As the protest against vaccine mandates heads into its third weekend in Ottawa and spreads to border towns, observers say the window for ending it peacefully is closing.
On Friday, Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced a state of emergency as protest blockades continued to shut down parts of Ottawa’s downtown core and portions of Windsor’s Ambassador Bridge — a key cross-border supply route.
The move is largely administrative and gives Ford the power to bring in new orders to punish those who block and impede the movement of goods, people and services along critical infrastructure.
Jack Rozdilsky, an associate professor of disaster and emergency management at York University, said there are still ways to obtain a peaceful end to the crisis.
But “every day longer this goes on, it moves in a more dangerous direction where, essentially, it’ll reach the point where the hand of authority is forced,” he said.
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Police services have come in for heavy criticism over the way they’ve approached the protests to date. Police have said the situation on the ground is sometimes too volatile to make arrests. In Ottawa, city police have made 25 arrests directly and indirectly related to the protest.
Rozdilsky said the very real risk of injuries and deaths likely explains police reluctance to enforce existing laws and bylaws.
With the protesters in Ottawa camped out near homes, offices and businesses, he said — and with authorities lacking clear intelligence on how much hazardous material they’ve brought with them — there is also a fire risk to consider.
“There’s going to be a number of bad choices that authorities can make to end it,” he said. “What they’re going to have to do is make a choice that will be the best of the worst choices.
“While it’s frustrating to suggest why things haven’t happened faster, there are alternatives here that could be a lot worse if things start happening quickly.”
Part of the problem is the demands made by the protesters themselves, said Andrew Graham, a professor of policy studies at Queen’s University with a background in risk management.
While many protesters have flocked to Ottawa to voice their opposition to vaccine mandates, others have said their goal is to force the dissolution of the elected federal government, or to create a logistical nightmare that forces the federal government to repeal all mandates.
The Ambassador Bridge, which links Windsor to Detroit, is a key trade route between Canada and the U.S. that sees about $400 million in commercial goods crossing on a normal day. The bridge has been blocked since Monday afternoon by protesters demanding an end to all pandemic restrictions.
“The thing you look for is the degree of commitment to cause and it’s extremely high here. And the degree of commitment to tactics is also extremely high. And usually, when they’re there, you’ve got danger,” Graham said.
“Should they decide to put a proper perimeter around what’s going on [in] downtown [Ottawa] and go in and intervene and extract, it’s going to be messy, it’s going to be awful.”
Children in the protest zones
Joao Velloso is a law professor at the University of Ottawa who researches police response to protests. He said while the protest has been hard on the mental health of Ottawa residents, it’s also stressful for the people who have been sleeping in trucks for nearly three weeks — some of them parents accompanied by children.
“It adds another layer of complexity, you know. How do you handle people in these conditions? They’re not professional protesters. They are not used to long-term occupation. I think this is new for them as well. And, you know, it may get dangerous quite, quite quickly,” he said.
“I don’t see a good outcome … in any way. It may radicalize.”
On Friday, Ford said his government is considering taking away the personal and commercial licences of anyone who doesn’t comply with orders to break up blockades.
Velloso said that could be a way to handle the fleet of trucks barricading parts of downtown Ottawa.
“It’s not a kind of protest that is just about people and you go there and you tear gas them and you disperse people. It’s it’s not the same thing. It’s talking about trucks. Heavy vehicles [are] what pose the biggest problem,” he said.
“Let people protest. It’s an individual right. Trucks have no right to protest.”
Emergencies Act for ‘severe’ situations
If Ontario’s state of emergency fails to move the needle, Rozdilsky and others say the federal government could deploy a far more powerful tool by invoking the federal Emergencies Act.
The law empowers Ottawa to do just about anything it thinks is necessary to cope with a crisis. The law defines a national emergency as a temporary “urgent and critical 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.”
“It would give the appropriate police authorities the power to detain people longer, to detain people without arrest,” Graham said.
“Those powers are limited, and rightfully so in the society we want.”
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Jack Lindsay is a professor in the Applied Disaster and Emergency Studies department at Brandon University. He said he’s not convinced the act could be applied to the blockades in Ottawa and at the border since there are already laws and bylaws that could be enforced.
“In Canada the federal Emergencies Act hasn’t been used because it really has to be something that’s truly nationwide,” he said. “And it has to be so severe that there’s nothing else that the provincial, federal governments can do about it.
“It’s just a matter of political will probably more than legislative powers.”
Perrin Beatty, who helped write the Emergencies Act as defence minister back in the 1980s, said that while he didn’t anticipate this kind of situation when crafting it, the law was meant to cover a wide range of threats.
The law replaced the War Measures Act famously used by Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau during the FLQ crisis.
“If you were looking at a domestic situation, it would be hard to think of anything short of the October Crisis … that had that sort of an impact,” Beatty said. “And it’s why it’s very important that our political leaders lead and that they put the country first.”
Beatty, now the head of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, said he doesn’t have access to high-level intelligence that would tell him whether the Emergencies Act should be invoked now.
“All that I can say is that what we have is a problem that has been metastasizing. It started with blockades in downtown Ottawa, it’s spread within Ottawa and it’s spreading across the country. And the damage that it does increases by the hour,” he said.
“Every hour this continues, the damage that’s done to Canadian workers, Canadian families, Canadian businesses continues to grow.”
During the first week of the convoy’s presence in Ottawa, police Chief Peter Sloly said he didn’t believe there was a policing solution to the protest and mused about asking for military aid while noting it comes with “massive risks.”
The National Defence Act includes a section which states explicitly that the Canadian Forces “are liable to be called out for service in aid of the civil power in any case in which a riot or disturbance of the peace (is) beyond the powers of the civil authorities to suppress.”
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On the same day Sloly issued his statement, a spokesperson for the minister of national defence said the Canadian Armed Forces are not currently involved in law enforcement and have no plans to be.
Leah West, an assistant professor of international affairs at Carleton University and a former lawyer with the Department of Justice, said she thinks the protest can be ended through police action without involving the military.
“The only situation where I think the military has a capacity that can’t be resolved using law enforcement is towing and moving large vehicles if civilian tow companies refuse to do,” she said.