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In case you thought the leadership in Canada was any better.

Canada Examines Its Covid Protest Crackdown

‘I am absolutely, absolutely serene and confident that I made the right choice,’ Prime Minister Justin Trudeau testifies.

By Michael Taube, WSJ

Nov. 30, 2022 6:30 pm ET

The Chinese Communist Party vowed Tuesday that it will “resolutely crack down on illegal and criminal acts that disrupt social order”—a reference to widespread protests against the party’s draconian zero-Covid policies. Meantime, Canada is conducting an inquiry into the Liberal-led government’s crackdown against the monthlong Freedom Convoy protests last winter.

Originally organized by long-haul truckers frustrated with Canada-U.S. cross-border vaccine mandates, it turned into an international conversation about liberty and public health. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau declared a public-order emergency on Feb. 14, invoking the Emergencies Act of 1988 for the first time ever. (Mr. Trudeau’s father, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, was the only Canadian prime minister to invoke the predecessor statute, the War Measures Act of 1914. He used it in 1970 to quell the threat of terrorism from a Quebec separatist group.)

The February order authorized police to push crowds back physically, use pepper spray, enter trucks and other vehicles, and make arrests. Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland also gave banks the ability to freeze accounts of people suspected of contributing to the protest, and funds raised through GoFundMe and cryptocurrencies were subject to monitoring.

Many Canadians thought this was an excessive response to protests that were disruptive but nonviolent. On April 25, Mr. Trudeau announced a commission of inquiry into the use of the Emergencies Act, led by Justice Paul Rouleau of the Ontario Court of Appeal. Last week Mr. Trudeau, Ms. Freeland and other leaders testified before the commission. Justice Rouleau, who worked for the Liberal Party before joining the bench, will report his findings to Parliament in February.

Mr. Trudeau and his cabinet ministers were criticized for refusing to meet with protesters and convoy leaders and listen to their grievances. If they had, it might have eased tensions and ended the protest sooner. But the inquiry suggested this was never seriously considered.

In her testimony, Ms. Freeland described the protest as a “crisis” and a “powder keg.” In notes from a Feb. 13 phone call that were introduced into the record, she called the protests a “threat to our democracy and to peace, order and good government.” Mr. Trudeau’s national-security intelligence adviser, Jody Thomas, also characterized the protest as “a threat to democracy and rule of law.”

Text messages between Justice Minister David Lametti and Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino revealed a certain arrogance. Mr. Lametti described then Ottawa Police Chief Peter Sloly as “incompetent” in one text, and said in another that Mr. Sloly needs to be “quick quick quick” to handle issues. Mr. Lametti also texted Mr. Mendicino that “people are looking to us/you for leadership. And not stupid people.”

Mr. Lametti also asked his cabinet colleague, “How many tanks are you asking for? I just wanna ask Anita”—Defense Minister Anita Anand—“how many we’ve got on hand.” Mr. Mendicino responded, “I reckon one will do!!” Mr. Lametti testified that the texts were “a joke between two friends.”

Mr. Lametti brought up the Emergencies Act on Jan. 30, 2½ weeks before Mr. Trudeau invoked it and later wrote it might be “necessary” to bring in the military. He, Ms. Anand and Transport Minister Omar Alghabra all testified they wholly supported the declaration of emergency. On the other hand, Brenda Lucki, commissioner of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, emailed Mr. Mendicino’s chief of staff Feb. 13 arguing against the invocation of the act because police hadn’t “exhausted all available tools.”

Ms. Freeland and Mr. Trudeau both defended the use of the act. “Our security as a country is built on our economic security,” Ms. Freeland testified on Nov. 24 when asked about the blockade of the Ambassador Bridge between Windsor, Ontario, and Detroit. Of her decision to freeze some 280 bank accounts holding around 8 million Canadian dollars (around US$6.25 million at the time), she said, “I would have preferred not to have had to do this. But in my mind, I weigh that against what I really believe is the tens, hundreds of thousands of Canadian jobs and families that we protected.”

Mr. Trudeau was emphatic: “I am absolutely, absolutely serene and confident that I made the right choice.” He believed there were “threats of serious violence,” including “weaponization of vehicles” in Coutts, Alberta; using trucks as “potential weapons” in Ottawa, the capital; and the use of “children as human shields.” None of these allegations have been proved.

Mr. Trudeau also said he was “worried about setting a precedent that a blockade of Wellington Street”—the main street of Ottawa’s Parliamentary Precinct—“can lead to changing public policy.” While he allowed that protests are “an important part of making sure Canadians are getting messages out there and highlighting how they feel about various issues,” he said that “using protests to demand changes to public policy is something that I think is worrisome.”

He quickly equivocated, offering an example of a protest he’d support: “If you’re out protesting that the government is shutting down a safe injection site or something, you are asking for changes in public policy. But there is a difference between occupations and saying, ‘We’re not going until this has changed’ in a way that is massively disruptive and potentially dangerous.” The prime minister himself joined a June 2020 Black Lives Matter demonstration in Ottawa.

It’s clear that the government didn’t respect its opponents’ right to peaceful protest. Canada’s Covid restrictions themselves were draconian by Western standards and went on months longer even than in the U.S. But at least democratic leaders can be held to account.

Mr. Taube, a columnist for Troy Media and Loonie Politics, was a speechwriter for former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

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