John Clarke on the removal of the Freedom Convoy, repressive state powers and how the left should respond
With considerable reluctance and, after much confusion and vacillation at the highest political levels, the police have been deployed against the ‘Freedom Convoy’ and broken it up. ‘The biggest protest organised by the Canadian far right since the 1930s’ that ‘swarmed Ottawa with reactionary exuberance, waving Nazi, Confederate, Gadsden, Red Ensign, and Maple Leaf flags, issuing threats of violence against opponents, and dreaming of recuperating a mythologised lost Canada’ has finally been brought to a close.
If I could report that this ugly display was brought to an end by a mass working-class mobilisation that confronted it and drove it off, there would be much to celebrate. As it is, with the convoy in Ottawa and support actions across the country creating very substantial economic disruption, the Trudeau government invoked, for the first time ever, the Emergencies Act and used the repressive special powers it provides to disperse the convoy. Trudeau took care to appear prudent and restrained by revoking the order to employ the Act as soon as he could be sure it had done its work. A dangerous precedent has nonetheless been set and we need to understand its implications properly.
Justin Trudeau’s image makers have long sought to present him as a progressive breath of fresh air. These days, his credentials as a social-justice warrior are not what they once were, but it is still worth pointing out that the Liberal Party has had much more practice in taking off the velvet glove and using the iron fist of the state than is generally supposed. The Emergencies Act was adopted as a replacement for the notorious War Measures Act, and it was the Liberals, indeed it was Trudeau’s father, who invoked that legislation five decades ago.
In 1970, after the separatist Front de libération du Québec kidnapped British Trade Commissioner James Cross and Quebec Labour Minister Pierre Laporte, the government of Pierre Trudeau unleashed special powers to put troops on the streets, suspend democratic freedoms, and engage in mass arrests without laying charges. When the Prime Minister was asked by a reporter how far he was prepared to go in the use of these powers and the deployment of military force, he infamously replied: ‘Just watch me.’
Now, in 2022, another Liberal government uses comparable special powers, and it has people around its cabinet table who are well suited to such an initiative. Trudeau’s Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair, isn’t as photogenic as his boss but he knows a thing or two about state repression. In 2010, when he was Toronto’s Police Chief, he played a leading role in operations to contain protests when a G20 Summit took place in the city. The scandalous mass arrests and illegal detentions police were responsible for at the time have gone down as ‘one of the worst violations of civil liberties in Canada’s history.’
There were several distinct powers that the Emergencies Act offered a government that the Liberals warmed to, as they sought to carry out the ticklish job of clearing out the convoy. The protest enjoyed very significant support within the state and its political establishment. Knowing that a section of its political base approved of the initiative, the Conservative Party leaders gave it considerable support. Most dangerously, the ranks of the police were a veritable convoy fan club and the ‘truckers’ leadership included a whole number of figures with police or military backgrounds.
Once a ‘public-order emergency’ has been deemed to exist and the Emergencies Act invoked, the federal government can ‘assume the control, restoration and maintenance of public utilities and services.’ With this provision in place, a combined force of federal, provincial and local police was sent in to clear out the convoy and its supporters. Left to their own devices, the Ottawa police had been laughably indulgent towards the disruptive activity that unfolded. A body of cops that could be counted on to follow orders was essential and had to be lined up carefully.
Special powers to ‘prohibit public assembly’ and to ‘designate and secure protected places’ were also obtained. These would have been especially critical if the clearing of the convoy in Ottawa had resulted in intensified efforts to block border crossings or major roads and rail lines. As it was, the sudden adoption of more resolute tactics by the state powers seems to have been more than the convoy organisers bargained for.
The ability to ‘authorize or direct the provision of essential services’ also brought with it a way to order reluctant private tow-truck operators to remove the convoy vehicles that were blocking streets. Finally, the Act provided the power to freeze bank accounts and this was done in dozens of cases, so as to disrupt, very effectively, the logistics and supplies of the convoy.
Double edged sword
It’s hard to witness the spectacle of notorious white supremacists, like convoy leaders Tamara Lich and Pat King, facing the denial of bail and continued imprisonment without some satisfaction. However, when such state powers are being used against the right, it’s important to note how they have been and will be used against working-class struggles. Having been arrested a number of times for my role in political protests, I have had the experience of sitting in jail for weeks, after being denied bail, and having finally to accept court imposed conditions that massively restricted my political work. I know very well how such measures are used by police and prosecutors to try to disrupt and weaken movements that challenge the injustices of this society.
The measures that the Emergencies Act put at the disposal of a supposedly democratic government are tailor made for use against the kind of struggles we need to take up at this time of societal crisis. The freezing of assets, the limiting of the right of assembly and free movement, and the designating of particular locations as ‘protected,’ are all ways of preventing and criminalising normally lawful activities. Indigenous people in Canada who act against companies driving destructive pipelines through their land are likely to be the targets of such measures. That is also true of those who take bold action to prevent the destruction of forests or other forms of environmental degradation. A major strike that involved serious economic consequences could well be singled out in just this way.
Two years into the pandemic, the economic hardship and uncertainty it has brought with it have created a volatile mood of anger and a deep sense of grievance. That the far right has been the force that has been able to create political momentum in this situation, and not the trade unions and the political left is, to say the least, very alarming. The only antidote to an emerging fascist street army is a movement that struggles for the needs of workers and communities, and that thereby offers an inspiring alternative on the left to the destructive rage of the ‘lumpen petty bourgeoisie.’
As just such a working-class movement emerges in the period ahead, it will soon find that the repressive power of the state is a double edged sword. It may have been used reluctantly and cautiously against the disruptive excesses of the convoy and its supporters but, in the case of any serious defence of working-class rights and living standards, it will be unleashed with a great deal more enthusiasm. The repressive powers of the state will not contain fascism, and we should oppose their enactment because they pose the greater threat by far to the movements we must build at the present time.
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John Clarke became an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty when it was formed in 1990 and has been involved in mobilising poor communities under attack ever since.
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