Emergencies Act Emergency Dispatch: Well, at least the Super Bowl was a good game
Can someone please tell us what we can do now that we couldn't do before? It's kinda important that we establish this.
We mean ... at least the Superbowl was actually a decent football game, right?
On Monday, the federal government invoked the Emergencies Act. This legislation, the successor to the War Measures Act of FLQ Crisis infamy 52 years ago, is The Big One. It's the nuclear option. The feds are suddenly seized of the problem, and they're moving fast to address it. Or at least look like they're addressing it.
If that reads as cynical, well, yeah, okay, we confess. We are somewhat cynical. This is a government that has often prioritized optics over achievement, and the talent in the Liberal front benches ain't all that impressive. But don't read that comment as only cynical. We are genuinely and sincerely wondering, here in our Line leadership bunkers, what the feds are going to do with the emergency powers they've now granted themselves.
More on that in a minute. First we should also make one further confession: we are torn on the decision to invoke the act. Your Line editors had a call earlier this evening and it was the journalism equivalent of a dog chasing its tail until it gets dizzy and smacks its head into a wall. We do see arguments in favour of invoking the Act, but we see arguments against invoking it, but there are good arguments that counter those arguments, and so on and so on. So rather than try to pass judgment on the wisdom of the entire decision, which is frankly something we're going to need to reflect on further, we want to try and pull out some specific elements of this, and walk you through what we think it means. And then you, like us, can take some time to settle the question of whether it's a good idea, or not.
First, it federalizes what is happening in the nation’s capital. The governing structure of Ottawa has never made any sense. For all intents and purposes, it is an Ontario municipality like any other; a creature of the provincial government with no special status. The parliamentary precinct itself falls under the protection of the Parliamentary Protective Service, which was created in 2015 in response to the attack on Parliament by Michael Zehaf-Bibeau. It amalgamated a handful of independent services, and among the changes it brought in was a much more visible presence on the Hill of armed RCMP officers.
But the most federally significant thoroughfare in the city, Wellington Street, remained a municipal road, as did all the other streets surrounding the precinct. Despite the fact that many of the most important offices and institutions of the federal government are on the opposite side of Wellington from Parliament Hill, no one thought to federalize the road. The upshot is that traffic flow, maintenance, policing, security, and everything else of importance is left to the city of Ottawa. And so when a convoy of truckers came to town advertising their plain intention to depose the prime minister and install themselves in the government, there was nothing to be done but to treat it as a traffic issue for the local cops, the Ottawa Police Service, to handle.
The major consequence of treating the aggressive occupation of the capital of a G7 country as a matter to be dealt with through things like noise bylaws and parking offences is that it allowed for an obscene amount of buck-passing and politicking between the various levels of government. Even after the Ottawa police chief Peter Sloly said, four days into the occupation, that he didn’t see a policing solution to the crisis and demanded 1,800 police in reinforcements, he was ignored by the province, while the feds sat back and watched and waited. It took a weekend of near-anarchy and the completely bonkers decision on Monday by the Ottawa mayor, Jim Watson, to have the police escort trucks directly on to Parliament Hill, to finally wake someone up in the PMO.
The plain insanity of this approach to running a capital city will be a subject of lively discussion whenever this is over — which may be a while yet. In the meantime, by invoking the Emergencies Act, Justin Trudeau has finally taken ownership of a problem that should have been his from the very start. How far he’ll go, and where all of this ends up, is a matter that concerns us very much. There will be hell to pay.
But Ottawa is Ottawa, not the whole country. Outside of the capital, is this an emergency that warrants federal action?
To that, we simply say, absolutely. The blockades at border crossings, even when the blockades are atop real estate that nominally belongs to some other order of government, are unquestionably a matter of federal interest. The blockades are a major threat to Canada's national economy. In some rough back-of-napkin math, Paul Krugman estimated that it is costing the Canadian economy US$300 million a day, out of a national GDP of around US$5 billion per day.
The blockades are also a federal matter because the border is inherently a matter of national sovereignty. Your Line editors are normally actually pretty prickly about jurisdictions minding their own business and staying out of each other's ways. But the Ambassador Bridge blockade, for instance, was a threat to our national economic well being, and directly overlapped with foreign relations, due to the involvement of our American allies. The notion that the appropriate agency to lead a response to a foreign-affairs and national-sovereignty crisis is the Windsor Police Service and its 400-some-odd officers is … odd. The Americans across the way seem to agree.
So in that big picture sense, we are generally supportive of the federal government taking the lead. Crises at the border, in four different provinces, is not a local issue or a provincial issue. Since this has now become a national-level crisis, drawing international attention, it warrants a national-level response. We cringe as we write that because we have real, serious, fundamental doubts about the people we have at the head of our national government. We really don't like that it's come to this.
But it has come to this, and if you'll indulge us a moment of patriotism, we'll simply say that in the big picture sense, we wish Prime Minister Trudeau success in the days and weeks to come. That doesn't mean we agree with all he'll do, or all he did that helped put us on this road in the first place. But this is a national emergency. He is the prime minister at this moment of decision.
So, sincerely: Good luck to you, sir.
The third issue before us is the one we alluded to above: now that the act has been invoked, what are the feds going to do with it? With one big exception, which we'll get to in a moment, we aren't really sure. The federal government has said what powers it has granted itself, at least in a general sense. (At press time, we were still short many details.) But in general, the emergency orders will allow police to more aggressively protect critical sites, will permit targeting of licenses and insurance policies, will allow the government to compel the use of equipment and personnel (tow trucks and drivers, anyone?) and will make it easier for police to make arrests or issue fines.
