By ROB GILLIES and DAVID CRARY, Associated Press
TORONTO (AP) — Canada has suffered bitter divisions in the past, but the current wave of disruptive protests over COVID-19 restrictions is unprecedented in that it has undermined public confidence in government leadership, starting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
On Monday, as criticism of his hands-off approach mounted, Trudeau finally took strong action against truckers and other protesters who besieged parts of Ottawa, the capital, for more than two weeks. The prime minister has invoked emergency powers that could freeze protesters’ bank accounts, target crowdfunding sites used to support them and ban lockdowns at border crossings, airports and Ottawa.
Unsurprisingly, the statement further angered protesters and many of their conservative supporters; a flurry of social media posts denounced Trudeau as a bully. But there was also little enthusiasm for the move elsewhere on Canada’s political spectrum.
While the statement may end a recent sharp drop in Trudeau’s approval ratings, he may not regain his former popularity, said Nelson Wiseman, a political science professor at the University of Toronto.
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“Trudeau has become a more polarizing leader than he once was,” Wiseman said. “The chances of him running in the next election, whenever they come, have been reduced.”
The Toronto Star, which normally backs Trudeau, said in an editorial that the emergency powers would not have been needed had political and police leaders responded effectively from the start.
“Many will applaud the Trudeau government’s decision to invoke the Emergencies Act,” the Star said. “But we will not join in the cheering. Federal emergency powers may now be needed as a last resort, but going that route is a shocking admission of failure by governments at all levels.
The Canadian Civil Liberties Association has also been critical, saying the protests have not reached the threshold to invoke emergency powers.
“Governments regularly face difficult situations, and do so by using the powers bestowed on them by democratically elected representatives,” the association said. “Emergency legislation should not be standardized. This threatens our democracy and our civil liberties.
The protests have been described in some international reports as a dramatic break in norms in a country seen as peaceful and polite. But that stereotype has never been entirely accurate, as evidenced by recent mass murders, a deadly gunman attack on Parliament Hill in 2014, and a series of blockades pitting Indigenous protesters against police. .
From 1963 to 1970, separatist militants in Quebec committed dozens of robberies and bombings during a campaign that culminated in the kidnapping and murder of a provincial cabinet minister in October 1970. The first Minister at the time was Justin Trudeau’s father, Pierre Trudeau, who invoked the War Measures Act so that armed soldiers could deploy on the streets of Quebec and police could make arrests without charge.
The younger Trudeau, even when invoking emergency powers, said he had no intention of deploying the military to break up the protests, in fact contrasting with his father’s choice.
“I think Justin is worried about being seen replicating his father’s response,” said York University political science professor Dennis Pilon, describing the prime minister as facing a “can’t win” situation. .
“He thought it was a show of force to ignore the protesters, but it didn’t go down well with some of his supporters,” Pilon said. “They felt he should have at least spoken to them.”
“His dad knew what to do, and Justin doesn’t,” said Robert Bothwell, a professor of Canadian history and international relations at the University of Toronto. “I look at Justin and I would love for us to have a more obviously strong person at the helm. I think a lot of Canadians feel that way.
Often called a “liberal elitist” by his critics, Trudeau has refused to meet with protesters, some of whom have called for the overthrow of his government. He portrayed the protesters as an anti-vaccine “fringe” fueled by misinformation and conspiracy theories.
Trudeau is still remembered for raising the prospect of “sunny ways” when he took office in 2015 at the age of 43, the second-youngest Canadian prime minister of all time. There have been many setbacks since then, but he was re-elected twice, the last in September.
In theory, Trudeau could run again in the next election within the next few years. But there are widespread doubts that he will, given his declining popularity and the animosity towards him in much of Western Canada.
“If he runs, the election will be more about him than about any particular issue,” said Wiseman of the University of Toronto. “He will be perceived as having overstayed his welcome.”
The truckers’ protest began in Alberta, a longtime stronghold of Canada’s Conservatives and one of four provinces, along with Manitoba, Quebec and Saskatchewan, whose premiers have opposed the invocation of emergency powers by the Prime Minister this week.
Protesters in Ottawa — and at protests and blockades elsewhere in Canada — denounced vaccination mandates for truckers and other COVID-19 precautions, and also decried the overall performance of Trudeau’s Liberal Party government. .
Even as Trudeau’s approval ratings plummeted, however, polls show most Canadians backed the pandemic restrictions. The vast majority of Canadians are vaccinated, and the death rate from COVID-19 is one-third that of the United States.
For Trudeau, the protest campaign had international overtones. The truckers’ so-called Freedom Convoy has received acclaim from right-wing figures in the United States, including Fox News personalities, former President Donald Trump and Texas Senator Ted Cruz. Much of the money donated to support the protests also comes from the United States
Grace Skogstad, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto, said the fallout from Trudeau’s emergency order will depend on his ability to end the upheaval.
“If the protesters can be evacuated without anyone being injured and soon (by the weekend), it will be difficult for critics to oppose his actions,” Skogstad said by email. “But let’s face it, the conservative right will always criticize Trudeau.”
Nik Nanos, a pollster whose Ottawa office gives him a close view, doubts the protesters — many of them families with young children — will disperse any time soon.
“In my opinion, this is the equivalent of an Occupy Wall Street movement that will be at the door of the House of Commons for a long time,” he said. “These truckers want to face politicians every day until these restrictions are lifted.”
“What’s clear is that everyone is frustrated with the government – truckers, people who oppose truckers, people concerned about the use of emergency law,” Nanos added. “It will be interesting to see what happens if the government plays this card and nothing happens.”
Gillies reported from Toronto, and Crary, a former Toronto bureau chief for AP, reported from New York.
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