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).