Notes on the Occupation 5: Border blockades and survival instincts

Working out what to think about … all this … in real time.

We’re into Week Three of the Ottawa Occupation, which has now metastasized into protests blocking border crossings across the country. These blockades include, most importantly, the Windsor-Detroit crossing, which carries 25% of the value of all Canada-US trade.

The Ottawa Occupation has been shocking and dismaying. I never thought I’d see Canadian security forces and government officials cede control of a major Canadian city’s downtown – the capital, my hometown – to anyone, let alone far-right thugs, with no end in sight.

As bad as the Ottawa Occupation is, the federal and provincial governments’ leisurely reaction to the border blockades has somehow managed to be even more worrying for what it says about the capacity of Canada, at any level, to deal with any crisis.

Here, I’m talking about a matter of degree. Federal and provincial officials are treating the Windsor blockade much more seriously than the Ottawa Occupation. There’s a reason why Ontario Premier Doug Ford didn’t declare a state of emergency until Windsor happened, two full weeks into what he’s described as a “siege” in Ottawa.

Here’s the thing, though: a declaration of emergency might sound like a serious reaction to a serious problem. But I’m most struck by the slowness of it all, first the declaration (five days into the blockade) and then the enforcement (which only now, Sunday the 13th, seems to be coming to a head).

A blockade of Canada’s border crossings, especially at Windsor, represents a direct threat to the economic and political survival of Canada as a country. The Canadian economy is tightly integrated into the US economy. In 2019, the last full year of the Before Times, 74% of Canada’s total trade in goods was with the United States. That $443 billion represents about 22% of the entire Canadian economy, as measured by the Gross Domestic Product. Blockading the border, and especially Windsor, kneecaps the entire Canadian economy.

These blockades do not just put Canada’s economic survival at stake, because trade is a two-way street. We’re used to thinking of the Canada-US relation in terms of our dependence on, and vulnerability to, our giant southern neighbour. But as the political economist and lifelong student of Canada-US relations Stephen Clarkson noted in his final book, the United States depends on Canada to provide it with border security. From the US perspective, it’s our job to take care of things on our side of our shared border.

Taking care of things includes not only addressing real and perceived security threats, but also keeping our side of the continental economy running. If we fail to do this, it’s reasonable to expect that the United States would begin to put increasing, coercive pressure on our governments to do something in the short term, while working in the longer term to reduce American vulnerability to a feckless Canadian state, or to increase its influence over Canada, all in its own self-defence.

When I call these blockades a threat to Canada’s literal economic and political survival, I’m not exaggerating for effect. It’s hard to come up with a clearer threat to core Canadian national interests than these blockades.

So when I see, post-emergency announcement, that it’s taken an entire week for the Ambassador Bridge to be reopened (it’s not at the moment, but hopefully soon), it raises very, very serious questions about the basic competence of our political leaders and the ability of our political and security system to respond to the equivalent of a gun to the head of the Canadian state.

When I see that it took an injunction sought by Canadian automakers – who understand more than anyone what’s at stake – and the City of Windsor to get Windsor police to break up what was already illegal activity – I can only conclude that our provincial and federal governments are either unaware of exactly how serious this current crisis is, or are unable or unwilling to respond commensurately.

Neither alternative is encouraging.

(It’s also telling that we seem to be delegating responsibility for critical national infrastructure to municipalities.)

On effectiveness, as Charlie Angus has remarked on Twitter, we need to begin immediately a serious, Canada-wide conversation about our police forces.

I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader as to why police have taken such a light approach to an illegal occupation and a direct threat to national security. But for me the most shocking thing is that they are failing to respond in a rapid manner to direct threats to the state. The most famous definition of a state is that it is a human community with a monopoly over the use of legitimate force in a given territory. When police refuse to act in defence of the state, as in the case of the Ottawa police, it’s fair to ask, who’s in control?

It’s going to take months to catalogue all of the failures of the past three weeks. It’s going to take years to understand and deal with them.

But it’s impossible to overstate just how badly our leaders are blowing all this. As offensive as the protesters are, every society has their share of dead-enders. What matters is how governments and police forces – the state – deals with them.

I’ve been working and researching on Canada-US relations for my entire professional life, over two decades at this point. As an economist on Parliament Hill I worked on Canada-US trade issues. My Masters research project focused on the 2001 Smart Border Declaration. My dissertation explored the issue of autonomy in Canada-US-Mexican relations.

Previous governments instinctively understood that Canada-US trade, and Canada-US relations stood almost beyond politics, something that had to be treated with care. I thought the Trudeau government’s full-court press in the Trump-driven NAFTA renegotiations showed they understood that.

Then last week’s slow-roll blockade response happened. And now I’m left wondering, what the hell our governments are doing, and how we’re going to deal with the fallout.

This entry was posted in Ottawa Occupation and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.