Faced with truckers’ protests popping up across the nation, and hampering cross border trade, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Monday became the only Canadian leader since his father 50 years ago to declare a state of emergency in peacetime.
Trudeau unveiled a series of tough measures to tackle funding for the protests, including letting banks freeze accounts linked to the protests without a court order, and said federal police will help end the blockades.
But despite the apparent parallels, historians say there are big differences between Trudeau’s announcement and the one his father made in October 1970.
For one, Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau put troops on the streets after a small militant group of Quebec separatists had kidnapped a diplomat and a provincial cabinet minister.
His son, facing one of the biggest crises since taking office in 2015, made clear that deploying the military was not in the cards as he tried to end protests sparked by truckers opposing Covid-19 vaccine mandates for cross-border trips.
Canada was not facing the kind of public emergency the act had been designed to tackle, said Leah West, a professor and national security expert at Ottawa’s Carleton University.
“I’m kind of shocked to be honest that the government of Canada still actually believes that this meets the definition to even invoke the act,” she told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.
Trudeau told reporters he was invoking the 1988 Emergencies Act because law enforcement needed more help.
“This is about keeping Canadians safe, protecting people’s jobs and restoring confidence in our institutions,” he said.
His father, Pierre Trudeau, took more decisive action after the Quebec kidnappings. Asked by a reporter how far he would go, Trudeau replied “Just watch me”, which became one of the main catchwords of Canadian politics.
Three days later he invoked the War Measures Act, the predecessor to the Emergencies Act, and sent troops into Quebec and other provinces. The crisis ended, but only after the separatist group killed the cabinet minister.
“What’s striking about this time is we’ve had no violence, nothing like that,” said University of Toronto professor emeritus Nelson Wiseman.
Justin Trudeau asked on Friday about the parallels with his father’s experience in 1970, replied that “my values are deeply informed by the way I’ve been brought up, not just by my father but by experiences as a Canadian” before adding that “every situation is different”.
The Canadian Parliament must approve the use of the measures within seven days and has the power to revoke them.
Shortly after the protests began, the “Emergencies Act” quickly became a trending topic on social media as some Canadians called for the federal government to act, frustrated by what they saw as police inaction.
Canadians also demanded Trudeau use the act in early 2020 when the coronavirus pandemic hit the country to restrict the movement of people and goods. The government did not enact it, saying it was a last resort.
One person happy to draw parallels was Maxime Bernier, leader of the populist People’s Party of Canada, who strongly opposes vaccine mandates.
“Trudeau will invoke the Emergencies Act for the first time since his father did so over 50 years ago, not because there is an emergency and a major threat to Canadians’ security, but because HE is losing face”, Bernier, who has appeared at the Ottawa protests, tweeted.