It's no sledgehammer — but for Trudeau, the Emergencies Act could turn out to be just as heavy

When it was her turn to speak Thursday morning in the debate over Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's decision to trigger the Emergencies Act, interim Conservative leader Candice Bergen called it a "sledgehammer approach." Her choice of words was probably deliberate.

The long-term fallout from this decision — for Canada and the PM personally — is very hard to predict

A crowd cheers at a rally of truckers protesting Canada's COVID-19 restrictions outside the Parliament building in Ottawa on Thursday, Feb. 17, 2022. (Robert Bumsted/AP)

When it was her turn to speak Thursday morning, interim Conservative leader Candice Bergen said MPs were facing "one of the most serious decisions a parliamentarian can make."

She suggested that "history will not be kind" to New Democrats who choose to support the Liberal government's decision to trigger the Emergencies Act to quell anti-vaccine mandate protests that have clogged border crossings and occupied downtown Ottawa for weeks. She called it the "sledgehammer approach."

The choice by Bergen or her speechwriter to use the word "sledgehammer" probably wasn't accidental. In October 1970, when former NDP leader Tommy Douglas and most of his caucus chose to stand against Pierre Trudeau's decision to deploy the War Measures Act to end the October Crisis, Douglas famously compared the government's approach to "using a sledgehammer to crack a peanut."

Less well known is Pierre Trudeau's response. "This criticism doesn't take the facts into account," Trudeau said, before listing the ways in which the threat posed by the FLQ was not like a "peanut."

"And as for the sledgehammer," Trudeau added, "it was the only tool at our disposal."

One can read into those words an appeal to imperfect necessity — the argument that something needed to be done and this was the best available option.

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Half a century later, Justin Trudeau's use of the Emergencies Act — a humbler cousin of the defunct War Measures Act — might be born of a similarly practical imperative.

The prime minister was not so colourful on Thursday morning in defending his government's decision. There were no sledgehammer analogies. There also were no comments about the swastikas or Confederate flags that have been spotted in downtown Ottawa, or any descriptions of the views that some protesters hold.

"The blockades and occupations are illegal," Trudeau said. "They are a threat to our economy and relationship with trading partners. They are a threat to supply chains and the availability of essential goods, like food and medicine, and they are a threat to public safety."

The situation, he said, "could not be dealt with under any other law in Canada." The deployment of the Emergencies Act, he said, is meant to "deal with the current threat only and to get the situation fully under control."

WATCH | Prime Minister Justin Trudeau defends decision to deploy Emergencies Act: 

Trudeau defends use of Emergencies Act in House debate

2 years ago
Duration 1:17
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says the Emergencies Act will not impede on Canadians' rights but will allow for the clearing of blockades happening in Ottawa and across the country.

He offered empathy, then drew a line.

"Some protesters came to Ottawa to express their frustration and fatigue with public health measures, and that is their right. Like I said, it is a right that we will defend in this free and democratic country," he said. "However, illegal blockades and occupations are not peaceful protests."

The Conservatives are fiercely unconvinced. They believe the Trudeau government's actions are neither necessary nor wise. They insist the prime minister was needlessly provocative in his actions and his words and that he is now overreaching to fix a mess of his own making.

As an alternative, Conservatives would have had the prime minister meet with some of those who came to Ottawa and then release a plan to lift all federal vaccine mandates. Bergen said Thursday that she would "guarantee that these folks would have moved on had the prime minister decided he wanted to actually listen."

WATCH | Interim Conservative leader Candice Bergen denounces NDP support for triggering Emergencies Act: 

Bergen says it's 'shameful' for NDP to support Emergencies Act

2 years ago
Duration 1:31
During a debate in the House of Commons this morning interim Conservative leader Candice Bergen said it was 'shameful' for the NDP and its leader, Jagmeet Singh, to support Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's decision to invoke the Emergencies Act.

When NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh stood to remind the House that the convoy had publicly advertised its "mission" to "overthrow the government," he was loudly jeered and heckled.

Singh asked Bergen if she regretted "endorsing a convoy that is attacking the fundamental democracy of our country" and "an occupation that is harassing citizens."

"Obviously nobody in this House believes that a government should be overthrown," Bergen replied, before accusing unnamed New Democrats of participating in "pro-communist marches."

WATCH | NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh calls on PM to take some responsibility for protests:

Singh calls on Trudeau to take responsibility for protests

2 years ago
Duration 1:14
During a debate in the House of Commons, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh asked Prime Minister Justin Trudeau when he would take responsibility for the situation in Ottawa.

In Singh's view, Parliament arrived at this point because of a "failure of leadership." Governments, he said, wasted time arguing over jurisdiction or failed to take the protest seriously at first, while police abandoned the public.

Appeals for "leadership" can be a bit simplistic. It's possible the Emergencies Act never would have been required had municipal or provincial authorities done more or acted faster. Though Trudeau insisted the Liberal government was present to assist other levels of government from the start, maybe federal officials didn't do something they should have done.

However we got here, reasonable people can and should debate the justification for invoking the Emergencies Act and whether the resulting measures have been properly calibrated. The Canadian Civil Liberties Association has already announced that it will challenge the government's actions in court.

Police walk among protesters gathered near a stage as a protest against COVID-19 measures continues to occupy downtown Ottawa on Thursday, Feb. 17, 2022. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Ideally, MPs would have weeks or months for that debate. But the emergency order has been declared already by cabinet and a vote to confirm the decision is set for Monday evening. Liberals and New Democrats have enough votes between them to approve the motion. Law enforcement may have cleared out Ottawa by that point.

The declaration might live on for a few more weeks as a way to deter or quickly interrupt similar blockades. The details and second-guessing will be hashed out through a parliamentary committee that will be charged with studying the situation.

Public opinion seems to be with Trudeau right now, just as it was with his father in 1970. But much will depend on how Canadians view the follow-through.

Watch: The National's At Issue Panel on the defence and criticism of using the Emergencies Act

The defence and criticism of using the Emergencies Act | At Issue

2 years ago
Duration 11:14
The At Issue panel breaks down the parliamentary debate over implementing the Emergencies Act, how the government is defending it and the criticism from opposition parties.

It was everything that came after invoking the War Measures Act — the massive breaches of civil liberties — that took the shine off Pierre Trudeau's decision, however much "leadership" he seemed to show in the moment.

The Emergencies Act is not the War Measures Act. The actions authorized in 2022 do not approach the level of those the country witnessed in 1970. Justin Trudeau is not wielding a sledgehammer.

But it's still a hammer and it's still a heavy decision — perhaps the heaviest of his six years in office.

With any luck, the consequences will be as peaceful as possible. And then, with other tools, the work of building and maintaining peace, order and good government can begin anew.


Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.