Slow Boring of Hard Boards

Recalling Marx’s dictum that history repeats itself first as tragedy and then as farce, it is instructive to begin with the two major crises faced by Pierre Trudeau. One, the October Crisis, is well known, but the other, the pilots’ strike of 1976, is almost forgotten.

The Trudeau Government treated the kidnapping of British diplomat James Cross and Quebec cabinet minister Pierre Laporte and the simultaneous groundswell of separatist support as an “apprehended insurrection” and invoked the War Measures Act. Immediate arrests of separatist leaders and sympathizers quickly silenced the movement, but it took several weeks of intense police work to arrest Laporte’s murderers and free Cross and provide his kidnappers safe transit to Cuba. The Trudeau Government had widespread but far from unanimous support for its actions.

Resolving a Crisis through Negotiation

To oppose the introduction of bilingual air traffic control in Quebec, English-speaking air traffic controllers launched work stoppages and airline pilots refused to fly during the last week of June 1976. The pilots and controllers had widespread support in English Canada. Their timing was exquisite because the Summer Olympics in Montreal were scheduled to start in mid-July.

The Trudeau Government didn’t use force, but rather reached a negotiated settlement with the pilots and controllers. There were recognized interlocutors – union leadership – on the pilots’ and controllers’ side. The pilots and controllers had the clearly defined goal of preventing the introduction of bilingual air traffic control unless safety could be maintained. They and Transport Canada were able to reach an agreement concerning the parameters of the process.

Re-reading the chapter about the strike in my book about bilingual air traffic control, it is telling that the controllers and pilots, cognizant of their public support, speculated about bringing down the government, but quickly rejected that path and focused on achieving their professional objectives.

Then and Now

The October Crisis and the pilots’ strike bracket the current insurrections. In the October Crisis the Government used military force against heinous political crimes. In the pilots’ strike, the Government negotiated with a clearly defined leadership structure that had specific objectives. On the one hand, the insurrections do not rise to the level of criminality of the October Crisis. On the other, their leadership is amorphous and their objectives ambiguous and, in some cases, constitutionally impossible.

Returning to Marx, the October Crisis and pilots’ strike were tragic because they greatly exacerbated divisions between anglophones and francophones and strengthened the separatist cause. The current insurrections have an air of farce as individuals with a host of grievances against Justin Trudeau and his Government (divisive rhetoric, carbon pricing, vaccine mandates, restrictions on personal freedom, etc.) are driving to choke points and putting their vehicles on the line.

The Trudeau Government has now made it clear that it does not want to use the Armed Forces, as in the October Crisis, nor negotiate, as in the pilots’ strike. Both were touted as bringing a quick end to the insurrection. It is relying on intergovernmental coordination with local and provincial law enforcement on the front line. This represents, in Max Weber’s words, “the slow boring of hard boards.” Governments have far more resources than the insurrectionists. But it is important to understand what resources the insurrectionists have.

Oxygen for the Insurrection

First, the insurrectionists have ample financial resources, much of it funneled through foreign, especially US-based, right-wing crowd-funding organizations and wire and bitcoin transfers. It is unclear whether government can successfully interdict all these sources of funding.

Second, they have accomplices in the towing industry. Most towing companies in Ottawa are refusing to tow parked rigs, making it arduous if not impossible to clear streets and bridges. In some cases, the companies are reacting to threats to the personal safety of their workers.

Third, the insurrectionists for now have ample reinforcements. There appear to be many people with grievances willing to join a blockade at a current or new chokepoint.

Fourth, the insurrectionists have some public support. While the situation is volatile, recent public opinion polls show that the government has the strong or mild support of two-thirds of the public, and the insurrectionists the strong or mild support of one-third. While the insurrectionists are not protesting solely about vaccine mandates, the case for the federal government maintaining vaccine mandates within its areas of jurisdiction appears to be weakening as provinces are relaxing theirs.

Reasserting Authority

In response to the insurrectionists, politicians – Trudeau, now joined by the federal Conservatives, Ontario Premier Doug Ford, and a host of municipal leaders – can use their rhetoric, with the common theme “this has to stop,” to urge them to leave. Provincial governments can try to suspend licences, though this process is not immediate and current regulations give licencees the right of appeal. Municipal government can impose fines and arrest people. Citizens can use the courts, as residents of Ottawa did in their successful application for an injunction against horn-blowing. All these measures take time.

Where Will it End?

The situation is paradoxical. The resources the insurrectionists have will enable them to fight on. But the longer they inconvenience people and the more disruption they create, the more they will lose public support.

Impeding the flow of commerce at border crossings, especially the Ambassador Bridge between Windsor and Detroit, represents overreach because it has caused widespread economic harm in both Canada and the US. This blockade will likely be removed by the weekend.

The insurrection in Ottawa will be the most difficult to dislodge because it is well-entrenched and not as economically disruptive as border blockades. Foreign funding is giving it oxygen but may disappear when the funders have decided they have achieved their objectives, likely when the media loses interest in the story.

The use of trucks in these insurrections is analogous to the 9-11 attacks, which weaponized commercial aircraft. Governments will have to develop a set of measures to stop current and future insurrectionists from weaponizing their eighteen wheelers.

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