Recently, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau invoked emergency powers in Canada in order to shut down protests. The protests were started by a group of truckers who were against the cross-border vaccine mandates put in place by the government. They eventually grew, and through blockades with trucks, the protests obstructed key bridges and US border crossings. They even gridlocked the capital city Ottawa for weeks. Eventually, Trudeau used the Canadian Emergencies Act to formally ban the blockades and enable police to seize the trucks and any other vehicles that are being used in blockades. With this power, the police forcefully stopped the protests and arrested protestors.
For a democracy to function and continue to accurately address the concerns of its citizens, the citizens must be free to express themselves and signify their preferences to the government through collective action . One way to do this is protest as the truckers did. It can be one of the most effective ways for a group of people to make their voices heard, and allowing such protests to occur and dissent to be voiced can be a strong sign of a good democracy. By contrast, protests are often rapidly and sometimes violently suppressed in authoritarian regimes; even in stealth authoritarian regimes where the executive wants to preserve the image of a democracy and allows some level of discontent, that level is limited . Large demonstrations are usually shut down by force in such regimes just as Trudeau stopped the trucker protests.
At their core, the demonstrations by the truckers that Trudeau forcibly shut down were a simple protest of government policies. The group of truckers was unhappy with the law, and they sought to demonstrate that disapproval by taking to the streets. Trudeau’s strong response to such dissent could be seen as a bad sign; it is similar to the actions of a would-be autocrat seeking to maintain control. Additionally, restricting protests can be a slippery slope that leads to suppressing any opposition. The manner in which he stopped the protests is particularly worrisome. The Canadian Emergencies Act that he used was put into place in 1988, but all previous executives had exercised forbearance, or restraint, and avoided using it to stifle any protest. Executives that take extreme action and avoid practicing forbearance can threaten democracy and the rights of citizens ; the Canadian Civil Liberties Association recognized this threat as they denounced Trudeau’s actions and plan to sue, saying that the use of emergency powers against protesters is unacceptable and must not become the new norm.
However, it is important to consider that the trucker protests were not ordinary demonstrations of discontent. The truckers had blocked bridges, border crossings, and gridlocked the capital for weeks. Furthermore, they did not plan to leave without change to the country’s pandemic restrictions. While the right to protest is important to a democracy, there is also something to be said for the rights of the other citizens who were unable to freely move around their city and had to endure incessant honking measured at a whopping 80 decibels. There is a limit to how far a protest can go in terms of harmful effects on the general population; streets being blocked for marches and demonstrations is a natural part of protest, but it cannot last forever. Ultimately, the end goal must be change that comes through democratic processes. This protest crossed the line by continuing for weeks with no plan to stop unless vaccine mandates and other restrictions, which were passed democratically, were rolled back. Since the protesters would only stop if their demands were met, it could even be seen as an attempted takeover with the truckers holding the nation’s capital and supply lines such as bridges and border crossings hostage. The goal of these protests was not democratically orchestrated change, but instead change through force. With this in mind and Canada’s status as democratic, Trudeau arresting the protesters was, in a way, protecting the nation from an attack on democracy.
Although stopping protests forcibly does set a dangerous precedent, Trudeau’s actions were justified in this case and this is not a case of a would-be autocrat stifling opposition to gain greater power. It is important to note that Trudeau allowed the protests to continue for weeks, even after the truckers directly targeted him by demanding his resignation. While he eventually did take drastic action, this does show at least an attempt at forbearance. Additionally, he did revoke the powers granted to him by the Emergencies Act without any struggle once the crisis was over. The precedent set by this could be used undemocratically in the future to suppress other protests, but Trudeau’s actions in the past few weeks protected democracy rather than eroding it. Dahl, Robert A. Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1971.  Ozan Varol, Stealth Authoritarianism. Iowa Law Review 100, no. 4 (May 2015).  Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die (New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2018).
Author Vikram Joshi does a great job of outlining the areas of concern surrounding Trudeau’s use of executive power. As explained, the absence of executive forbearance is cause for concern as one of the foundational attributes of executive aggrandizement signifying authoritarian leadership . It must be understood, however, that democratic backsliding does not always occur when executive power is exercised, specifically when it is enacted through institutions in a contained manner . Whether Trudeau’s actions set a dangerous authoritarian precedent for future executives is revealed through Joshi’s argument on a foundational level, but the contents of the Emergency Act operationalized through criteria for what constitutes an authoritarian leader’s response to legal institutions can glean further insight.
