For three weeks in January and February 2022, a convoy of truckers dubbing themselves the Freedom Convoy shut down parts of downtown Ottawa and some border crossings between Canada and the US. It began as a protest of vaccine mandates and eventually expanded to become a protest of government overreach of all kinds related to COVID-19. The protests significantly interrupted commerce. The Trudeau Administration cited this disruption as justification for declaring a national emergency under the Emergencies Act. With these enhanced powers, the government froze $7.8 million CAD in 201 bank accounts for a little over a week. The flexing of this power—for the first time since the Emergencies Act was passed in 1988—raises questions about what makes a protest illegal and what protections peaceful protestors can claim in a democratic society. Let’s begin with sorting through the facts of what happened and when.
Reasons Behind the Trucker Convoy
The Trudeau Administration’s imposition of a new vaccine mandate on Jan. 15, 2022 was the impetus for the convoy. The mandate required all cross-border essential workers—including truckers—to show proof of vaccination at the port of entry. Non-Canadian citizens would have to return to the US while unvaccinated Canadian citizens would have to quarantine for fourteen days before reentering the country. Soon after, on Jan. 22, the US imposed a mandate with similar restrictions.
Some professional organizations, including the Canadian Trucking Alliance—a federation of provincial trucking associations representing carriers, owner-operators, and industry suppliers—the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, and the Canadian Manufacturing Coalition warned about negative repercussions from imposing the mandate. The CTA—which opposed the convoy—estimated that 10-15% of cross-border truck drivers would lose their jobs or quit over the mandate. The Canadian Chamber of Commerce and the Canadian Manufacturing Coalition called on the government to pause the mandate in order not to aggravate supply chain shortages.
The government declined to change or pause the mandate, and truckers began grassroots organizing to drive to Ottawa, Ontario—the seat of the federal government—to protest. Throughout the controversy, the protestors maintained that the target was not the vaccination itself but the federal mandate. But what started with targeting the new vaccine mandates for truckers at the Canadian-US border soon evolved into a protest against all COVID-related mandates for all Canadian citizens. A Jan. 26 Facebook statement demanded the removal of vaccine mandates and terminating government-backed digital platforms of COVID-19 vaccine passports and contact tracing programs.
Public Sentiment About the Convoy
The first trucks left Prince Rupert, British Columbia on the west coast of Canada on Jan. 22, 2022. The convoy proceeded across Highway 1, the Trans-Canada Highway, with more trucks joining as the convoy rolled across the continent. News reports highlighted cheering crowds greeting the truckers in various cities. Subsequent polling generally showed pluralities or majorities of Canadians disapproved of the convoy, especially in regard to some of its tactics or fringe views linked to it. But as with so much else regarding the convoy, some outlets interpreted the same data quite differently. For instance, the Global News headline for an Ipsos poll it had commissioned read “46% of Canadians sympathize with trucker convoy, but many disagree with their tactics: poll.” The CNN subheadline reporting on the same poll read: Strong majority disagrees with the goals of the protests. In commenting on the poll results, Darrell Bricker—Ipsos Global CEO, Public Affairs—stated, “What is also clear is that sympathy with the movement is no longer at a point where the minority [supporting the convoy], which has been categorized as being on the fringes, is grossly overshadowed by the majority [opposing the convoy].”
Fundraising is another indicator of public sentiment about the convoy. $10 million was raised on GoFundMe—about 88 percent from Canada—before it was shut down on Feb. 4 for violating the company’s terms of service. A replacement campaign was immediately started on the GiveSendGo platform, which raised $9.7 million USD.
The convoy initially had little formal organization. As the convoy and protests progressed, some individuals—such as Chris Barber, Daniel Bulford, Patrick King, and Tamara Lich—gained prominence and were identified as leaders in press reports. In public communications, convoy participants stressed the intention of peaceful protests. As shown in text messages exchanged between convoy participants and the Ottawa Police Service (OPS) in which the OPS give directions to where trucks should park and protest in Ottawa, the relationship between the protestors and the municipal authorities was initially cooperative.
The convoy reached Ottawa on Jan. 28 and on Saturday, Jan. 29, big rigs began blocking downtown traffic near Parliament Hill in Ottawa. David Akin, chief columnist for Global News tweeted that “several police sources” had estimated the convoy size at 230 tractors/tractor-trailers and 725 personal vehicles. The OPS estimated the number of protestors on the ground on Jan. 29 at between 8,000 and 15,000. Such a wide range may reflect the confusion, disparate observers, and rapidly changing facts on the ground.
