Prime Minister Justin Trudeau invoked emergency powers to quell protests over coronavirus restrictions that have brought gridlock to Canada’s capital and blocked key trade corridors, citing the need to restore public order. It’s the first time a federal government has resorted to such powers in five decades.

1. What powers does the act give Trudeau?

The Emergencies Act invoked by the prime minister provides the federal government with broad powers to prohibit public assembly, mobilize police, order private companies to provide essential services and mandate financial institutions to freeze accounts. In this instance, Trudeau is using all of these powers against the trucker-led protests. He’s banned public assemblies that can “reasonably be expected to lead to a breach of the peace” around parliamentary buildings and other government buildings, critical infrastructure, war memorials and “any other place as designated by the Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness.” He’s also mandating banks and other financial institutions to freeze accounts of individuals participating in the protest, while choking off funding to the organizers.

2. What does it mean to be able to commandeer services?

One problem authorities have had to deal with is a reluctance by towing companies to assist with the removal of vehicles and semi-trailers that have been used in the blockades. The tow truck companies are worried about damage to their equipment or retribution from protesters. These orders will compel them under threat of fines or jail time to assist the police. The federal government is similarly “commandeering” banks and insurers by forcing them to stop providing services to protesters.

3. What is the government doing about funds raised for the protests? 

There have been two large crowdfunders for the protests, one through GoFundMe Inc. and one through GiveSendGo LLC. GoFundMe chose to cancel its $10-million (US$7.9 million) fundraiser after officials provided evidence it was being used to commit crimes. The protesters started a new one on GiveSendGo and raised a similar amount, but Ontario’s provincial government obtained a court order to prohibit any banks or payment processors from allowing the funds to be distributed. 

4. How extensive are the financial measures?

The measures apply to the full breadth of the nation’s financial sector, whether federally regulated or not: foreign banks, credit unions, insurers, trusts, loan companies, security firms, portfolio managers, payment facilities and crowdfunding platforms. These companies must cease dealing in any way with individuals involved in illegal protests, including providing any access to digital currencies. Effectively, anyone deemed participating in these public assemblies will become de-banked. In addition, companies involved in crowdfunding or other electronic payment platforms will need to register with Canada’s financial intelligence agency. 

5. What powers is Trudeau providing to police?

Police are getting additional tools to get what is now deemed unlawful assembly under control. Officers have the ability to prevent supplies of everything from food to fuel (which is needed to keep vehicles and tents warm in freezing temperatures). Police can block anyone attempting to travel to or enter the area, and arrest those who refuse to comply. The government is also prohibiting anyone from bringing children to the protest, a reflection of the fact children are known to be sleeping in some of the trailers on site. What the government won’t be doing is sending the military to help, as officials have said it would unnecessarily escalate the situation and that police have the proper training to make arrests. 

6. Is there any check on emergency powers?

The emergency orders are made under legislation passed in 1988 that brought in many more safeguards than had previously existed for the use of such extraordinary powers. Before invoking the act, the prime minister must consult with the provincial governments whose territory will be impacted, and the orders must be put to parliament within seven days for a vote. The orders need to be renewed every 30 days and a parliamentary committee conducts oversight while they’re in effect. When the emergency ends, the government is required to launch a public inquiry into the events.

7. Why is Trudeau doing this?

There are two main reasons. One is that the Ottawa police have been incapable of getting the streets under control in the capital city, declaring they don’t have enough resources. However the police chief -- who resigned his post on Tuesday -- has also been blamed for being too passive in his response to the protest. The other reason is that parallel blockades have popped up at border crossings, cutting off critical trade routes. The government wants to prevent and quickly clear any future blockades.

8. What has the reaction been?

Although there is significant support in Canada for rolling back Covid-19 restrictions, public support for the trucker protests has dwindled as the blockades drag on. An Angus Reid Institute poll released Monday found 72 per cent of Canadians want the protesters to “go home” as they’ve made their point, and 22 per cent want them to stay. The federal government has been criticized for its inaction on the protests, but some now say Trudeau has overreached in using emergency powers. The Canadian Civil Liberties Association said the situation has not reached the “high and clear standard” needed to justify such sweeping measures. 

9. Has anything like this happened before?

The closest recent example of this is the 1970 October Crisis, in which the prime minister’s father, Pierre Trudeau, invoked the War Measures Act in response to a kidnapping and bombing campaign by Quebec separatists. The military was called in to support the police. In effect this was martial law, where anyone could be arrested and detained without a warrant. The current emergency powers act was designed to be less draconian and subject to parliamentary oversight.