To Frustration of Many, Trudeau Has Moved Slowly With Canada Protests


With the turmoil in Canada only intensifying from a protest movement that has shut down the urban cores of several cities and blocked crucial highways into the United States, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has mostly sought a quiet path through the tumult.

Mr. Trudeau hinted at a harder line on Friday, announcing, “Everything is on the table because this unlawful activity has to end.” But he has so far refrained from exerting greater federal authority to end the truck blockade and protests, frustrating some Canadians impatient with the disruptions, as well as political voices on the Canadian left and in Washington.

His initial restraint may make more sense in the context of Canada’s tenuous political balance, in which Mr. Trudeau leads an unpopular minority government, and the right-wing establishment is publicly trying on an embrace of populist methods they long disdained.

By holding back, Mr. Trudeau has so far avoided turning the protests into a referendum on his leadership, which has the approval of only 42 percent of Canadians, or on his pandemic policies in general, which have also polarized voters.

Conservative leaders initially sought to champion the protests on those grounds. Some provincial leaders, who have authority over much of the police response, had strained to keep out entirely.

Allowing the protests to enter their third weekend has increased the toll on the economy and on daily life. But it has also kept the public and political focus trained on the protesters themselves.

Sure enough, as the demonstrations have grown unpopular, Conservative leaders have called on the protesters to go home, and in some provinces are even leading the effort to disperse them.

Mr. Trudeau “is polarizing in his own way,” said Lori Turnbull, a Canadian political scientist and former federal official. Had he intervened more visibly, it might have polarized debate over the protests across the pre-existing divide over his leadership.

There are other reasons for his seeming caution. Mr. Trudeau’s power to direct the police response is more limited than that of federal leaders in other countries like the United States.

And he has ruled out using the military, over which he does have authority.

Instead, Mr. Trudeau has said that his office is coordinating with city and provincial governments, which have more direct control over police agencies.

This approach has drawn criticism from some on the political left who have criticized Mr. Trudeau as abdicating responsibility.

“I have no idea how the prime minister of this country can sit back and let this happen,” Jagmeet Singh, the leader of the left-wing New Democratic Party, said Thursday, adding, “People don’t want to hear the excuse of jurisdiction.”

Some members of Mr. Singh’s party have called on government authorities to suspend the commercial driver’s licenses of truckers who participate in the protests.

The Biden administration is also urging Mr. Trudeau to use his federal powers to end the protests, which increasingly threaten American industries and are shutting off critical supplies.

Still, by depriving the right-wing Conservative Party leaders of a foil, in the form of strict federal policies they might criticize as overreach, he has forced them to defend or reject the protests on their merits.

Public impatience, however, has often focused on city and provincial leaders.

Counterprotesters in Ontario, the center of the truck blockades, repeatedly called on Doug Ford, who leads the provincial government, to intervene. Ontario is Canada’s largest province and home to Ottawa, the national capital, as well as economically crucial highways to the United States.

Mr. Ford, who leads a right-wing party in Ontario, initially shied away from publicly confronting the two-week crisis, declining to attend so-called trilateral talks among federal, provincial and local officials.

With Mr. Trudeau laying somewhat low, too, pressure only built.

On Friday, Mr. Ford bowed to that pressure, announcing a state of emergency in the province and heavy fines, and potential jail time, for protesters who blocked highways or border crossings deemed to be critical infrastructure.

Mr. Ford, pledging to reopen the U.S.-Canada border to trade, added that he believed the protesters did not represent most Ontario truckers.

“To the occupiers: please, go home,” he said.

His shift, responding to demands from his constituents rather than from the country’s left-leaning prime minister, represents an implicit but powerful rebuke of the demonstrations after weeks of speculation that Canada’s political right might embrace them.

Conservative lawmakers ousted their party leader, Erin O’Toole, this month in part over his failure to more fully embrace the protests.

But since then, Conservatives have faced backlash for their association with the protests, which prompted more opposition as they shut down cities and filled streets with Trump and QAnon flags.

Candice Bergen, the party’s interim leader, backtracked on earlier support for the protests.

“You came bringing a message,” she said in comments on Thursday directed at the demonstrators. “That message has been heard. I believe the time has come for you to take down the barricades, stop the disruptive action and come together.”

Waiting to act until now, Dr. Turnbull said, turned the issue — which began as a challenge to Mr. Trudeau’s pandemic policies and, more generally, to his leadership — into one of whether the protests had gone too far.

The Conservatives “don’t want to be on the wrong side of supply chain arguments,” she said. “They’ve seen the same polling data that everybody else has.”

Other Conservatives, though, have declined to call for an end to the demonstrations.

“I am going to stay out of telling them what to do,” Scott Moe, the head of government in conservative-leaning Saskatchewan province, said on Wednesday, calling the protesters “just tired, quite frankly, of the public health measures that are in place.”

A slight majority of Canadians have said in polls that they believed it was time for Canada to roll back pandemic restrictions. This may explain early support for the protests, though protest leaders have gone further than most Canadians, calling for an end to vaccine mandates as well.

Over time, public sympathy for the protesters has ebbed as awareness of their sometimes-extreme views has grown.

Canada does have homegrown far-right and populist right-wing movements. But the right-wing populist wave that has risen in many other Western democracies in recent years did not seem to find similar purchase in Canada.

Political scientists have emphasized one difference in particular: Canada’s mainstream right-wing parties and institutions “never unified with the right-wing populists,” said Jeffrey S. Kopstein, a Canadian political scientist at the University of California, Irvine.

The trucker protests have put pressure on this separation, tempting Conservative leaders, who have struggled politically in the past year, to at least think about embracing a populist wing that they have normally kept at arms’ length.

But Mr. Trudeau and his party may yet bear a cost, too.

The prime minister’s relative restraint risks setting the precedent that when “a bunch of people jam the city and did a bunch of damage,” Dr. Turnbull warned, the federal government will “basically try to ignore it until it affects the supply chain and makes the U.S. government angry.”

However politically shrewd this might be, she added, “He’s not going to come out of this a hero.”





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