Security and Disturbance of Public Peace
For the next three weeks, the protestors occupied and blocked off several streets in downtown Ottawa, including some residential areas. The OPS stated that it had only 150 officers on the streets of the most affected areas in Ottawa on Jan. 29 and requested an additional 1,800 officers from the federal government. Reinforcements did not arrive until Feb. 14. In addition, groups supporting the convoy set up blockades at major border crossings across Canada. The Ambassador Bridge—vital to traffic between Windsor, Ontario and Detroit, Michigan—was blocked for six days.
To this date, observers disagree about whether and to what extent the convoy was peaceable or posed a threat to peace. A local Ottawan business owner described the protest on her street as a “full-blown party”and spoke of having to close down her restaurant for 13 days due to the protestors’ “open flames, barbecuing, drinking in public, incessant noise, defecating on my property, honking, loud music, the smell of gasoline, [and] public intoxication.” On Jan. 31, then-OPS chief Peter Sloly acknowledged that the police had trouble maintaining order, but described the protests up to that point as showing “no riots, no injuries, no deaths.”
One of the biggest complaints about the convoy in Ottawa was the ongoing, loud vehicular honking. On Feb. 4, a private citizen sued a number of truckers for creating a public nuisance with the honking. Justice MacLean subsequently issued a ten-day injunction against the honking of “air horns or train horns.” The order also read, “provided the terms of this Order are complied with, the Respondents and other persons remain at liberty to engage in a peaceful, lawful and safe protest.”
Spotting Swastikas and Hate Speech
More serious criticisms were that potentially legitimate concerns of the protest had been hijacked by extremist movements, usually identified as far-right. In a press conference, In a Feb. 2 statement, Prime Minister (PM) Trudeau criticized the “Nazi symbolism and racist imagery” of protests from the previous weekend and stated, “We won’t give in to those who fly racist flags.” Trudeau described the protests as expressing “hateful rhetoric, violence toward fellow citizens.”
Many reports on the convoy referred to the presence of Nazi symbolism and Confederate flags without noting how large such a presence was. A Jerusalem Post story carried as part of a subhead, “Swastikas also appeared.” However, the story is accompanied not by a picture of swastikas in the crowd, but of an armband with a swastika on display at the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin. Other reports, however, explicitly noted that the display of such symbols was by a small minority. A Snopes article reported a “small number of swastikas and Confederate battles flags” and also noted that these seemed to be displayed in order to mock the government’s vaccine mandates and other restrictions. Comparing vaccine mandates to the Holocaust is hyperbole, but it’s the opposite of advocating Nazi ideas. Video also surfaced of protestors asking a man with a Confederate flag to leave the protest.
On the first Saturday of the protests in downtown Ottawa, protestors draped a statue of Terry Fox—now-deceased Canadian athlete and cancer research activist—in an inverted Canadian flag (an international signal of distress) and put a sign under one arm reading “mandate freedom.” That was widely criticized as attempting to coop Fox’s legacy for a political purpose. The next day protestors cleaned up the statue.
Another incident that provoked outrage occurred when protestors gathered at the National War Memorial in Toronto. One protester danced on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Police opened an investigation and asked for help identifying the protestor. In late April, police disclosed that the protestor had expressed remorse and would not be charged, as police were confident she would not re-offend.
On Feb. 6, Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson declared a state of emergency citing the “serious danger and threat to the safety and security of residents.” “Someone is going to get killed,” he said. He described the capital as “out of control” and accused the truckers of insensitivity for blaring horns and setting off fireworks. Watson cited the need for relief for residences and small businesses from noise, street closures, and inconvenience of trucks parked in residential areas.
Subsequently, information obtained by the Canadian Broadcasting Company through access-to-information requests revealed confusion and miscommunication over jurisdictional lines between the OPS and the National Capital Corporation (NCC), which oversees many government and iconic landmarks in Ottawa. For example, during the second week of the protest, the OPS blocked an NCC plan to clear an area at the last minute.
Cooperation Between Trucker Convoy and the State
Despite his criticism of the protests, Mayor Watson was in contact with representatives of the convoy about the city’s concerns. On Saturday, Feb. 12, Tamara Lich—who had spearheaded fundraising for the convoy—wrote Watson, pledging to convince truckers to reposition their vehicles to alleviate pressure on residential areas. At the same time, she wrote a memo to protestors urging truckers to cooperate with repositioning trucks so as not to give PM Trudeau “the excuse he desperately wants to use force and seize our trucks.”
