MANNING: Canada’s increasingly autocratic government

Author of the article:

Preston Manning

Publishing date:

Feb 20, 2022  •  1 day ago  •  4 minute read  •   126 Comments

Fencing is erected on Metcalfe Street near Parliament Hill as police worked to evict the last of the trucks and supporters occupying the downtown core, three weeks after a protest against COVID-19 vaccine mandates began in Ottawa, Feb. 20, 2022.
Fencing is erected on Metcalfe Street near Parliament Hill as police worked to evict the last of the trucks and supporters occupying the downtown core, three weeks after a protest against COVID-19 vaccine mandates began in Ottawa, Feb. 20, 2022. PHOTO BY CARLOS OSORIO /REUTERS

In defending federal management of the COVID crisis, and justifying some of the extreme measures adopted, many questionable statements have been made by the prime minister and other government spokespersons. But surely some of the most egregious of those statements were made by three federal ministers  – Justice Minister David Lametti, Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair, and Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino – at an Ottawa press conference on Feb. 16.

At that conference, where the ministers sought to justify the invoking of the Emergencies Act, they described the border blockades and the ongoing occupation of downtown Ottawa as foreign-funded, foreign-organized attacks meant to undermine Canada’s economy,  sovereignty, and democracy. Minister Blair saying, for example: “We will not let any foreign entities that seek to do harm to Canada or Canadians, erode trust in our democratic institutions, or question the legitimacy of our democracy.”

But suppose that sometime in the not too distant future, the Trudeau government is replaced by who knows what and that new government establishes “The COVID Commission: The Royal Commission on the Federal Government’s Management of the COVID Crisis.”

Its task would be to secure, via impartial and thorough investigation, answers to the many unanswered questions as to why the Trudeau government did what it did and to test the truthfulness of the many statements made by government spokespersons to justify the government’s actions.

In investigating the charges and statements made by the three ministers on Feb. 16, the Commission is most likely to find:

  • That both the Freedom Convoy’s Ottawa protest and the border blockades were wholly planned and organized in Canada and primarily funded by Canadians, and,
  • That the statements made by the federal ministers to justify the invoking of the Emergencies Act were not only unsubstantiated by concrete evidence, but largely false and misleading.

To the predictable blowback from the Trudeau government’s defenders that public opinion polls showed over 50% of Canadians supported the government’s decision to end the protests via invoking the Emergencies Act, the Commission might well take the opportunity to provide Canadians a much needed lesson on the use and misuse of polls.

Public support for a just-announced government action, as measured by responses to a polling question, very much depends on when and how the question was asked. If the pollster simply asked, immediately after the action was announced: “Do you support the government using the Emergencies Act to end the protest by the truckers?” – without time to consider or debate the options – 50% or more of the respondents might well answer “yes.”

But what might the result be if, after being given time to consider the issue, the public were asked: “If the government must act to end the protest by the truckers, which course of action would you prefer they take? (1) To simply cancel the vaccine mandates which the truckers and their supporters are protesting? Or (2) To invoke the Emergencies Act, giving the government and the police extra powers to end the protest?”

Since in February public support for ending most if not all of the restrictive mandates was already growing and being heeded by provincial governments, a substantial majority of the Canadian public would most likely have voted for option (1).

Only time will tell whether the Trudeau government’s mismanagement of the COVID crisis leads to its demise. But in invoking the Emergencies Act on the flimsy and debatable grounds of protecting Canadian democracy from foreign interference – even arresting some of the key Freedom Convoy organizers and freezing the bank accounts of other alleged supporters – the government may have gone a step too far.

A wise man once wrote, “There is nothing new under the sun.” And in some respects, there is an earie resemblance between the Freedom Convoy and its supporters in Canada today and the Solidarity Movement in Poland thirty years ago.

In Poland, the Solidarity Movement grew out of a strike by dock workers at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk opposing punitive labour regulations imposed by Poland’s autocratic government. In Canada, the Freedom Convoy (which could easily morph into a broader Common Sense Movement) has also grown out of a strike, in our case, by truckers challenging punitive health protection measures imposed by Canada’s increasingly autocratic federal government.

In the Polish case, harsh measures to end the strike were taken by the government in power, which included arresting and imprisoning key strike leaders. In Canada, increasingly harsh measures are being undertaken by the federal government to end the truckers strike – including invoking the Emergencies Act – and key strike leaders are even being arrested here.

In Poland such actions proved to be “a step too far” – giving one of those strike leaders, Lech Walesa, public prominence and a public following that eventually toppled the governing party with Walesa becoming president of Poland in 1990.

In Canada, only time will tell where the federal government’s heavy-handed over-reaction to the Freedom Convoy will lead, what new leadership it may generate and how Canadians will respond to the threats which that over-reaction poses to Canadian democracy.

Threats to Canadian democracy do exist and the COVID crisis has brought them to the fore. But our democracy is threatened, not from without, but from within by an increasingly autocratic government in the process of taking “a step too far.”

Preston Manning was Leader of the Official Opposition from 1997 to 2000 and a federal MP from 1993 to 2002.


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