Regg Cohn: Pipeline protest or convoy blockade — police should apply the same standards to all illegal demonstrations

This really becomes a test of being consistent of not, one that applies to both the right and left. And if not, what should be the criteria for when a blockade is acceptable and when it is not (Brian Lee Crowley made similar points We undermine the neutrality of the law at our peril:

The belated liberation of Ottawa from occupation is a lesson.

The breaking of blockades at the borders is a primer.

They are refresher courses in the fragility of democracy and the rigour of the rule of law.

They are reminders that there is a fine line between the consent of the governed, the discontent of anti-government protesters, and the disinformation that fuels it.

How did we get there? Where do we go from here?

A couple of thousand protesters make up a mere 0.01 per cent of the 17.2 million Canadians who voted in the last election. When a tiny minority insists on imposing its will on our elected Parliament, they are dissenters from democracy.

Their written demands were to disband the government and replace it with their own convoy cabinet. Until they got their way, they’d stay — and for nearly a month, they called Canada’s bluff in the heart of the nation’s capital.

Through their determination and defiance, they exposed the emptiness of police threats and the hollowness of deterrence. Outnumbered and outmuscled, local police in Ottawa and Windsor had to call in reinforcements and regroup before they could reclaim lost territory and frontiers.

Declarations of emergency followed — first municipally, next provincially, finally federally. On Friday, as MPs tried to debate the latest measures, Parliament was suspended for the day because of urgent fears for their safety.

That this ragtag band of occupiers sang civil rights hymns, brandished bibles and soaked in hot tubs hardly lessens the gravity of the challenge. They ransomed the economy and entrapped a city while crying for freedom. They wielded captive children as human shields while boasting of their fearlessness.

There is a legitimate debate, in the aftermath, as to whether the disruption and disorder rose to the level of an emergency in strictly legal terms. Critics argue that the authorities had sufficient laws and tools to get the job done without special powers.

In ordinary times, the regular tool box should suffice. But in extraordinary times the tactics of conflict resolution, de-escalation and deterrence are merely theories without practical application — as Ottawa’s former police chief, Peter Sloly, discovered to his dismay after a career devoted to dialogue and community engagement while in Toronto’s force.SKIP ADVERTISEMENT

Amid the disorder, the flow of cash (and bitcoin) continued apace and tow truck operators who normally converge on accidents were running for cover. The reality is that the regular playbook was insufficient to restore the rule book.

Critics of the emergency laws point to Toronto as the model of effective enforcement, noting that without special powers our police kept the convoys from becoming blockades at Queen’s Park. Full credit to Mayor John Tory and Toronto’s police chief for learning lessons from the failures in Ottawa and Windsor, mustering a show of force to enforce law and order.

By avoiding the mistake of being outnumbered, Toronto’s cops were not cornered — and therefore had no need of emergency laws to oust any occupiers. But there are glaring contradictions in this comparison.

Many who praise Toronto today for keeping the convoys at bay were harsh critics last year, accusing the city of deploying disproportionate force to remove illegal encampments that had persisted in public parks for more than a year. Most accounts at the time overstated the actual use of force while condemning the mere show of force.

Police were there to safeguard the city workers who did the actual evicting and escorting of the tent occupants — occupiers, if you will — to shelters. Most of the non-violent conflict arose between cops and outside supporters of the encampments (and in some cases photographers — a recurring question of rightful media access).

The argument from many self-styled progressives seems to be that occupying parks for years at a time is no big deal, because it doesn’t directly impede people or commerce. As if the urban planning imperative of public parks and right of access for all Torontonians is optional and dispensable depending on your politics.

Across the country, police have rightly been questioned for apparent hypocrisy — diligently enforcing court orders against earlier Indigenous protests, while turning a blind eye to the latest blockades. If the argument is that police were unacceptably inconsistent, that is incontestably true; but if the point is that two wrongs make a right — that illegality should be ignored equally everywhere — then it simply doesn’t add up.

Police should absolutely be consistent. They should break up occupations in Ottawa and blockades at the border, just as they should also end blockades of rail lines or pipelines that hold the economy hostage in similar ways.

That doesn’t mean police cannot use common sense and exercise discretion, for each demonstration is different in its own way. But all protesters share an unshakable belief that they are in the right and have been wronged.

If politicians pick and choose their favourite causes — as Conservative MPs did by meeting and greeting the Ottawa occupiers — we will privilege some protesters over others and be caught in the contradictions.

The quintessentially Canadian phrase, “Peace, order and good government,” is written into our Constitution and etched into our ethos. Those five words go hand in hand, until they don’t — and people take the law into their own hands.

Source: Pipeline protest or convoy blockade — police should apply the same standards to all illegal demonstrations

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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