Scrolling through my social media feed last week, I came across a clip of Pierre Elliott Trudeau being interviewed during the FLQ crisis in 1970. When CBC interviewer Tim Ralfe confronted the Prime Minister about putting troops on the streets of Quebec to deal with the threat, Trudeau shrugged and said, “Yeah, well there’s a lot of bleeding hearts around who just don’t like to see people with helmets and guns. All I can say is, go on and bleed, but it’s more important to keep law and order in this society than to be worried about weak-kneed people who don’t like the looks of a soldier’s helmet.”
The “freedom convoys” have been noisily disrupting fellow Canadians’ lives for weeks, restricting the flow of goods and services across the border and besieging our capital. Polite and patient Canadians opposing their confrontational tactics are calling for law and order to be restored. Five decades ago, the elder Trudeau was asked how far he would go to uphold the law, and his defiant response reverberates today: “Just watch me.”
All eyes are now on his son to see what he is prepared to do as Prime Minister. Ontario’s Conservative premier has declared a state of emergency in response to the blockades. In late January, polls showed Canadians opposed the protesters’ tactics by a margin of two to one, and opposition has only strengthened in the past week. If Justin Trudeau could channel some of his father’s steely resolve in the face of lawlessness, he might yet emerge strengthened from this latest crisis.
Here in B.C. the disruptions have been less severe, but the impacts are still keenly felt in provincial politics. Nothing summed up the dichotomy of B.C. politics better than when a convoy of large gas guzzling trucks, festooned with choice words for the P.M., were stopped on the Burrard bridge by a band of cyclists.
Newly elected B.C. Liberal leader Kevin Falcon has carefully avoided becoming embroiled in the controversy, treading a fine line between acknowledging the loud anger of many Liberal-leaning ridings in B.C.’s interior, with the quieter outrage at lawlessness that is building in the more progressive urban core.
Pierre Poilievre, the front runner for leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada, has no such qualms. Born to francophone parents in Calgary (where he worked for Jason Kenney when he was a federal government minister), Poilievre currently represents the Ottawa riding of Nepean-Carleton. Poilievre is a darling of the growing right-wing base of the Conservatives.
But Poilievre may have seriously miscalculated by enthusiastically supporting the protesters. An Abacus Data poll of Ottawa residents showed nine in ten wanted the protesters to leave town, and even two thirds of Conservative voters in the capital oppose the continued presence of the convoy.
As Canadians face another round of pandemic-inspired bickering, the vacuum of leadership at the federal level is becoming more problematic. Although the convoys came to Ottawa demanding Trudeau’s resignation, the only party leader to be removed was Conservative Erin O’Toole. Yet prior to O’Toole’s removal by his own caucus, polling by Nanos indicated that more Canadians would like to see Chrystia Freeland lead the Liberals than Justin Trudeau, and on the Conservative side, Poilievre was preferred over O’Toole before his ousting.
One moment in the recent convoy occupation of Ottawa was especially chilling. A group claiming they represented the truckers held a media conference and offered to meet with the CPC, the NDP, the Bloc, even the Governor General, but NOT the Liberals, about “their demands.” It may pale in comparison to a rampaging mob storming the U.S. capitol, but the audacity of those statements, and the scary assumptions underlying them, need to be confronted head on. Canadians decide things by discussion and voting, not by laying siege to a city.
When talking about lawlessness, it is fitting to leave the last word to Pierre Elliott Trudeau: “I think society must take every means at its disposal to defend itself against the emergence of a parallel power which defies the elected power in this country. So long as there is a power which is challenging the elected representative of the people, I think that power must be stopped and I think it’s only, I repeat, weak-kneed bleeding hearts who are afraid to take these measures.”
Bruce Cameron has been a pollster and strategist for over 35 years, working initially for Gallup Polls, Decima Research and the Angus Reid Group before founding his own consultancy, Return On Insight.