Whatever Justice Paul Rouleau concludes in his final report, it’s already clear the Public Order Emergency Commission has performed a vital service for Canadians: it lowered the temperature of the country’s culture wars.
It did so by utterly discrediting the “Freedom Convoy” and, by implication, the politicians who supported it. Evidence of this comes from Pierre Polievre himself, along with his fellow Conservatives. Their collective silence throughout the hearings now stands as the most striking testimony to emerge from the commission.
The commission, after all, was designed to provide a fair hearing to every conceivable interest group. This was exactly what convoy leaders claimed they wanted, and then some — not just a face-to-face meeting with the prime minister and his entire inner circle, but the opportunity to grill them each for hours. The result was a historic addition to the Careful-What-You-Ask-For files.
What a study in contrasts: on one hand, the hallucinatory worldview of organizers like James Bauder, Pat King and Tamara Lich served against the thoughtful, rational testimony of our federal officials. As for the convoy’s self-depiction as a standard, peaceful protest — just a bunch of Canadians exercising their Charter rights to assemble and express dissent — that narrative got hammered to dust by Ottawa’s mayor, police chief and countless others who chronicled the litany of horrors inflicted by convoy members on the residents of Ottawa. Not to mention the economic calamities of the Ambassador Bridge border blockade or the weapons embedded at Coutts… on and on it went, for hundreds of hours, for all Canadians to see and hear and digest.
No wonder Poilievre went quiet. After eight straight months of full-throated support for the “bright, joyful, and peaceful Canadians championing freedom over fear on Parliament Hill,” the movement that helped him take over the Conservative Party has become a political deadweight. His sudden silence, and that of Conservatives throughout the country, tells us everything we need to know about what this means for them.
But this is more than a partisan victory for Liberals over Conservatives. It’s a win for anyone worried about the hyperpolarization of society, a trend both reflected and amplified by the social unrest that’s been rising steadily for at least a decade. After all, the “Freedom Convoy” was hardly the first national protest to roil this country with massive infrastructure disruption and subsequent arrests. It was just the biggest — and at first glance, the most successful.
Consider this quote from Margaret Mead, the late American anthropologist, that is adored in left-wing activist circles: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” You hear it all the time at environmental protests. When Extinction Rebellion (XR) blockaded Vancouver’s Burrard Street Bridge in 2019 to raise awareness of the climate crisis, they even turned it into a hymn.
But as the “Freedom Convoy” showed, that slogan swings both ways.
For what was the convoy if not a small group of (admittedly not so thoughtful) committed citizens? While their movement was in ascendance, it occupied not just Ottawa and the Ambassador Bridge but also the attention of all Canadians and a good portion of the international community. It won the support of the official Opposition. It seemed as though the far right had just beaten the lefties at their own protest game.
Pierre Poilievre's support for the 'Freedom Convoy' went silent after the #EmergenciesAct inquiry showed Canadians have limited tolerance for illegal protests. #opinion #FreedomConvoy #cdnpoli
At the time, there was some fascinating talk among XR organizers and other radical activists online, who expressed some reluctant admiration for the convoy’s brazen tactics (though not, to be clear, for its ideology). There isn’t an adult in Canada who hasn’t heard of the “Freedom Convoy.” The same can hardly be said of Extinction Rebellion, nor even of other more high-profile civil disobedience campaigns from recent years, like Fairy Creek or the Wetsuwet’en protests. Outside B.C., neither of those garnered anywhere near the white-hot press achieved by Lich and her associates. Nor did they get a fraction of the political support.
And so for much of 2022, it was fair to ask if those of us who worry about things like climate change and Indigenous rights should be taking notes from the anti-vax crowd. It was a weird question to ask, given the gulf between our values. But — the boldness of their tactics! The courage of their convictions! If nothing else, you had to credit their chutzpah. And in weaponizing trucks the way they did, the convoy organizers demonstrated some undeniable tactical prowess.
