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Emergencies Act And Politics Of Nostalgia
Did the Liberals meet the threshold?
It’s the most asked question in Official Ottawa these days – the rectangle of Ottawa’s geography down Wellington from Library and Archives to the Chateau Laurier, and then down to Laurier Street – and I can’t pretend to know the answer. I do know that my former Intro to Criminology Professor (and former enemy of mine for mocking me over the Dion Phaneuf trade to Ottawa) Michael Kempa has written in the National Post that his guess is that it will be fairly marginal either way – they either just got over the threshold or just fell short – and I know for a fact he knows the legality better than I do.
What’s so interesting about this is not the exact details of it – the CSIS director recommending using the Emergencies Act helps the Government’s case, Marco Mendicino’s text from February 4th, 2022 saying that the police have the authority hurts it – but the way the media has covered it. We can start with the great number of people whose conception of these events is indelibly formed by their separation from it – the Ottawa-based media tends to have a dimmer view of the Convoyists and has been more willing to point out when they or the various police forces are talking shit. I plainly don’t think that’s a surprise, because they know it was an intolerable hell.
The reason I started this column with the term “Official Ottawa” is that Ottawa is, fundamentally two cities – it’s a government town in that stretch down Wellington, and then through the maze of government offices in the rectangle, and then outside of it it is a city unto itself. Head down Bank St far enough or east of the Rideau Centre to UOttawa or the market and you don’t feel the gravity of place anymore – you just end up feeling like you would in a mid sized American city with a prominent college or one NBA team.
The thing about that, though, is that the conception is that the Federal Government, “Official Ottawa”, and the City of Ottawa tend to get reduced down to one and the same. A city with real people in it who needed access to health care, stores, jobs, and livelihoods got reduced down to bit players in the drama that was, in many literal cases, at their doorsteps. That is in many ways a story of media failure – these protestors got a more sympathetic hearing from many in Ottawa than it deserved, because whether it was a protested co-opted by the far right or one stemming from it, it still had Nazi flags and homophobes amongst its most prominent members. The fact that the organizers wanted to do a deal with the Governor General and the Senate for a new government was also underplayed.
Why does any of this matter? Because this public inquiry is both a legal necessity and a political showtrial – and while I support it existing, to deny that latter part is real. And the lasting ideas from this are going to be simple – the city and resident of Ottawa needed this to end, and the only way out was the Emergencies Act.
And that’s the important takeaway here.
Followers of mine who have paid attention to my US work would have noticed that for once, my US analysis was actually pretty good, for one simple reason. There’s a lot of noise, amplified by social media and by people who have an interest in trying to make stories out of sideshows. Why did the GOP flop and the red wave not come? In large part, because their media ecosystem made them earnestly believe that trans women’s ability to partake in sports with cisgender women and the various other insane GOP culture war issues (real or fake) had actual cut through to the electorate.
In the same way, I overestimated the cut through the various Doug Ford scandals of the day would have with voters, and how much attention the average Ontarian was paying to the campaign against him. When the Ontario Liberals had a policy announcement that I, as someone in the top 0.1% of giving a fuck about politics, liked, I thought that people who generally share my politics would agree. The problem was, nobody was paying close attention to the detail. It’s a flaw that everyone who pays attention and talks about politics needs to be constantly vigilant towards, and here, it’s super important.
Plainly, when it comes to the politics of the Emergencies Act, the acting finding of law is a secondary matter. The NDP support the Government and said at the beginning of the inquiry that it was unlikely anything that would come out would cause them to blink on that. While Jagmeet et al haven’t said anything explicitly on the topic, I strongly suspect a Kempa-esque narrow miss would see Jagmeet give a soporific speech that says nothing but takes what feels like 12 hours to end.
The issue for opponents of the government is simple – they’re trying to make a federal case (pardon the very bad pun) out of a situation that fundamentally doesn’t affect anyone else. There is no caucus of people who deeply care about the Convoy outside of Ottawa, where no resident from Vanier to Nepean will give a single fuck what the Commission says because they just wanted fucking peace in their city again. At the end of the day, getting people worked up about issues of bad process haven’t worked against the Liberals – namely SNC, where the biggest drama was Trudeau v Jody, and which public concern ended right around the time the psychodrama about personalities settled down.
The thing is, the Conservatives tried to play politics with this – Bergen’s famous email saying she wanted to make this the “PM’s problem” – and now all they did was cause the government mild temporary pain while creating a much larger long term problem for their brand, which is still (and increasingly so!) toxic in suburban Ontario. The only way this would be reversed is if the Government was made to look like unfit authoritarians, but there’s no evidence that they were, or that the voters will think of them as such.
What really matters for the political future of the Liberal and Conservative Parties is not the specifics of the Convoy, or the fact that most of the things these protestors were mad at were actually the faults of John Horgan, Doug Ford, Francois Legault, and Jason Kenney. What matters is that the Tory Party has, by standing with the Convoy, have decided to go all in on a political strategy of nostalgia.
Will it work? I’ve made my thoughts clear, but let’s be clear about what the next election will be about. It’ll be about the economy, obviously, but to the extent that it will be a campaign about Something, it’ll be a campaign about nostalgia. The PPC’s overt platform was anti-mandates and restrictions, but the PPC represented broader discomfort with modernity. The places where they gained a lot of votes are places of isolation – rural seats and small cities far away from the main hub, but also isolated in terms of their politics.
The people who made up the Convoy, and those who supported it, fundamentally want a very different world than I do. I obviously think the world I want is better, but put aside that – it’s not a criticism, merely an observation of the bleeding obvious. The PPC surged in places where there is a groundswell of socially conservative thought, but moreso than just socially conservative thought, pangs of nostalgia for a better time. The voters who made up the Convoy were not just angry about COVID lockdowns or vaccine mandates, but a broader and greater sense that everything is going to hell in a handbasket, in large part because there’s too many people running things who shouldn’t be.
The Convoy was a reaction from an inherently reactionary movement – a movement of people who are unhappy at the fact that not only can my gay ass get married, but that people like me do not flinch in public anymore. There is a great freedom compared to even 10 years ago for women, gay people, and racial minorities to not just exist but thrive not in spite of their status in one (or more!) of those groups, but because of it. Is it enough, to people like me? No, of course not. But to many, the world is now unrecognizable, and they’re terrified.
Will they rule the Emergencies Act invocation legal? As I said, no idea. But there are two things I do know for sure – the Liberals won’t pay a political price either way, and whether it’s legal or not, the fight the Convoy represented will be the fight of this decade.