The legendary Canadian documentarist Donald Brittain referred to the election of the Parti Quebecois in 1976 as giving Rene Levesque “the awesome weapons of office.” That phrase comes to mind today. The invoking of the Emergencies Act is intended to give the federal government additional weapons of office to end the insurrection in Ottawa. Does it have the right weapons and does it have enough of them?
The Government of Ontario ended the Ambassador Bridge blockade by skillfully deploying the weapons of office, including a court injunction that gave the police authority to arrest protesters and tow vehicles, an armed police presence that far outnumbered the protesters, and trucks to tow illegally parked vehicles. Ultimately, the blockade was removed in a day, requiring the arrest of 46 people and removal of 37 vehicles. Government deployed force that was sufficient but also overwhelming.
Ending the insurrection in Ottawa will be much more difficult because there are approximately 360 big rigs parked end-to-end or side-by-side on urban streets; because the insurrectionists are well-entrenched, having human shields (children) and likely weapons; because their leadership, some of whom are retired military, are tactically savvy; and because towing companies remain unwilling to do the government’s bidding, even with the Emergencies Act in force.
To Affect an Arrest
I am not an expert in policing. With that caveat, here are some thoughts about using the enhanced awesome weapons of office.
Comparable to the injunction issued in Windsor, yesterday the Ottawa police gave the insurrectionists written notice that, if they do not leave now, they will face arrest, fine, and loss of their vehicles. In effect, the insurrectionists have been offered an amnesty if they leave now. As of Thursday morning, few have accepted the amnesty. Now the police will have to make good on their ultimatum. Like their colleagues in Windsor, they will have to use overwhelming force. In Windsor, the police dealt with all the protesters together. Given the large number of insurrectionists in Ottawa, it is more likely they will have to pick them off a few at a time. This could involve arresting drivers of trucks parked at places other than Wellington Street, or a teenager carting diesel fuel to Wellington Street, or even the insurrectionist leaders in their hotel rooms. When those in the main encampment realize that arrests are actually happening, they may change their minds and decide to leave.
If the insurrectionists in the main encampment on Wellington Street stay, it will be more difficult to arrest them because they have human shields and likely weapons as well. The phrase “the fog of war” used by Robert McNamara in Errol Morris’s documentary is a warning about the potential of such a situation to spin out of control, with resulting casualties. The January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol is a clear illustration of the fog of war.
Chariots of Fire
If the insurrectionists who do not leave are arrested, then at least their trucks will sit empty. no longer honking horns or spewing diesel exhaust. But they will still be blocking traffic. In that situation, the unwillingness of the towing industry, both in Ottawa and the rest of Canada, to do contract work for the government is still a major problem. One alternative is to look elsewhere. OC Transpo has a few tow trucks. The Armed Forces have 11, most in Alberta and New Brunswick, but would prefer not to be involved. Would the government approach US-based tow-truck operators?
Given these insufficient and unpromising alternatives, let’s return to the local towing industry. The Emergencies Act gives the federal government the power to “authorize or direct any person, or any person of a class of persons, to render essential services of a type that that person, or a person of that class, is competent to provide and provide reasonable compensation in respect of services so rendered.” Once regulations are put in place to direct tow truck owners to provide service, the penalty provided in the act for disobeying those regulations is “a fine not exceeding five thousand dollars or imprisonment not exceeding five years or both that fine and imprisonment.”
Will those terms be sufficient to ensure the compliance, albeit grudging, of tow-truck operators? The five thousand dollar fine does not appear to be sufficient to motivate a towing company. A prison term for its executives might, though such a case would take a very long time to make its way through the court system. A better approach might involve positive incentives, such as acceptance of all liability by the government, a police presence while the tow truck drivers are working, and very generous compensation. Despite both positive and negative sanctions available to government, moving the trucks will be challenging.
The third element of the government’s approach to ending the insurrection is depriving it of funding by blocking transfers from crowdfunding or bitcoin accounts and freezing bank accounts of insurrectionists and their corporate entities. The leaders of the insurrection have not kept their names and identities secret, so the government should be able to freeze their bank accounts immediately. Cutting off sources of funding and freezing the bank accounts of run-of-the-mill insurrectionists, such as one Mr. or Ms. Brubaker who set up a mailbox on Wellington Street, might take longer.
We will see in the next few days whether the government’s weapons of office, augmented by the Emergencies Act, are sufficient to dislodge the insurrectionists. If they are not, still more powerful weapons will be needed.