Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has invoked an emergency measure for the first time in the country’s history to give his government more power to respond to ongoing anti-government trucker protests.
In a news conference on Monday afternoon, Trudeau said he was invoking the Emergencies Act, which allows the federal government to take “special temporary measures” for a period of 30 days during national emergencies.
“The federal government has invoked the Emergencies Act to supplement provincial and territorial capacity to address the blockades and occupations,” Trudeau told reporters.
“I want to be very clear: the scope of these measures will be time-limited, geographically-targeted, as well as reasonable and proportionate to the threats they are meant to address. The Emergencies Act will be used to strengthen and support law enforcement agencies at all levels across the country.”
The Emergencies Act defines a national emergency as a situation that “seriously endangers the lives, health or safety of Canadians and is of such proportions or nature as to exceed the capacity or authority of a province to deal with it” or that “seriously threatens the ability of the Government of Canada to preserve the sovereignty, security and territorial integrity of Canada”.
Anti-vaccine truckers and their supporters converged on the capital, Ottawa, late last month to demand Canada lift an order requiring truckers to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 to cross the land border with the United States.
Members of the so-called “Freedom Convoy” – organised by far-right activists – have continued to occupy the city, demanding an end to all coronavirus restrictions in Canada. Other similar protests have sprung up at key border crossings and disrupted major trade routes.
The Canadian government has faced growing calls to do more to disperse the protests, which have been linked to incidents of harassment and threats of violence in Ottawa and elsewhere, and which local police have failed to disperse.
Once an emergency is declared, the Act comes into immediate effect – but the government must go to Parliament to get approval within seven days, national broadcaster CBC News reported.
The leader of the left-leaning New Democratic Party (NDP), Jagmeet Singh, said earlier on Monday that any discussion of invoking the Emergencies Act showed Trudeau had “failed in leadership” amid the protests – but that the NDP would support the move.
“If brought to the House [of Commons], given how serious things are, given how serious the crisis is, we would support it,” Singh told reporters.
The Emergencies Act in 1988 replaced the War Measures Act, which gave Canada broad authority to detain people and take other extraordinary measures.
That earlier act was previously invoked during WWI and WWII, and then notoriously by Trudeau’s father, then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, in 1970 during a wave of violence by hardline Quebec separatists, known as the October Crisis.
The Canadian military was sent in at that time, and rights groups slammed the use of the War Measures Act as an infringement of civil liberties. The Emergencies Act must be used in accordance with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
“This is a huge deal,” said Daniel Beland, director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, about Trudeau’s announcement.
“The Emergencies Act is more limited in its application than the War Measures Act it replaced, especially when individual rights and freedoms are concerned. Still, the invocation of the 1988 legislation for the first time sends a strong signal while being controversial, especially as some premiers and political observers have already criticized the idea of invoking the Emergencies Act at this time,” Beland told Al Jazeera in an email.
Trudeau told reporters that he would not use the Emergencies Act to call in the military, adding that invoking the measure “is never the first thing a government should do” and should be done “sparingly and as a last resort”.
“Today, in these circumstances, it is now clear that responsible leadership requires us to do this,” he said. “These blockades are illegal and if you are still participating, the time to go home is now.”
Arrests at Alberta border
Meanwhile, the federal Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) said earlier on Monday that it had arrested 11 people participating in a blockade of a border crossing in the western province of Alberta.
The force said in a statement that its search of three trailers at the Coutts blockade uncovered 13 long guns, handguns, body armour, a machete, a large quantity of ammunition and high-capacity magazines.
“Information was received that this group had access to a cache of firearms with a large quantity of ammunition. The group was said to have a willingness to use force against the police if any attempts were made to disrupt the blockade,” the statement said.
The RCMP also said two vehicles involved in the Coutts protest, which has blocked traffic at the border crossing between Alberta and the US state of Montana, attempted to ram a police vehicle.
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney welcomed the arrests, telling reporters that the incident “underscores the severity of what has been happening”.
Speaking to those still involved in the blockade, Kenney said: “You have sent your message, we encourage people to continue to express their views in a lawful and peaceful way, but the ongoing blockade of our borders and our highways at Coutts will no longer be tolerated.
“And now that this very delicate security challenge has been resolved successfully by the police … broader enforcement measures will commence,” he said.
Back in Ontario, Canada’s most populous province, the Ambassador Bridge – the busiest crossing between Canada and the US – reopened late on Sunday after several days of protests. “Today, our national economic crisis at the Ambassador bridge came to an end,” the mayor of Windsor, Ontario, Drew Dilkens said in a statement.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford also announced on Monday that the province would remove a vaccine passport system as of March 1 – though he said the decision was not the result of the demonstrations.
Ford told reporters that he supported “the federal government and any proposal they have to bring law and order back to our province, to make sure we stabilise our business and trade around the world”, as reported by CBC News.
Quebec Premier Francois Legault, for his part, said he was against invoking the Emergencies Act, saying before Trudeau’s announcement that he had told the prime minister the measure “must not apply” in the French-speaking province.
“I don’t think we need it,” Legault said. “I think that at this moment it would not help the social climate.”
A public opinion poll released on Monday by the Angus Reid Institute showed that 72 percent of Canadians agreed that the protesters had “made their point” and should “go home”. Forty-four percent of respondents also said the demonstrations had made them more likely to support vaccination requirements at the US-Canada border.
A majority of Canadian truckers – some 85 to 90 percent, according to an industry advocacy group and the federal government – are fully vaccinated against COVID-19.