Sunday evening, Feb. 13, Mayor Watson, the Superintendent of the Ottawa Police Service, and the Ottawa City Manager met with representatives of the Freedom Convoy. Eva Chipuik, serving as legal counsel for two of the convoy representatives—Tamara Lich and Chris Barber—was at the meeting. When I interviewed Chipuik via Zoom call on June 3, 2022, she characterized the meeting with Mayor Watson as cordial.
“We had pizza and talked about how we could work together,” Chipuik recalled. Chipuik stated that the authorities implicitly acknowledged the right to protest. They were also concerned about the scale and duration of the protest and how it was impacting private residences and citizens.
The protest representatives agreed to cooperate and work to get protestors to move trucks. They reached an agreement with Mayor Watson to move vehicles out of residential areas within 24 hours and confine protests to a designated perimeter immediately surrounding Ottawa’s Parliament Hill. The agreement was publicized Sunday evening, Feb. 13, and the next day 40 trucks were moved from downtown residential areas, according to Eva Chipuik.
Implementing the Emergencies Act — A Historic First
Other meetings and briefings were also held that weekend. Al Jazeera reported that the Canadian government hosted a phone call between government officials and CEOs of Canada’s financial institutions on Saturday, Feb. 12. The agenda was to prepare banks for measures that might be brought to bear to restrict access to protestors’ financial accounts.
On the afternoon of Monday, Feb. 14, PM Trudeau invoked Canada’s Emergencies Act. In a speech to the nation, Trudeau listed “occupying streets, harassing people, breaking the law” as the rationale for invoking the Act and further described the economic harm caused by the blockades. Trudeau stated that the protests represented “serious challenges to law enforcement’s ability to effectively enforce the law.” During the same announcement, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland expressed that “These illegal barricades are doing great damage to Canada’s economy and to our reputation as a reliable trading partner,” stating that the Ambassador Bridge blockade was affecting $390 million in trade each day, the Coutts, Alta. blockade, about $48 million in daily trade, and Emerson, Man., about $73 million. The Ambassador Bridge blockade had been cleared the day before the Emergencies Act was implemented, the Coutts blockade was cleared the day the Emergencies Act was implemented, and Emerson two days later. Seven of ten province Premiers opposed Trudeau’s action, but on Feb. 21, the Canadian Parliament approved the invocation of the Emergencies Act 185 to 151.
The Emergencies Act in Action
Among the broad powers provided by the Act, the Trudeau Administration instructed banks to freeze or suspend accounts suspected of participating in or supporting the blockades and occupation. Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland announced that banks were required to report relationships with people involved in blockades and had the authority to do this without a court order. The federal government also announced that banks were forbidden to “handle cash, issue a loan, extend a mortgage or more generally facilitate any transaction of a designated person while the Emergencies Act is in place.” A “designated person” was defined as any individual or corporate entity engaged “directly or indirectly” in “a public assembly that may reasonably be expected to lead to a breach of the peace by:
- (a) the serious disruption of the movement of persons or goods or the serious interference with trade;
- (b) the interference with the functioning of critical infrastructure; or
- (c) the support of the threat or use of acts of serious violence against persons or property.”
as well as anyone bringing a person under the age of eighteen years to participate in such an assembly.
The government required payment processors to report certain transactions to regulators and financial services providers to “determine on a continuing basis whether they are in possession or control of property that is owned, held or controlled by or on behalf of a designated person.” The government also broadened anti-money-laundering rules to cover cryptocurrency trading platforms and crowdfunding sites, such as GoFundMe and GiveSendGo. Crowdfunding platforms and their payment service providers were required to register with the Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Centre of Canada (FINTRAC) and report large and suspicious transactions. Donors to crowdfunding campaigns for the convoy were to be reported if they donated after Feb. 14, though a senior government official stated that these measures are designed to target “key sources of funding.” Insurance companies were also required to suspend policies on vehicles that were part of an “unlawful public assembly.”
Police had been and continued to gather the names and license plate numbers of protestors. Social media postings also provided information on protestors. Banks exchanged and received information on account holders and protestors from the police, the RCMP, and FINTRAC.
In the end, Canadian banks froze about $7.8 million CAD in 210 accounts, according to the Canada Department of Finance. About $3.8 million CAD was held by a single payment processor. The freezes on most accounts lasted for the duration of the Emergencies Act declaration—about nine days—and were lifted when the Emergencies Act was lifted. Though one protestor reported his account still being frozen as of March 24th, and internal emails from the federal bank, Farm Credit Canada of Regina, revealed that names of customers who supported the Freedom Convoy continued to be compiled even after the Emergencies Act was revoked.
