaval, alas, Trudeau has proven to be a bit of a happy arsonist. He has absolutely made things worse by putting his own political interests ahead of the national interest. He absolutely should be criticized for this. It is a basic failure of leadership at a moment of profound urgency, and he owns that.
But does he own the entire mess? Umm ... no.
And let's try to keep that in perspective.
One thing your Line editors have noted is how Trudeau is at a double disadvantage here. His greatest political strength has always been his empathy, charisma and personal charm. Yes, we know a lot of you will roll your eyes that we’ve said that, but the guy has good retail political skills and he can read and work a room. That’s just an objective fact. His greatest weakness, though, as a politician and leader, is that he is inflexible and self-righteous, often intemperate, overestimates his own intelligence and humour, and comes across as sarcastic and glib when he should be thoughtful and intelligent ("Thank you for your donation!"). Further, he enjoys a dramatic confrontation way, way too much for his own good, as that poor NDP MP he elbowed in the boobs could tell you.
Or, in a more recent example, when the PM wanted to take an entirely fair swipe at the Conservatives for being way, way too cozy with the convoyers in Ottawa, he strongly implied — and he knew full well that he was doing it, please and thank you — that all Conservatives support and sympathize with those who wave Nazi flags ... while responding to Melissa Lantsman, a Jewish MP from a Jewish riding. (Disclosure: Line editor Matt Gurney went to high school with Lantsman, and they've remained in friendly if irregular contact since.)
Again, if Trudeau wants to take a dig at the CPC, go for it. They are a tire fire. A disaster. They deserve it. But the Nazi swipe, which was quickly pounced on by groups that do God's work monitoring and combating anti-Semitism, was a classic Trudeau fuck up. Practically vintage. At least he kept his elbows down, literally, this time.
The man has strengths and he has weaknesses. He's chosen not to use his strengths here and his weaknesses are, alas, now impossible to ignore. This all makes him particularly unsuited for the current moment. His charisma is of no use against these protesters, and he is hobbled by his personal and political failings.
Not a great combo, friends and family of The Line. This moment in time would be hard for any leader to handle. It may be beyond Trudeau's ability entirely.
This is a call out, not a comment: Your Line editors need help. As conceded above, we are not experts in crypto currencies. And unfortunately, many of the experts we know are conflicted into uselessness on the matter: they either own a bunch of crypto or are actively involved in its commercialization.
We are looking for an expert who could discuss with us the technical reality of crypto, and the challenges, if any, it will pose to national governments who want to rein it in and bring it under the control of central governments and banks, either in whole or in part. We would welcome any input as to who we should reach out to who could give us the straight dope on this without trying to spin us into writing up something that suits their own agenda. Please send any leads to email@example.com, and we’ll try to provide some good info to you guys in the coming article.
Well that’s it from us, Liners. Let’s hope Russia doesn’t invade Ukraine next week, because we could really use a few days off.
The Line is Canada’s last, best hope for irreverent commentary. We reject bullshit. We love lively writing. Please consider supporting us by subscribing. Follow us on Twitter @the_lineca. Fight with us on Facebook. Pitch us something: firstname.lastname@example.org