I spent a year profiling Extinction Rebellion’s Vancouver chapter just before the pandemic. During that time, I sat in on numerous meetings where organizers dreamed of shutting down the entire city. This may not represent the dream of every left-wing activist — Extinction Rebellion has a fractious relationship with the environmental community writ large — but it's not a huge departure from the civil disobedience campaigns that have expressed so many of society’s legitimate concerns, from civil rights to climate strikes. Disruption is the means to the end; if you want people to consider your cause, you first have to get their attention.
But as other movements have learned before, and as the Public Order Emergency Commission just reminded us, there are certain lines you can’t cross. Once you do, you’re no longer engaged in civil disobedience but something much darker.
It doesn’t matter what you believe in or who you’re fighting for. You can’t prevent children from accessing a hospital. You may not assault citizens who happen to be walking by. You may not issue death threats to politicians. You may not stockpile guns and concoct plans to shoot public officials.
These things aren’t just against the law; they’re morally repugnant, and self-evidently so. Poilievre has acknowledged this, but in trying (successfully) to harvest the ample votes of the “freedom” crowd, he’s tried to draw a distinction between a supposed handful of bad apples and the rest of the convoy’s righteous majority.
He repeated that line on Nov. 8, halfway through the hearings, in the one and only public comment that journalists were able to draw out of him throughout the entire inquiry: “I support those peaceful and law-abiding protesters, who demonstrated for their lives and livelihoods and liberties, while condemning any individual who broke laws, behaved badly, or blockaded critical infrastructure.”
That’s just what the convoy organizers themselves were saying. They didn’t know about the criminal activity, or if they did, they didn’t support it. That stance might get you personally off the hook. It doesn’t exonerate your movement. After a certain threshold, the amount of criminal behaviour coming out of a movement disqualifies the whole thing. You can’t hide behind ignorance, feigned or otherwise, that bad things were happening; insisting most of the people were well-meaning and genuinely engaged in peaceful protest ceases to be a defence. The well is poisoned.
In any case, not knowing is no longer an excuse. The hearings made sure of that.
So where do we go from here? The commission’s entire gaze was focused backwards at the past year. But its impact will reverberate forward. Because even if the pandemic continues to march into the background, the tectonic forces society is grappling with — from climate change and colonialism to inequality and inflation, to name just a few — aren’t going away. Quite the opposite. To state the obvious, there are deeply conflicting views on how to handle these monumental crises. How will we manage these tensions?
The German sociologist Aladin El-Mafaalani, a child of Syrian immigrants, has offered a helpful way to think about this. El-Mafaalani views conflict as an essential driver of human progress, so long as it’s managed correctly. “Conflicts are energy,” he says. That energy itself is neutral — it can lead to good or bad outcomes. “Conflicts which are managed in a constructive way can bring about wonderful things. Destructive ways of dealing with conflicts can lead to disaster. Wars are the result of conflict. But so are democracy, human rights, environmental protection, humanism, the social welfare state, the concept of an open society and liberalism.”
The challenge ahead is to keep our conflicts productive, without letting them boil over into rage or violence. That was the direction the “Freedom Convoy” was headed; that was the energy Poilievre and his entire party tried to exploit. For a while, it seemed to be working.
But things got too hot. The country boiled over, and Conservatives burnt their hands. Perhaps more than any other outcome, the Public Order Emergency Commission cooled us down again. That doesn’t mean an end to protest, nor should it. There’s still plenty of heat to go around.
It’s impossible to predict where things will go from here. If Pierre Poilievre sweeps to power in the next election, the convoy may yet look triumphant. But right now, it’s looking more like a liability, one whose tactics protesters on all sides of the spectrum will think twice before emulating.
So let’s breathe a sigh of relief and acknowledge the service just delivered. In this age of rising violence and paranoia, the commission has reminded protesters and politicians alike that some doors are better left closed.