Derek Brouwer—a Canadian truck driver who was present in Ottawa with his truck—had his personal bank account, his trucking account, and a third unrelated business account frozen. Shortly after the interview about his plight on Fox News, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) notified him they were working to get his accounts unlocked. Brouwer has not been charged with any crime or received any ticket or fine.
The measures—which Bloomberg subsequently referred to as a financial dragnet—were sweeping, if temporary. Freezing accounts and imposing anti-money-laundering rules were actions previously used to fight terrorists or drug cartels, and to deploy such measures against arguably civil protests was unprecedented. “Any government being able to freeze assets as they wish if you’re not doing things the way they want, in my opinion, is far from being democratic and is not what Canada stands for,” Brouwer told Fox News.
Public Order National Emergency or Lawful Protest?
One of the arguments made in favor of the Emergencies Act when it was being debated in the ‘80s was that the War Measures Act—which it was set to replace—might not sufficiently protect civil rights to protest. As written, the Emergencies Act is to be invoked under four types of national emergencies:
- public welfare—when jeopardized by earthquake, flood, or other natural phenomenon, disease, pollution, or accident;
- public order— The Emergencies Act states “public order emergency means an emergency that arises from threats to the security of Canada and that is so serious as to be a national emergency” and cites the CSIS Act for the definition of a “threat to the security of Canada.” The CSIS Act says threats to the security of Canada are defined as espionage or sabotage, clandestine foreign influenced activities, the threat or use of acts of serious violence for the purpose of achieving a political, religious or ideological objective, and violent attempts to overthrow the government. It specifically states that this “does not include lawful advocacy, protest or dissent” unless carried on in conjunction with any of the explicit threats to security listed above;
- international emergency such as the Cuban Missile Crisis;
- armed conflict involving Canada or an ally.
A national emergency is defined according to the act as “an urgent and critical situation of a temporary nature 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… seriously threatens the ability of the Government of Canada to preserve the sovereignty, security and territorial integrity of Canada… and that cannot be effectively dealt with under any other law of Canada.”
The Trudeau administration declared that the Emergencies Act was being invoked as a public order emergency and repeatedly referred to the convoy protests as illegal blockades and illegal activity. It’s not clear what made the protests illegal or when, in particular prior to the enactment of the Emergencies Act. Chipuik has noted that most vehicles weren’t ticketed for illegal parking prior to Friday, Feb. 18. “If vehicles were parked illegally, that was from the first day. Nothing changes as of Feb. 14, when the Emergencies Act was invoked,” she told me.
The Trudeau Administration claimed that the OPS had asked the federal government to invoke the Emergencies Act. But both the former Chief of Police Peter Sloly and Interim Chief Steve Bell—while acknowledging the need for support—have denied explicitly asking for the Emergencies Act to be invoked, as has the RCMP and the Premier of Alberta.
Reports of violence by convoy participants have been few, and none of the protestors in Toronto have been charged with assault or other violence. When the police cleared the streets in Ottawa on Feb. 19, most of the protestors who were arrested were charged with mischief. Several protestors associated with a blockade in Coutts, Alberta were arrested on Feb. 14 on charges of conspiracy to murder RCMP officers, mischief, and weapons possession. The next day, organizers of the Coutts blockade disclaimed any association with those arrested and announced they were disbanding the protest in order to maintain its peaceful purpose.
The Balance of Civic Order and Liberty
The commentary on the Freedom Convoy—both pro and con—has exhibited a marked “peaceful-protest-is-in-the-eye-of-the-beholder” tendency. Defenders of the convoy protests point out that invoking the Emergencies Act was never considered for comparable protests, such as the 2020 anti-pipeline protests that continued for months, sparked nationwide protests, and included multiple rail blockades. The discrepancy underscores the importance of a formal investigation into the Trudeau Administration’s case for invoking the Emergencies Act. That investigation was initiated on March 2, when Parliament voted on the structure of a special joint committee to review the government’s use of the Emergencies Act, as is provided for under that law. The committee’s formal investigation will begin in the Fall with a report expected sometime in March, 2023.
Rights are foundational, but they are not absolute. Protests are subject to legitimate restrictions. What Canada’s experience with the Emergencies Act demonstrates is the need for widely accepted definitions of “peaceful protest” versus “domestic terrorism” to better insure the balance of civic order and liberty.
Editors: Craig Carroll, Stacia Wilson Peer Review Completed By 6 Individuals