Why the Emergencies Act? Lack of State Capacity.
The capacity of the Canadian state has eroded constantly for thirty years, and it has left the country’s institutions unable to deal with a global pandemic and a challenge from authoritarian populism.
On February 14, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that the Canadian government would invoke the Emergencies Act to resolve the occupation of Ottawa by a right-wing movement calling itself the Freedom Convoy. The Emergencies Act is the 1987 reformulation of the draconian War Measures Act, and gives the federal government enhanced powers to deal with situations that “seriously endanger the lives, health, or safety of Canadians and [are] of such proportions or nature as to exceed the capacity or authority of a province to deal with it.” The invocation of the Emergencies Act has been controversial in Canada, and many have observed that the last use of similar emergency powers took place in 1970, when Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, the current prime minister's father, declared a “state of apprehended insurrection” to deal with the October Crisis in Quebec. The central question in this case is whether it was genuinely necessary to use the Emergencies Act, given that it is not a settled fact that the crisis was beyond the ability of the City of Ottawa and the Province of Ontario to address.. The Emergencies Act is meant as a last resort when the civil order is under threat from insurrection or something equally drastic in nature. Despite the aggressive rhetoric from some occupiers about overthrowing the Trudeau government, and the production of a “memorandum of understanding” that was laughable for anyone with any understanding of government formation in the Westminster system, there was very little chance of a real coup d’état. The issue at hand is that the authorities that are responsible for clearing the occupation of downtown Ottawa and barricades at various border points, including the Ambassador Bridge in Windsor and the port of entry at Coutts, Alberta, lacked the capacity to deal with the truckers’ occupations.
In short, the Emergencies Act has been invoked because Canada’s state capacity has dropped dramatically over the last 30 years. The institutions responsible for containing an attempted occupation of the center of federal power have not been able to do so. Ottawa Police Services has been overwhelmed, and the now departed chief of police, Peter Sloly, admitted early in the occupation that his force was not up to dealing with the situation. The chaos within the Ottawa city government since Sloly’s exit suggests a nearly complete collapse of authority. Canadian governance is divided in practice among three levels of government (though constitutionally municipalities are creations of the provinces), and jurisdictional struggles are a fundamental feature of Canadian politics because the levels of government guard their authorities jealously. Routine policing of public streets is a municipal responsibility, and Ottawa’s city police force proved at best to be too small to respond to the occupation and could not guarantee that full enforcement of the law would not happen without violence and injuries to children. The police recoiled in fear that the occupiers had superior firepower (an arms cache belonging to an extremist group was seized at the Coutts blockade) . It also suffered from other problems, such as poor leadership from the chief and others at the senior level, and a possible refusal by the rank and file to follow orders with which it disagreed.
Other levels of government have also had problems, starting with Prime Minister Trudeau’s leadership capabilities. There were moments in which Trudeau minimized the seriousness of the situation, and at others antagonized the truckers with his rhetoric, calling their views “unacceptable” without saying what specifically was unacceptable about them. The opposition Conservatives have retreated into internal politics, removing Erin O’Toole as party leader and using the occupation of downtown Ottawa to politick for the leadership race that will now take place over the next few months. Ontario’s Ford Government has not played a constructive role in any consistent way, blaming the other two levels of government for the crisis, though becoming more involved with the reopening of the border at Windsor. It has increasingly appeared that only the federal government had the resources–and the political will–to deal with the occupation of the parliamentary precinct.
Canada is reeling from the blockades and occupations. The border closures have damaged relations with the United States, and have left Americans questioning whether cross-border supply chains, built up painstakingly since the 1989 Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement–and in the case of the auto industry, since the 1964 Auto Pact–will be reliable in the future. Some American politicians have already called for Canadian auto production plants to be relocated across the border. These events have also called the integrity of the Canadian state into doubt. There are also questions about the quality of political leadership in Canada, and worries that Canada’s unexpected vulnerability has been broadcast to potential adversaries for the past three weeks. How did it get this way?
Political scientists call the basic ability of a government to get things done “state capacity.” The term simply means when governments pull on the levers of the state, something happens, and the existence of this capacity has been what distinguishes developed from developing countries. State capacity, however, has been declining across the West over the past decades. It has a number of causes, which range from lack of resources and prolonged austerity, a reduced sense of political efficacy among electorates, polarization brought about by increasing economic inequality, the inability of states to show resilience in dealing with the repeated crises of the 21st century (9/11, the Great Recession, and COVID-19), and a general collapse of trust in governments. Just in the past few years, we have seen the January 6 insurrection in the United States, the yellow vest protests in France, and growing stress on the British state from Brexit and restlessness in the constituent nations. Canada has had its issues over the decades, most notably the challenges of Quebec nationalism and increasing challenges from Aboriginal Canadians about the nature of the country. The country did reasonably well despite the stresses of two sovereignty referenda in Quebec and the Meech Lake and Charlottetown reform failures. But the Ottawa occupation, and the response to the COVID-19 pandemic more broadly, have made it clear that Canadian state capacity has declined across the board at all levels of government. It extends to institutions as a whole and to the leadership class both federally and provincially. It covers Parliament, policing, administration of programs across numerous government departments, and foreign policy.
The decay of the Canadian state seems to date from the 1990s, but the seeds of this decay were planted after 1970. Canadian governments began to run huge deficits for a number of reasons, ranging from shoring up national unity to paying for the public health system and indulging in Keynesian economics to keep the economy stimulated. Deficits grew every year until the Chrétien government assumed office, and international agencies began to warn that Canada was hitting the debt wall. Finance Minister Paul Martin oversaw a drastic reduction in the deficit with the federal government achieving a surplus by the end of the decade. Several provincial governments (Ralph Klein’s in Alberta received the most national attention) made similar spending cuts. At the time, opposition centered upon the effect that cuts in the welfare state would have on inequality. There was less debate over the effect of widespread immediate spending cuts on state capacity. These were not cuts that led to a smaller and less ambitious but more efficient state. Public services, including health care and education, were cut across ministries and levels of government, and the consequences have been felt as governments struggled to deal with COVID-19, as schools closed and hospital beds filled up. Governments reduced the number of civil servants. Foreign affairs was badly affected, with the foreign service cut and recruitment abandoned altogether for years. The effects of this are still felt, and include Canada’s two-time failure to secure a seat on the United Nations Security Council.
Now the reduced-capacity Canadian state is faced with a fundamental challenge from authoritarian populism, which has at least some chance of being not just a political movement but an armed resistance to government authority that enjoys foreign financial backing. That reduced capacity has meant that the Emergencies Act, and with it federal resources, have been employed where municipal resources ought to have done the job. A test for the federal government will be whether its measures, such as tracking the flow of money to protestors and freezing their assets are successful, enhancing a different dimension of modern state capacity. Longer term, Canadian leaders have to learn from the Ottawa occupation by rebuilding Canadian institutions at the same time as they rebuild the state’s finances after multiple years of pandemic spending.
Graham Richardson @grahamctvFinger-pointing politically. Zero enforcement from @OttawaPolice on a Saturday night. The people don’t care. They keep coming. The protesters are running the show during a fundamental challenge to the 🇨🇦 state. Extraordinary #ottnews #OccupationOttawa #onpoli #cdnpoli https://t.co/6Q3jYSmGA5