That said, I wonder whether he’s missed something on the foreign policy side.
Tumilty identifies the turning point in federal policy as the weekend of February 12-13. He notes that even early on Friday, February 11th, Prime Minister Trudeau was calling the blockades a local law-enforcement issue.
He then quotes a source that says: “The absolute state of mayhem that it was over the (second) weekend, I think cemented to everyone that this is beyond the capacity of local law enforcement.”
I accept the timeline, but I’m not certain we can really understand the change in the government’s posture without taking into consideration the personal intervention of US president Joe Biden that Friday.
Biden called Ottawa to make clear that the blockades at the Ambassador Bridge in Windsor and at other border crossings were unacceptable and had to be ended.
The American read-out of the conversation noted that “The Prime Minister promised quick action in enforcing the law.”
The Canadian read-out added: “The leaders agreed to continue closely coordinating bilateral efforts to ensure our respective authorities have all of the tools and information required to bring these illegal actions to an end as quickly as possible.”
In my experience studying the history of Canada-US relations, taking these two sentences together suggests that if Ottawa did not resolve the border situation soon, Washington would do so on its behalf.
As CTV News’s Rachel Aiello and Sarah Turnbull reported, almost immediately following Biden’s call, the prime minister’s tone changed.
All of a sudden, “‘everything’ – with the exception of deploying the Canadian Armed Forces” was on the table.
If you read the text of the Emergencies Act announcement, you’ll find a number of references to the Ambassador Bridge and to border security.
There’s a similar reference in subsection (b) (iii) of the February 14th Order in Council.
And don’t forget the always perceptive Paul Wells of Macleans, who drew attention to the significance of Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland’s comments justifying the new policy:
“We fought tooth and nail to protect Canada’s privileged relationship with the United States during the NAFTA negotiations, and we stood up to the 232 tariffs that were illegal and unjustified. We won’t let these hard-won victories be tarnished. The world is watching us. Our jobs, prosperity and livelihoods are at stake. That’s why the government is acting.”
As an outsider who was not privy to the Biden-Trudeau conversation, it’s hard for me to be certain of anything, but based on what I’ve read, the Canadian government might well have imposed the Emergencies Act as a form of what the late Norwegian historian Nils Ørvik once called “defence against help.”
In other words, Ottawa did whatever it took to defend itself against “help” from Washington that would have compromised Canada’s sovereignty.
Why does this matter?
Because once things have calmed back down, I suspect that most Canadians will be focused on understanding what happened in Ottawa itself: the failures of the local police, the provincial Tories, and the federal Liberals to respond meaningfully until the situation was out of control.
We need an explanation for those failures, but if we don’t take the time to think seriously about the future of Canada-US border security, I fear that we will miss one of the critical lessons of this terrible month.
On “defence against help,” I recommend an article by Philippe Lagassé from International Journal. Don Barry and Duane Bratt wrote a longer piece here. There is also a more recent essay by P. Whitney Lackenbauer here. The original 1973 article can be found here.
A couple of additional political musings for a deeply political time:
- In his 2019 book, Promise and Peril: Justin Trudeau in Power, the CBC’s Aaron Wherry noted that the prime minister seems to be at his “most vulnerable when he [feels he] is doing well.” I can’t disagree. We seem to have a prime minister who too often plays down to the level of his competition. It cost Canadians dearly this month.
- In the period leading up to the 1995 referendum, Canadians faced a crisis of national unity far greater than the one we face today. At the time, we were led by a Liberal prime minister who failed to take the threat of Quebec separatism seriously until it was almost too late. Fortunately, the leader of the Progressive Conservatives, Jean Charest, put aside partisanship to help to keep Canada together. I can only imagine what might have happened had Charest thought instead: “So we need to turn this into the (prime minister’s) problem.” It’s easy to forget that there was a time when Conservatives took pride in being the adults in the room.
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