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Demonstrators gather in downtown Ottawa to protest against Covid-19 vaccine mandates, on February 4, 2022. (Photo by Kadri Mohamed/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The Canadian Truckers’ Day in Court

A judge has ruled that Justin Trudeau’s trucker crackdown was illegal. Rupa Subramanya talks to the protesters his government targeted.

Back in 2022, the battle between Justin Trudeau and Canada’s truckers over vaccine mandates came to symbolize a lot more: a clash over power and freedom in the pandemic era. It’s a fascinating story that Free Press reporter Rupa Subramanya has been following from the start. Now, she brings us an update.

The Federal Court of Canada delivered a major blow to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau yesterday, ruling that his government exceeded its authority when it claimed special powers in response to the truckers’ protest in Ottawa in 2022. 

The revolt over Covid rules did not pose a threat to national security as required by the Emergencies Act, the court decided, meaning Trudeau’s government violated the Charter of Rights and Freedoms—Canada’s equivalent to the Bill of Rights. 

By invoking the Emergencies Act, Trudeau gave himself extraordinary powers, imposing draconian measures such as empowering the federal finance minister to freeze the personal bank accounts of protesters without requiring a court order. The RCMP, Canada’s equivalent of the FBI, ordered banks to freeze 257 individual accounts.

For the truckers on the receiving end of the government’s emergency powers, the decision is a long overdue win. Immediately after the court’s decision, I called Peter, a trucker I first spoke to while reporting on the protest for The Free Press in 2022. He was not comfortable sharing his full name. 

Since we last spoke, he had lost his trucking business because of the harsh vaccine mandates and only recently feels he is getting back on his feet. His brother, also a trucker who had supported the protest, had his truck impounded by the feds under the emergency powers. (It was eventually returned to him.) Peter is heartened by the federal court’s decision. “We have a voice,” he told me. “It’s a good start toward accountability.”

Chris Clarke, another trucker I first met back in 2022, told me he welcomed the ruling but doubts that things are really going to change. He believes there need to be civil lawsuits following this decision to compensate the truckers, and some accountability for Trudeau himself. 

“Going against a corrupt government is exhausting. They know they have the power and endurance to outlast their citizens and exhaust them while staying in power,” said Clarke.

Ed Cornell, a retired gunner from New Brunswick, was one of the protesters who had his account frozen in 2022.

When that happened, Cornell had no way to appeal the decision and was given no explanation by the authorities. “It was the biggest blow that you could imagine,” Cornell told The Free Press yesterday. “It made me look over my shoulder, a feeling that has never gone away. You stand up for your country for so long, and then your country betrays you.” 

Bruce Pardy, a prominent Canadian constitutional scholar, told The Free Press: “The court correctly said that the government’s invocation of the Act relied on the statutory requirement for ‘threats or use of acts of serious violence.’ And there weren’t any.”

Pardy called the decision “well-reasoned,” adding: “We still have some kind of rule of law in this country.”

Trudeau’s deputy prime minister, Chrystia Freeland, has already indicated that the government will appeal the federal court’s decision. It will next go to the Federal Court of Appeal and will almost certainly wind up in the Supreme Court. Whatever that court’s ruling, yesterday’s defeat comes at a bad time for Trudeau’s government, which is being hammered in the polls and must face an election before October next year. The Conservative Party’s charismatic leader, Pierre Poilievre, is sure to make hay of the decision by reminding Canadians that his was the only major party that opposed invoking the Emergencies Act in Parliament.

No matter how things turn out in the end, it’s clear that a line has been drawn in the sand when it comes to federal government overreach into the lives of private citizens. 

Meanwhile, Cornell says the court’s decision is a “poke in the face of our government. And it says to them that you’re not going to get away with this. The people know what you did.” 

Rupa Subramanya is a writer for The Free Press. Follow her on X, formerly Twitter, @rupasubramanya.

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