• Oct 27, 2022
  • Insights

After the “Convoy” – The Conservatives and the Rule of Law

Pierre Poilievre
Newly elected Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre and his wife Anaida wave as they take the stage after winning the leadership, Saturday, September 10, 2022 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Share this

Written by Geoff Norquay. Published by Policy Magazine.

Pierre Poilievre is successfully launched as the new Conservative leader, following a smashing victory in the party’s leadership race. For an individual with a reputation of being at times divisive and harsh, he’s been spending a lot of time building bridges. 

After his win was announced on September 6, spectators were dazzled when his wife, Anaida, first took the stage to give her husband a lengthy and emotional introduction. The new first lady of Conservative politics talked about how she immigrated to Canada from Venezuela with her family, settled in a working- class neighbourhood in the east end of Montreal, and spoke of both the challenges faced by new Canadians and the importance of preserving one’s language and culture. The charismatic speech revealed her as a formidable and compelling asset in reaching out to new Canadians – and demonstrating general “relatability” – in future campaigns.

Poilievre’s victory speech was remarkably generous to his fellow-contestants in the leadership race. He commended the personal contributions each made to the party and to public life.

When it was his turn, Poilievre’s victory speech was remarkably generous to his fellow-contestants in the leadership race. He commended the personal contributions each made to the party and to public life, and addressed all their spouses individually as well, adding a personalizing touch. Surprisingly for many – following the bitter campaign – he saved his warmest words for his arch-rival, Jean Charest, whom he effectively cast as a national hero of Canadian unity.

Subsequent days saw him quickly calm party grudges with old rivals, including Charest, Erin O’Toole and Peter MacKay. He and Anaida also hosted Brian and Mila Mulroney for dinner at Stornoway, resulting in some warm and positive comments from the former prime minister – and a clear signal that all members and groups of the Tory party are welcome in the fold.

Poilievre has taken the time to get things right. He met with every member of his caucus before naming his shadow cabinet; his appointments include no fewer than 51 shadow ministers and 20 associate shadow ministers, showing he knows that the best way of keeping caucus happy is to keep them busy with meaningful work that reflects their individual interests.

In many ways, time is on Poilievre’s side. With the Liberal government supported by the NDP through their supply and confidence agreement, an election is unlikely for at least a couple of years. As a result, there is lots of time for the pain of the spiralling cost of living to inflict additional damage on the government’s credibility. There is also time for the deliberate and comprehensive policy process the Conservatives will need to deploy in developing their platform for the next general election campaign.

In the meantime, there’s a particular issue that involves substantial risk for Poilievre and the Conservatives, one that will require thoughtful skill in managing. It’s the “Public Order Emergency Commission,” the inquiry led by Justice Paul Rouleau of the Ontario Court of Appeal into the circumstances surrounding the federal government’s invoking the Emergencies Act to deal with the truckers’ convoy that paralyzed downtown Ottawa for three weeks last February, as well as the border blockages that seriously disrupted Canada-US trade.

COVID-19 caused governments at all levels to interfere in the personal lives of Canadians more than any event since the Second World War. Of the many consequences of the pandemic, the truckers’ “Freedom Convoy” is the most complex and troubling. The problem was that there were two protests going on at the same time. Many of the truckers had a valid issue – as they saw it, the overreach of a federal government attempting to safeguard the majority against the civil rights of a minority who chafed against pandemic restrictions. They correctly viewed their march to Ottawa as the exercise of their right to demonstrate against government policies with which they disagreed.

The second protest was something darker and more ominous, but at this point we only know the outlines of how serious it was. As David Vigneault, director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) told a House of Commons committee last May, “The concern we had with the convoy, at the outset and throughout, was the fact that we have seen in Canada, in other jurisdictions, violent extremists using these protests and demonstrations to engage in acts of violence, to recruit members, to be able to spread their ideology further.” No doubt we will learn more about this dark side as the inquiry unfolds.

At the beginning of what turned into an occupation of downtown Ottawa, Pierre Poilievre gave an impromptu interview in which he carefully distinguished between the “hard-working, law-abiding and peaceful truckers who are fighting for their freedom and livelihood” and others who “say inappropriate things.” He said that “it is possible to hold individually responsible anyone who does and says something that is unacceptable.”

COVID-19 caused governments at all levels to interfere in the personal lives of Canadians more than any event since the Second World War. Of the many consequences of the pandemic, the truckers’ ‘Freedom Convoy.’

