Prewritten, preapproved statements by influential people or organizations offer little in terms of insight into their beliefs or positions. They are sanitized and curated by experts, tested in focus groups, and run through the process time and again to emphasize what is meant to be emphasized and downplay the rest until no meaning remains. In essence, they are pointless, banal statements that manage to say less than the sum of their parts.
Anyone living in modern society and paying attention encounters this on a regular basis. Be it a company’s mea culpa over yet another scandal or a celebrity’s non-answer deflection to a direct question regarding their behaviour. We have become accustomed to hearing much without anything being said at all.
On the other hand, comments made when one’s guard is down can speak volumes. It is in these rare moments of openness, whether they are born of nerves or a simple slip of the tongue, that allow us a closer glimpse into the mind and intentions of prominent people.
The Emergencies Act inquiry into the use of said Act to end the Canadian trucker protests offered one such glimpse into the mind of the nation’s current Prime Minister. Justin Trudeau, now well into his third term, was being questioned as to the rationale behind his use of the Act and offered the following:
“Public protests are an important part of making sure we are getting messages out there, Canadians are getting messages out there and highlighting how they feel about various issues. But using protests to demand changes to public policy is something that I think is worrisome.”
A moment after this statement, he apologetically interrupts the person he is speaking to in order to add:
“If you’re out protesting that the government is shutting down a safe injection site or something you are asking for changes in public policy. But there is a difference between occupations and saying ‘we’re not going until this is changed’ in a way that is massively disruptive and potentially dangerous versus just saying ‘we’re protesting because we want public policy to change, we’re trying to convince people to get enough of them that politicians will listen to enough people saying ‘okay, I’m going to lose votes if I don’t change this,’’ that’s the usual way protests can be effective in our democracies.”
One can argue that he forcefully added to his statement after realizing that he had inadvertently admitted to believing that protests should be toothless. So for the purposes of this analysis, we will make use of the entire statement on the matter as though it was given in its totality without pause.
Note that this was a definitive statement and that his addition was not prompted by the other party but added of his own volition. He was not pressed for time and was allowed to complete his entire statement without interruption. Finally, the Prime Minister was under oath, choosing to swear on a Bible prior to his testimony.
Many years in office and in the public eye with countless appearances likely means that one can find a corresponding statement by Trudeau on this same topic that says differently than what he stated during the Emergencies Act inquiry. That would prove only contradiction or outright lies on the part of the Prime Minister during the inquiry or elsewhere. We will have to assume that what the Prime Minister said while under oath was in fact true.
The focus of this analysis is Justin Trudeau’s views on democracy, not the use of the Emergencies Act or the results of the inquiry.
The statement begs the question of what exactly people are expected to do if they disapprove of a position or policy taken by one of their elected officials within a democracy. Supposing for a moment that a politician is unconcerned with losing votes over a stance they have taken, it renders “trying to convince people to get enough of them that politicians will listen to enough people saying ‘okay, I’m going to lose votes if I don’t change this’” moot. What is the recourse for the unsatisfied public? A politician could also be in a position of near certainty of reelection thereby making any relatively minor issue that would not cost a great deal of votes completely uninteresting to him. Fringe issues or those facing certain minority groups can safely be ignored by politicians who hold this belief.
A protest is allowed but it must be neither “massively disruptive” nor “potentially dangerous.”
What constitutes massively disruptive and merely disruptive are open to interpretation. It would seem that Trudeau’s views would allow for some form of disruption to a certain degree. This seems reasonable to distinguish between a protest and a wholesale riot as the latter cannot be allowed to destroy a city while its perpetrators are protected as protestors exercising their rights. He specifies an unclear distinction between a protest and an occupation, “But there is a difference between occupations and saying ‘we’re not going until this is changed’ in a way that is massively disruptive and potentially dangerous versus just saying ‘we’re protesting because we want public policy to change…” The differentiating factor here seems to be the level of disruption which devolves into an occupation.
Currently, there are multiple protests at Chinese embassies across the world. Many of them are ongoing and have continued without pause for years on end. Toronto has a protest taking place in front of its Chinese consulate as you read this. It has been uninterrupted for several years which easily fits the description of “we’re not going until this is changed.” At any given time there is at least one person sitting outside of the building with signage describing and decrying the numerous human rights abuses in China.
It is completely and utterly useless being successfully ignored by both the few Chinese officials inside and the Communist Party itself that likely is not even aware that the protest is taking place. This is the fate of any nondisruptive protest.
Protests are by definition disruptive in an effort to draw attention to an issue. This is a core tenant of civil disobedience which is a crucial part of a functioning and healthy democracy. It is the ability to voice one’s opinion loudly, in public, and for the purpose of altering policy that one finds unjust without fear of reprisal. Any protest that garners sufficient attention and membership can therefore be counted among the “massively disruptive” by virtue of their size alone.
Put simply, there are no forms of protest that are simultaneously non massively disruptive and standing any chance of influencing a policy.
Then there is the matter of the potential for danger. Any group of significant size poses a danger to both one another and the public at large. Crowds of concertgoers or sports enthusiasts have turned into destructive mobs on multiple occasions highlighting the inherent danger of the masses, even those gathered for otherwise innocuous purposes. So a large gathering of passionate people over a policy obviously has more potential danger than most.
When does this large gathering become an “occupation?” Is it based on numbers or time? A relatively small group can occupy a bottleneck or choke point for a long period or a large group can grind a city to a halt very quickly. The aforementioned small group protesting the Chinese consulate have been doing so for years without pause yet the potential for danger is clearly low. Large gatherings at sporting events or festivals are rarely considered potentially dangerous enough to warrant dispersal. The decision and therefore the power is in the hands of the policymakers. Often the same policymakers that are being protested. The conflict of interest and the inevitable resulting damage to a democracy is clear.
Returning to the original question, “what is the recourse for the unsatisfied public?” Using this model of protest, where they need to avoid potential disruptions and the potential for danger, there are simply no options for the public should they disagree with an elected official save attempting to vote them out in what could be many years’ time. Petitions, letter writing campaigns, and other nondisruptive forms of protest are even more easily ignored and therefore worthless. A policymaker’s word is then made uncontestable and only ever open to negotiation retroactively should his dissenters not only vote into power those who share their beliefs but also manage to table a motion to repeal or alter an existing policy. A long and often arduous process with no guarantee of success even after a change in government.
The inability to protest with the hope of affecting public policy renders a democracy about as worthwhile as a national vote with only one candidate. With this line of belief, the people cannot exercise any form of power over the incumbent leader save nondisruptive, quiet, and out of sight protests in areas where they garner neither attention nor energy.
This is, in his own words, Trudeau’s vision of a democracy: one of unlimited power for the powerful in perpetuity.