Can the politicians tell the police to take down the barricades?
If not, why not?
Those are the two questions that have been mooted for more than two weeks now. Around the nation’s water coolers, in just about every Tim Horton’s, frustrated and angry Canadians – Indigenous and otherwise – have been wondering what, if anything, can be done. What can be done to make the trains run on time again? What can end this?
There haven’t been as many questions about the legitimacy of the protests, or the efficacy of our political leaders. A majority of Canadians apparently regard the barricades as worse than illegitimate – they see them as illegal.
And our political leaders? On that, there is consensus, too. Not one of our leaders has looked like they know what to do. Not one.
Justin Trudeau spent a few days pleading for “patience,” and – when it became evident that he did not possess a clue about how to actually solve the crisis, and finally reconcile with Indigenous Canadians – he did a volte-face and said he wasn’t going to be patient anymore. No, sir. The Prime Minister wanted the barricades down “now.”
That, ironically, was Andrew Scheer’s position. The soon-to-be-former Conservative leader wanted the barricades carted away “now,” too. But he stopped short of saying the police should be, you know, ordered to do so.
And, when he said what he said, the aforementioned Trudeau petulantly refused to invite Scheer to a meeting in his office with all of the other leaders of political parties. (Seriously.)
From the Liberals, then, inertia and platitudes. From the Conservatives, lots of tough-guy talk (as leadership contender Peter MacKay was, in a tweet applauding vigilante action) – but, um, not too much of it (MacKay later deleted the tweet).
From the other political leaders, much of the same. Words and contradictions. Piffle and bafflegab. But not a single, sensible suggestion about what to actually do.
An Ipsos poll suggested Canadians themselves were similarly conflicted. Said Ipsos: “As the indigenous blockade of key transportation corridors in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en Nation continues for another week, a majority of Canadians [61 per cent] say they disagree that the protestors are conducting justified and legitimate protests.”
But the other hand, said Ipsos: “Most Canadians recognize room for improvement: three quarters agree that the federal government must act now to help raise the quality of life of Canada’s aboriginal peoples, which is up 12 percentage points since 2013.”
Get that? Around six in ten Canadians say the protests are illegitimate. But around seven in ten also say Indigenous people have legitimate grievances, and deserve better.
Out of all this confusion, out of all the maddening political double-talk, one question persisted: can the police be ordered in?
Well, no. Not by the politicians, anyway.
For much of the country, the RCMP is the police force that would be called upon to shut down the barricades and arrest the protestors. And the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Act, section five, acknowledges that the commissioner of the force is indeed appointed by the relevant cabinet minister.
But then section five goes on: only the RCMP commissioner “has the control and management of the Force and all matters connected with the Force.” Not, it should be emphasized, the politicians.
Last year, during LavScam, the Conservatives seemed to understand this distinction. They seemed to accept that no politician should ever, ever order police or prosecutors to do (or not do) something. This year, they have forgotten all that, because it is politically expedient to do so.
The Liberals, meanwhile, spent much of 2018 and 2019 attempting to bend the law to suit their political purposes. In 2020, not so much. With a straight face, they now insist they cannot tell the police what to do. Which is why nothing was done for weeks.
They’re right about that much, at least. If the standoff between police and Indigenous people during the 1995 Ipperwash crisis taught us anything, it is this: permitting politicians to order around the cops can have fatal consequences. In that conflict, former Ontario Premier Mike Harris was alleged to have said to the OPP: “I want the fucking Indians out of the park.”
So, an Ontario Provincial Police sniper team was dispatched to Ipperwash. Ojibwa protestor Dudley George was then summarily shot. The OPP thereafter stopped George’s family from taking him to the hospital, and he died.
If you think Canadian police officers didn’t learn a valuable lesson from the killing of Dudley George, you’d be wrong. They carefully studied the voluminous Ipperwash Inquiry report, and have heeded what it had to say.
Twenty-five years later, as more Indigenous protests (literally) grip the nation, Canada’s police forces are the only ones in authority who have conducted themselves with anything approaching caution and consistency. They, more than anyone else, know that someone could be killed. And that, frankly, should matter more than anything else.
As the 2020 barricade crisis drags on, the cops look like adults. The politicians look like idiots.
Trust the cops.