The Emergency Act in Canada solidifies the prerogative of executives to act in times of emergency. However, there are two specific elements of the Canadian Emergency Act that make the policy near impenetrable to executive abuse–a temporal limit of power and a legislative limit of power. The Emergency Act permits that under times of threats to security thirty days of emergency can be enacted . The Canadian Security Intelligence Service Act defines threats to security as “activities within or relating to Canada directed towards or in support of the threat or use of acts of serious violence against people or property to achieve a political, religious or ideological objective within Canada” . These times of emergency then allow a range of powers to be exercised in the interest of protecting the state. The decision must then be evaluated by parliament, which decides whether the time of emergency is acceptably employed.
It is important to note that the Emergency Act replaced the War Measures Act in the interest of limiting executive power, inserting the essential checking measures of time limitations and parliamentary licensing to ensure executive accountability. While the improved act solidifies the restrictions on executive power, the exact qualifications in the public order section remain ambiguous, specifically how to separate security threatening opposition and protected protestation. These definitions are furthered in the Canadian Security Intelligence Service Act where it states that security threats do “not include lawful advocacy, protest or dissent” . Lawful protestation in Canada is explained through their Charter of Rights and Freedoms to mean “peaceful assembly” .
Understanding the implications of the Emergency Act, qualifying Trudeau’s intentions then becomes based on whether his actions abused the executive power. Authoritarian regimes would enact such legislation against opposition rather than in the interest of protecting civil liberties, which Trudeau seems to have wanted as explained by Joshi. The evident civil liberty blocking challenges the truckers posed, and acting as inhibiting forces of trade and traffic on government property for a prolonged period of time, was what prompted Trudeau’s action. When democracy is unable to make good on its promise and inefficiently handles uncooperative opposition, the stability of the regime is jeopardized . Trudeau’s intentions were neither to suppress opposition nor engage in autocratic legalism, shown through his abiding by the institutional licensing process for the Emergencies Act through parliamentary review . Paired with this, as Joshi explains, Trudeau willingly forfeited the power allotted to him when the crisis came to a close.
In another applicable criterion, Trudeau’s use of force and whether it suggests toleration or encouragement of violence is well elaborated upon by Joshi . The author makes a good point that forceful operations against opposition may have been similarly observed in authoritarian regimes; however, Trudeau continued to exercise restraint inconspicuously. The Emergency Act permits the use of military force to solve the threat to security, and his lack of employing this strategy suggests that he was not in favor of escalating the issue beyond necessity. An authoritarian would likely utilize that opportunity to aggregate more power through de facto means, something which Trudeau did not.
Trudeau’s actions were not in line with those of an authoritarian leader, rather acting oppositely to protect the liberties of the majority. In a more hopeful measure for the future, the Emergency Act reveals that Canada’s democracy institutionally guards against the rise of authoritarians. Joshi’s emphasis on the importance of expression and the dangers of suppressing citizen preferences is pivotal to defining the weight of Trudeau’s justification. Ultimately, Trudeau’s decision preserved the stability of Canada’s democracy, but that does not eliminate the concern that this precedent could lead to future abuses of the Emergency Act and similar acts if the literature of the act were altered. The careful boundary between authoritarianism and democracy upon which he treads is stark and fragile, and the legal institutions supporting its democratic lean must be upheld to bar future authoritarianism attempts.
 Bermeo, Nancy. “On Democratic Backsliding.” Journal of Democracy 27, no. 1 (January 2016): 5-19.
 Corrales, Javier. “Telltale Signs of Democratic Backsliding.” Persuasion, 2022.
 Legislative Services Branch. “Emergencies Act.” Consolidated Federal Laws of Canada, February 18, 2022. https://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/eng/acts/e-4.5/page-1.html.
 Legislative Services Branch. “Canadian Security Intelligence Service Act.” Consolidated Federal Laws of Canada, February 18, 2022. https://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/eng/acts/c-23/page-1.html.
 “Canadian Security Intelligence Service Act.”
 Legislative Services Branch. “The Constitution Acts, 1867 to 1982.” Consolidated Federal Laws of Canada, February 18, 2022. https://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/eng/const/page-12.html#:~:text=1%20The%20Canadian%20Charter%20of,a%20free%20and%20democratic%20society.
 Lipset, Seymour Martin. “Some Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic Development and Political Legitimacy.” The American Political Science Review 53, no. 1 (1959): 69–105. https://doi.org/10.2307/1951731.
 Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die (New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2018).