We still need to have a serious conversation about more complicated issues like science and policy and politics, and how they connect and don’t.
Originally published February 14, 2022.
Will we look back on Friday, February 11, 2022, as Justin Trudeau’s Pierre Elliott Trudeau “Just-watch-me” moment? If so, what might that mean? For him? For us?
At 4 o’clock on the morning of October 16, 1970, then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau invoked the War Measures Act, suspending habeas corpus, deploying the military and giving police sweeping powers to arrest and detain anyone suspected of being a member of the Front de libération du Québec, which he had also outlawed. The FLQ, a militant separatist group, had already kidnapped British Trade Commissioner James Cross and Quebec Labour Minister Pierre Laporte, who was later murdered.
It isn’t clear now what role, if any, the War Measures Act itself played in ending what became known as the October Crisis.
A month and a half later, police discovered an FLQ hideout where the trade commissioner was being held and negotiated his release in return for safe passage to Cuba for the kidnappers.
By then, more than 450 people had been rounded up in police raids, including poets, union activists, lawyers, journalists, students, even a future Quebec cabinet minister… but none of the kidnappers. Fewer than 20 of those arrested, in fact, were ever charged with anything.
And yet, it is also fair to say that Trudeau’s dramatic, decisive action that night marked the beginning of the end of the acceptance of violence as an acceptable means to achieve the political goal of Quebec independence.
In 1971, Pierre Vallières, one of the intellectual leaders of the FLQ, renounced violence and endorsed instead the electorally focused Parti Quebecois as the best route to separation from Canada. Although Vallières later changed his mind about that, it’s worth noting the PQ was subsequently elected to govern Quebec several times, beginning in 1976. The political back-and-forth over Quebec independence has ebbed and flowed ever since through countless elections and referendums and with no forever-end in sight but with no recurrence of violence either.
Are there lessons in this for the younger Trudeau?
Some lessons, it seems, he has already learned. Like his father, Justin Trudeau has done his best to marginalize and demonize the Freedom Convoy protesters.
To be fair, these particular protesters have done much of the heavy lifting for him, allowing themselves to be infiltrated and overwhelmed by a thuggish collection of anti-democratic string-pullers and wannabe insurrectionists who waved their Confederate flags and brandished their Nazi regalia, desecrated public monuments, accepted foreign funding, called for the overthrow of elected governments and attacked the livelihoods and disturbed the peace of ordinary citizens they should have been trying to win to their cause.
Like his father, Trudeau the Younger refused to give them oxygen, Neither would agree to negotiate or even meet with the protesters.
Some have criticized Trudeau the Younger for hiding behind the skirts of local police and provincial and municipal governments, but that too seems to be a page straight out of his father’s 1970 strategic playbook.
We tend to forget that the War Measures Act didn’t happen in a vacuum or overnight. In the days leading up to it, there were calls from prominent figures for federal action, for negotiations and even an abortive attempt to broker an end to the crisis between lawyers for the Quebec government and the kidnappers.
Pierre Trudeau remained aloof from all of that. Three days before his middle-of-the-night invocation of the War Measures Act, however, he stared down CBC reporter Tim Ralfe in his now famous Just-watch-me moment.
By then, soldiers were already protecting federal buildings in Ottawa and Quebec. “There’s a lot of bleeding hearts around that don’t like to see people with helmets and guns,” Trudeau said into the camera. “All I can say is, go on and bleed. It’s more important to keep law and order in this society than to be worried about weak-kneed people who don’t like the looks of a soldier’s helmet.”
How far would he go, Ralfe asked?
“Just watch me,” Trudeau answered.
Three nights later, we did just that.
Trudeau the Younger’s words won’t likely echo through history like his father’s, but they also appear to be setting the stage for escalating the ante. As Justin Trudeau declared Friday,
“Everything is on the table because this unlawful activity has to end, and it will end. We hope these people will decide to go home. Otherwise, there will be an increasingly robust police intervention.”
While the prime minister said he “can’t say too much more about when or how this ends,” he indicated that police are readying themselves now to break up demonstrations that have crippled Canada-U.S. trade and shuttered large portions of Ottawa’s downtown core.
So far, Justin Trudeau hasn’t called in the military. But when he notes “everything is on the table,” and that he “can’t say too much more,” he has said more than enough.
To the frustration of many, even calling in the military won’t change the situation on the ground overnight. Although the circumstances were clearly different, it took more than a month-and-a-half for the Royal 22nd Regiment to begin the intervention that ended the 78-day standoff at Oka, Quebec in 1990.