To that you say: “Okaaaaaay ... but, like, couldn't they do that before?”
Your Line editors remain somewhat baffled by the inability or unwillingness of the police to do their jobs. In Ottawa's specific case, Line editor Matt Gurney offered some possible explanations in a dispatch last week, but his sources only spoke to the challenge once the protesters were dug in. We can’t explain why they were able to dig in in the first place. Nor does Ottawa’s uniquely awful scenario apply to the blockades at the border crossings. It has seemed clear to us that while the tactical situation in Ottawa seems to have quickly forced the police into a shell-shocked defensive posture, there was more they could have done initially to contain the protest, and lots more that police could have done elsewhere. But they haven't been doing so, and it is not clear why. Is the problem that they need more powers? And if so, has Trudeau now given them what they actually needed? Or was something else missing that the Emergencies Act now gives them?
This is not an academic question. The Emergencies Act is intended to be used when two conditions are met: an emergency has overwhelmed the ability of local or provincial governments to cope with the effects in their areas, in a way that puts national safety, security or sovereignty at genuine risk. But, again, with the possible exception of Ottawa, are the local or provincial governments actually overwhelmed? It's not clear what the federal action will provide that was not already available. And if the answer to that is "nothing" — if everything the local and provincial governments already needed was available and they were just reluctant to act — then the Emergencies Act doesn't seem to apply here. In Ontario, at least, the situation could have been handled using the powers in place since the province declared an emergency on Friday.
This is a fast-moving situation, and there may well be things we are missing. But with the exception of one issue, it seems like all that Trudeau has bought with the Emergencies Act was already available or potentially available in some form, in every place it could be needed.
So let's get to that exception.
We can't fully analyze this yet, but this is big. For weeks now we've been hearing from well-placed individuals that something was up with the money supporting the convoy. We poked around pretty aggressively on this front last week, but couldn't get anything on the record, or confirmed via background sources to a level we felt comfortable using (Gurney's dispatches from Ottawa last week avoided the funding issue entirely for this reason — we just couldn't confirm anything, but the chatter was loud). Freeland's comments about crowd funding and crypto payments are a big, big tell, as is the increasing willingness of federal officials to openly assert that much of the funding for this Canadian convoy is from foreign sources. The Emergencies Act is a blunt instrument, but this is actually one area where we have a pretty open mind to its employment. Financial regulation is entirely within the federal sphere, and it's plausible — plausible, we stress, not certain — that the Emergencies Act will allow the feds to do immediately what would take longer to do via normal legislative channels.
Again, we'll consult with our experts in the days ahead, but this is the only thing that Ottawa announced Monday that seemed to be both entirely within their ambit and also likely to actually provide some immediate support that wasn't already possible under existing laws.
But as we continue to try and wrap our minds around today's big news, we do wish to amplify one important element here: the Emergencies Act is not martial law. We don't expect to see troops in the street (though, we mean, given our recent luck, who knows what the hell is going to happen). The prime minister has been clear that he doesn't want to use the military to resolve this crisis; we wholeheartedly agree with him, in the main, though we are open to using some military assets in a support role. If we need to move large numbers of police officers around the country in a hurry, should we start running into "whack-a-mole" blockades popping up all over the place, using RCAF transport aircraft is one possible solution. The army also has a small number of vehicles that are well-suited to do blockade clearance work that could potentially be useful. We don't think the situation currently warrants or requires either air force Hercs or army heavy tows, but these are two ways the military could contribute that don't get us into the really ugly scenarios that could result from using Canadian Army infantry to physically engage, potentially in lethal confrontations, with Canadian citizens.
We can't rule anything out. This is a terrible situation and we aren't exactly flush with extra police. It's not hard to imagine scenarios — dark ones, but very possible, too — where there simply isn't enough police manpower available to do all that needs doing, and that the army is tapped to provide extra trained and available bodies. We don't think that's necessary, but we can't rule it out. But we can certainly fervently hope it won't be the case, and we applaud the PM for his stand on this matter so far. This is a police matter, and until the police have demonstrated that they are simply incapable of dealing with the challenge, then with the possible exception of a few pilots and engineers and maybe some logistics help, let's leave the military out of this.
That’s all for tonight, dear readers. We’re still absorbing all this, and this is just where our thoughts went first. There are a few other issues we’re already mulling over — the effect of all this on national unity, possible political complications, whether this will backfire on the PM if the Act being invoked doesn’t end up changing much, how the Americans must be looking at all this … yeah, like we said. There’s a lot. We’re still processing. We had to start somewhere, though, so here we are. And we’ll end on this note, repeating what we said above: Good luck to you, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. You may need it. We all might.
Oh, and one more thing: Jen Gerson’s first report from the very serious situation in Coutts, Alberta will be in your inboxes first thing tomorrow morning.
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: email@example.com
The top job of the Prime Minister is to unify our country; he has failed on all acccounts. What we have now is a response to his inability to admit over 30% of Canadians even exist. HE is to blame for the fallout. Nobody else.
Matt & Jen, thank you for all of your hard work over the past few weeks reporting on this mess. It has been hard to keep up at times.
As a new subscriber, it is a bit disheartening seeing some of the comments folks leave on these articles.
Anyways, keep up the good work. It is very much appreciated