The anti-vaccine mandate protests in Canada have put Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government in a bind. He had taken a hands-off approach to the large-scale demonstrations, which have all but paralyzed major arteries and city centers across the country, and average Canadians have had enough. Polls show the protests are supported by only a minority of Canadians—a large minority, but a minority nonetheless. Meanwhile, the majority was becoming impatient with Trudeau’s lethargic response to the demonstrations. Something had to be done. The pressure on Ottawa to act, however, apparently convinced Trudeau to overreact.

On Monday, the Canadian government invoked previously unused emergency powers that enables the government to clear the blockades that have functionally closed border crossing points throughout Canada. To be clear, the financial costs these disruptive protests have visited upon average Canadians are terrible, but they pale in comparison with the nation’s strategic interest in maintaining cross-border traffic. No sovereign state in the world would accept those conditions forever. But the emergency powers Trudeau invoked also allow for the suspension of civil liberties in a way that will likely deepen the very crisis the Canadian government is trying to resolve.

To compel Canadians to withdraw from the streets, Trudeau has warned that anyone who takes part in future demonstrations could face life-altering consequences. Authorities including the military are now empowered to ban public assembly and restrict travel into and out of certain areas. Police are not only authorized to seize vehicles used in blockades, but they can compel private tow-truck operators to provide their services to law-enforcement agencies. Violators will find that the insurance on their vehicle has been revoked and their corporate bank accounts frozen. Most egregiously, individuals who run afoul of the authorities over the next 30 days (assuming Parliament ratifies the move) may have their personal bank accounts frozen without a court order, denying those who have been targeted with any avenue to seek redress.

If it sounds to you like these protesters are being treated like terrorists, you’re not wrong. The law that the Trudeau government invoked is the successor to a similar emergency measure that was only implemented once—by the prime minister’s father in the 1970s following a real terrorist campaign of bombings, kidnappings, and violence in Quebec. Canadian Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland underscored this implication when she defended “broadening the scope” of legal provisions designed to thwart terrorist financing and money laundering to crowdfunding platforms and other payment service providers that support the protests. “This is about following the money,” she wrote. “This is about stopping the financing of these illegal blockades.”

If Freeland follows the money hard enough, she’ll find that it leads back to a lot of unsavory Canadians. Before an Ontario court, under pressure from the Canadian government, summarily froze the $8.2 million USD the protests raised on the platform GiveSendGo, records indicated that most of that money was raised domestically. Of that, $3.6 million were provide by U.S.-based donors, but America’s financial support accounted for most of the individual contributions. If this movement is a false front for well-heeled interests with terroristic designs, it has been cleverly disguised as an organic and banal expression of general discontent with the Trudeau government.

Nor can Ottawa claim honestly that the protests have violent intentions on a scale sufficient to justify this maneuver. All it can claim is that one branch of these protests in Alberta had potentially violent intentions, as Mounted Police arrested 11 people in possession of a cache of 13 long guns and handguns, body armor, and ammunition. The demonstrators were reportedly prepared to use force against police if the blockade was disrupted (the blockade was disrupted, and the offenders were incarcerated). Regardless of the threat this group posed, this discrete act of criminality has been expanded into a nationwide terroristic conspiracy by virtue of a prime ministerial pen stroke.

Trudeau insists this extraordinary move is not designed to curtail individual civil liberties. “We are not limiting people’s freedom of speech,” he said. “We are not limiting freedom of peaceful assembly, we are not preventing people from exercising their right to protest legally.” That is true, to a point. The government’s goal, however, is to deter individuals from engaging in unsanctioned protests by threatening their ability to navigate society. Violators face the prospect of pariah status: forced by the state to live an outcast life beyond the financial system, rendering them unable to fully participate in the economy and potentially making them unemployable.

That will surely deepen the sense of persecution that has already compelled these protesters to take to the streets. It may foment a more violent reaction if the government makes good on its threats. If you’re going to treat a subset of your population like violent insurrectionaries, you shouldn’t be surprised when they act like violent insurrectionaries.

The tragedy of it all is that none of this was necessary. The demonstrators lashing out against a vaccination mandate could drop their recalcitrance and join with the almost 90 percent of Canadians who are fully or partially vaccinated. Likewise, the Canadian government could just drop a mandate that exists to pressure a measly 10 percent of the Canadian population into a behavior pattern that does little to protect the rest of the public from Covid infection. This had become an intractable struggle over abstract principles. But the Canadian government’s actions have made those principles far less abstract. There are real consequences now for acting on beliefs that the Canadian government wants to discourage. That is a fight with potentially existential implications, and the standoff has only just begun.

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