If Trudeau does call in the military — and it seems hard now to see how the occupation in Ottawa will end without some dramatic show of force — he will, like his father, probably have the support of the vast majority in his fellow citizens.
But there should be legitimate questions too.
Will military intervention deter — or embolden — those masterminding the current anti-government protests? How will the movement’s frustrated foot-soldiers and cannon fodder respond to whatever happens? And, perhaps most important, can Ottawa find a way, in the aftermath of whatever happens, to navigate between the need to maintain law and order and the imperative to recognize some people do have understandable concerns?
This all began with a minority of a minority of long-haul truck drivers frustrated they’d lost their livelihoods because they refused to get vaccinated. Their personal issue was quickly hijacked by an anti-democratic cabal determined to steer the convoy into oncoming traffic. But the reality is the truckers’ initial concerns have also resonated with thousands of other Canadians — still a small minority of a minority — who had lost their jobs as public servants, teachers, even health care workers because they’d chosen not to get vaccinated.
In a country where close to 90 per cent of citizens five and older — more than 32 million of us — have received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine and where more than 83 per cent are fully vaccinated, it is hard to work up much sympathy for wilful anti-vaxxers.
Follow the science, we like to tell them.
But, of course, it isn’t quite that simple. The science may be the science — vaccines do save lives — but policy…? Well, that’s more than just science. Sometimes, it also involves politics.
Consider that, in January of last year, Justin Trudeau himself dismissed the idea of vaccine mandates as “fraught with challenges… I think the indications that the vast majority of Canadians are looking to get vaccinated will get us to a good place without having to take more extreme measures that could have real divisive impacts on community and country.”
In July, the BBC reported that Canada had overtaken the US with close to 50 per cent of Canadians double-vaxxed.
The uptick in vaccines has been met with a steady drop in Covid-19 cases. After a steep third wave this spring, Canada reported around 3,000 infections this week — a low not seen since last summer…
If Canada’s vaccine progress continues it may open its border to US travellers after a 16-month closure, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said this week.
But just a month after that, on August 13, “Mr. Trudeau vowed to make vaccines mandatory for public servants, and Canadians travelling by air, train and ship.”
That’s easy. Two days later, Trudeau called a snap election using vaccine mandates — which a Nanos poll showed 78 per cent of Canadians supported or somewhat supported — as a wedge issue against Erin O’Toole’s waffling Conservatives.
So, how much of Canada’s decision to impose vaccine mandates on various classes of workers was really driven by science and how much by politics?
The answer isn’t simple. Canada is far from alone when it comes to vaccine mandates. More than four dozen countries are imposing some form of vaccination requirements that range from universal — every adult in countries like Germany — to government employees and some private sector workers in countries like Canada, to a focus on those over 60 in Greece and the Czech Republic.
Those decisions are all based on science — vaccination works — but also interpreted differently depending on how policymakers balance health and economic risks, not to forget public tolerance.
What about the risks — to come back to where all this started — posed by those cross-border long-haul truck drivers?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, even expert opinion differs.
Dr. Nazeem Muhajarine, professor of community health and epidemiology at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, told the CBC:
More than any sector of workers, truckers are constantly mobile and cross many jurisdictions. They may spend a long time in their trucks, on the road, but they also have many points of contacts across jurisdictions, and load/unload their goods in warehouses and such where we have seen outbreaks occur in previous waves. An unvaccinated, contagious trucker could literally be carrying the virus from place or place.
Countered Dr. Lynora Saxinger, an infectious diseases specialist and associate professor at the University of Alberta in Edmonton:
A vaccine requirement for a select group of people I don’t think is highly likely to make a big, huge difference in the short-to-medium term. Of course, [truck drivers] could be spreaders of COVID, but so could everyone else right now.
As for me, I’m more than happy to defer to Dr. Muhajarine, as well as our science advisors and policy makers who have steered us through these last two complicated dangerous years in better shape and with fewer deaths than many of the world’s countries.
Then again, I didn’t lose my job because I chose not to get vaccinated.
To be clear, Justin Trudeau needs to do whatever is necessary to end the illegal assaults on our democracy orchestrated by thugs and insurrectionists whose real goal is regime change.
But then we all need to step back and have an honest discussion about what we need to do — and don’t need to do — to stay safe and come out on the other side of this pandemic less, not more polarized than we already are.
A version of this column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner.
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