It is unfortunate that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau did not follow this advice when he tarred those who rejected vaccine mandates and other pandemic restrictions with a host of negative brushes designed to collectively disparage them: “They are extremists who don’t believe in science. They’re often misogynists, also often racists. It’s a small group that muscles in, and we have to make a choice in terms of leaders, in terms of the country. Do we tolerate these people?” Still, the continuing risk to the Conservatives is the unreserved and undifferentiated support many caucus members gave to the convoy, and reminders of this fact will not be helpful for many watching voters.

The problem for the leaders of both parties is that as the occupation dragged on, the distinctions between the motivations of the various demonstrators were lost against a larger reality – that thousands of lives were disrupted, many businesses were forced to close and millions of dollars in personal wages and company incomes were lost.

Tax-paying citizens lost the right to enjoy their private property and walk their streets free of insults and personal intimidation for the outlandish offence of wearing masks – masks they had been advised to wear by their public health authorities. In other words, the convoy became in the minds of many, a massive abrogation of the rule of law, and an exercise in crowd bullying.

As Howard Anglin, Stephen Harper’s former Chief of Staff, argued in a thoughtful op-ed in the National Post in June, the rule of law, “at its broadest, means a society that is governed by predictable rules, duly enacted by accountable officials, publicly disseminated, and consistently enforced.” Anglin argues that Canada has suffered from “recent breakdowns in the rule of law” that are “the result of uneven enforcement or non-enforcement.” As Anglin noted, “much of the Freedom Convoy’s success was a direct result of failures of law enforcement by the municipal, provincial and federal governments.

Thousands of lives were disrupted, many businesses were forced to close and millions of dollars in personal wages and company incomes were lost.

There are many other recent examples of the rule of law being ignored in Canada. In June-July of 2021, 68 churches were damaged or destroyed by fire in the wake of the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves on the sites of former residential schools. An extensive Internet search discovered just one reference to charges being laid by police. And all parts of the country have seen statues of “colonial” figures – Sir John A. Macdonald, Queen Victoria and Egerton Ryerson – toppled or defaced by the enforcers of wokeness while the police looked on.

In the winter of 2021, just before the world was overtaken by the pandemic, Indigenous protesters blockaded several national rail lines in solidarity with those opposed to the Coastal GasLink pipeline project that crosses the traditional territory of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation in northwestern British Columbia.

In just a few days, more than 150 freight trains were idled after the blockades were set up in British Columbia and Ontario. Via Rail service disruptions impacted 1,070 trips and roughly 165,000 passengers. Despite grievous damage to national commerce and the domestic transport of goods, the federal government refused to deploy the RCMP to unblock the railways, siding with the Indigenous demonstrators at the expense of the national economy and common sense.

Speaking in the House of Commons, Trudeau asked Canadians to be patient with his government while it sought a negotiated end to the Indigenous protests, because it would have been “off-brand” to enforce the law in the same way the government later would with the convoy. The impasse was settled only after vigilantes in several locations began clearing the tracks using force.

When faced with breakdowns in the rule of law, politicians at all levels in Canada are fond of saying, “We don’t tell the police who to investigate or whom to charge.” We all know why they say that; no one wants political interference in the discretion authorities must retain to preserve their independence. But what happens when obvious lawlessness is ignored by the authorities, both political authorities and law enforcement? People lose confidence in consistent enforcement, become understandably cynical about the motives of government, or about the sanctity of laws designed to protect both minorities from the excess of majorities, and majorities from the actions of minorities.

So, here’s an idea for the Conservatives as they prepare their platform for the next election. Instead of relitigating the issue of vaccines (and for heaven’s sake, it’s a safe bet that everyone wants to leave this issue behind), why not take on the inconsistent enforcement of the laws that were put in place to protect us all?

They could start with a clear statement that a Conservative government would work to ensure that public order laws were applied consistently and evenly regardless of whether the transgressors be from the left or right. This would likely be controversial, but not as problematic as living in a society where laws look much better on paper than how they are actually applied. It would also be a significant contribution to addressing the real public policy issue that lies at the heart of the trucker convoy.

In his recent leadership campaign, Pierre Poilievre made much of taking on the gatekeepers for what they are doing to Canadians; perhaps it’s time for him to address what they are not doing to enforce the rule of law.

Related articles