Professor talks policing the Freedom Convoy

‘The extraction is going to be ugly and gory and messy’

Graham believes governments have had a weak response to the Freedom Convoy.
Credit: 
Supplied by The Guardian

Canada has made global news with the “Freedom Convoy” movement and its actions in Ottawa and other parts of the country. The movement is calling on governments at various levels to remove COVID-19 restrictions, particularly those related to masking and vaccine mandates. 

According to some, the convoy has besieged downtown Ottawa, causing many locals to complain about the situation and the lack of police intervention

The Journal sat down with Andrew Graham, Queen’s professor of Policy Studies, to gain insight on the convoy and how best to police it across Canada, specifically in Ontario and Alberta. 

The situation is highly volatile, and even as an expert it is hard to identify what is happening on the ground.

“The more I look at what's going on, I see a shock to all of the systems—this is a fundamental game changer,” Graham said. 

Graham said rules around negotiation are shifting, specifically with respect to the convoy’s movements near the Alberta-US border crossings. 

“The rules of the game are changing at the occupation in Ottawa, and with what's going on in Alberta, which is the active negotiation of public policy, it’s the acquiescence of a government to a group,” Graham said. 

“This is not something that's generally been part of the Canadian political discourse, even with other kinds of demonstrations.”

Graham described the convoy as an American-style social movement, but the difference is Canadian systems are responding in a weakened manner. 

“The system is responding in a limp, or strange manner [...] All it's done is to stabilize the situation. It has done nothing to resolve it,” Graham said. 

In Alberta, Graham said the active negotiations taking place are fundamentally hurting the credibility of the provincial government. 

Graham said some important lessons are being learned when it comes to negotiations and coming to resolutions with the convoy. Any negotiations are a means of enablement. 

“Once they [Freedom Convoy protestors in Alberta] got to taste the blood, they wanted more. They knew they had a weak sister in that particular government [...] it enabled them to demand more so that they are going to come back and ask for more,” Graham said.

Graham said one of the fundamental questions coming out of the Freedom Convoy protests was what the police force knew by way of intelligence before the escalations in Ottawa. 

“The intelligence that could be gathered about the intention of these people on the way to Ottawa, was just gushing out [...] They were pretty clear that what they were going to do, they were working with social media that was fairly transparent,” Graham said. 

“Ottawa saw this as essentially a drive-through demonstration [...] they made provisions, but they didn't feel the city core.”

Graham believes Toronto actively investigated channels of intelligence. 

“We want to contrast that with Toronto. In the Toronto scene, they immediately created a massive perimeter. The demonstration was less obvious and in-your-face,” Graham said.

Graham said, given the incidents in the United States with the Jan. 6 Capitol riots, an error in judgment was made by Canadian municipalities. 

“There was a fundamental error in the assumptions of the behavior of these groups,” Graham said. 

“I think the connection that you have to look at isn’t the money. It's the logistics, advice. The organizational advice that we saw manifests itself on Jan. 6, in Washington, but also right across the country in the United States.”

According to Graham, the most concerning change in right-wing groups is their increasing boldness in the way they impact public policy and discourse. 

“There's quite clearly a discipline being developed within the right wing, about how to do demonstrations [...] They're leveraging public policy in a whole bunch of different places. There's a lot going on in the states that isn't being watched in Canada,” Graham said.

Graham says a massive intervention is required and a potential need for military assistance.

“This is going to now take a massive intervention. We're going to need the military just because we need the bodies. The city and the province can ask for it. And my money is they're going to ask for a massive deployment,” Graham said. 

“I don't think anybody's going to snap their fingers. These people [in the Freedom Convoy] are deeply committed to tactics [...] the extraction is going to be ugly and gory and messy, and it's going to take all kinds of personnel.”

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