Did Canada Overreact to the Trucker Protests?

Plus: Putin’s display of strength might be an admission of weakness.

Police at protest in Canada
Andrej Ivanov / AFP / Getty

This is an edition of Up for Debate, a newsletter by Conor Friedersdorf. On Wednesdays, he rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Every Friday, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.

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Conversations of Note

Did Canada set a worrisome precedent when it used the Emergencies Act to end the trucker protests that clogged the nation’s capital and disrupted its trade with the United States? The Financial Times editorialized that invoking those emergency powers was “a step too far,” noting that they “are designed to respond to insurrection, espionage and genuine threats to the Canadian constitution rather than peaceful protest, no matter how irritating and inconvenient.”

Many critics of the move focused on the decision to freeze the financial assets of people involved with the protests. “This is the latest escalation in what some call ‘financial censorship,’ or governments colluding with or pressuring financial institutions to squash dissenters and disfavored speech,” Brad Polumbo of the Foundation for Economic Education wrote at the Washington Examiner.

The particulars are so alarming as to warrant the label “draconian,” Aaron Wudrick argued at the National Review:

The government has ordered banks to freeze assets and report personal information on the vaguest of criteria: any “designated person” for whom there are “reasonable grounds to suspect” of an offense. No minimum financial threshold is outlined, meaning that individuals whose sole connection to the protest is sending, say, $50 to an online fundraiser, could be swept up in this unprecedented crackdown. And since fundraising for the protest had raised millions of dollars before the order issued on February 14, the language of the order is ambiguous about whether the order also applies retroactively, thereby affecting those who donated to a legal protest in good faith.

That the institutions compelled to identify these accounts on the government’s behalf are shielded from liability only makes the problem worse. It incentivizes them to err on the side of aggression, and leaves no legal recourse for, say, a John Smith from Toronto who had his accounts frozen after being mistaken for another donor with the same name.

Glenn Greenwald fretted that the alleged criminality of those involved and the freezing of their assets “was not adjudicated through judicial proceedings—with all the accompanying protections of judges, juries, rules of evidence and requirements of due process—but simply by decree.” As he sees it, the same pattern has played out repeatedly in efforts to punish dissenters:

When financial services companies “choked” WikiLeaks back in 2010, they justified it by pointing to the government’s claim that the group was engaged in crimes and therefore in violation of the rules of the platforms … The same was done to 1/6 protesters who have been punished in countless ways prior to conviction. And now Canadian truckers have been magically transformed into criminals without the inconvenience of a trial.

Vladimir Putin: Savvy and Strong, or Flailing?

Former President Donald Trump has been watching events in Eastern Europe and believes, in keeping with his habit of offering praise for Russia’s leader, that Vladimir Putin’s incursion into Ukraine is a masterstroke:

I went in yesterday and there was a television screen, and I said, “This is genius.” Putin declares a big portion of the Ukraine … as independent. Oh, that’s wonderful. So, Putin is now saying, “It’s independent,” a large section of Ukraine. I said, “How smart is that?” And he’s gonna go in and be a peacekeeper. That’s the strongest peace force … We could use that on our southern border.

In contrast, Connecticut Democratic Senator Chris Murphy argues that while Vladimir Putin might appear to be demonstrating strength, he is operating from a position of “severe weakness” in a country that has chosen to distance itself from Russia. He argues,

The Ukrainian people are not going to submit. They are going to fight back. And the sanctions from the United States and the rest of the world, they’re going to be devastating, not like the relatively mild sanctions Russia has endured so far. The combination of the cost of the war and the cost of the sanctions, they’re going to threaten Putin’s hold on power. And all for what? To force Ukraine back into Russia’s orbit against Ukraine’s wishes? A nation that used to rely on Russia willingly? All of this just to achieve a pre-2013 status quo but with thousands dead and a Russian economy in ruins?

Ulrich Speck, a visiting fellow at the German Marshall Fund, offers related analysis in a Twitter thread.

And Emma Graham-Harrison offers more in The Guardian:

If Russian forces try to take new territory in Ukraine, they will face an army that is far smaller and less well equipped than their own but hardened by eight years of fighting.

Nearly a decade of war has also left Ukraine with nearly half a million combat-experienced veterans, many now preparing to fight again, officially or unofficially.

That combination, and the sheer size of Ukrainian territory, means that even if Russia can outgun Ukrainian forces on a conventional battlefield, any military clash could lead to a protracted and bloody partisan conflict.

She also warns of the possibility of Russian air strikes that target Ukrainian civilians, cyberattacks that deprive Kyiv of electricity, insufficient emergency supplies, and millions of refugees.

Ian Bond expands on what’s at stake for the West. In his telling:

Ukraine in 2022 is more important strategically and economically than Czechoslovakia was in 1938. It is Europe’s largest country after Russia. Many of its population of more than 44 million would become refugees if war broke out. Globally, it is a crucial exporter of maize and seventh for wheat, and a key supplier of agricultural produce to the EU. World food prices would rocket if Ukraine’s fields were full of tanks rather than tractors.

And Ukraine is an important transit route for Europe’s energy: when Russia’s Gazprom fills the pipelines connecting Russia to Europe via Ukraine (rather than artificially reducing the flow), they can carry about half Russia’s gas exports to Europe.

Douglas Macgregor writes in The American Conservative that to avert war the U.S. should offer concessions on Ukraine and America’s presence in Eastern Europe. “Since President George H.W. Bush left office, the expansion of NATO has been inextricably intertwined with the desire of Washington’s globalist elites to exploit Ukraine for its potential use as a dagger to be held at Moscow’s throat,” he argues. “It is now up to Washington to end this destructive process.”

Contrasting Canada and Russia

Matt Lewis objects to those who are talking as though Justin Trudeau is a bigger villain than Vladimir Putin:

Some of the most prominent voices on the right today view Vladimir Putin as a misunderstood victim. Meanwhile, they cast Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as an authoritarian strongman … Consider Fox News host Tucker Carlson, my friend (though we disagree profoundly on politics) and former boss. Carlson isn’t outraged over what is happening to Ukraine, but found time last week to bash “strongman” Trudeau as “the dictator of Canada,” while saying that “Canada canceled democracy.”

Jeff Mayhugh clarifies the flaw in Carlson’s analysis: If Canadians don’t like what Trudeau does, “they can organize and lawfully remove him from power,” whereas when Putin violates the rule of law, as he has done routinely at home and abroad, “the people have no recourse to stop his actions.”

Provocation of the Week

Sheena Mason, an assistant professor in African American literature at SUNY Oneonta, offered this argument in a Common Sense symposium on Black History Month and race in America:

There is a tendency to think that unraveling race—becoming raceless—is somehow “white.” Nonsense. Racelessness is not whiteness or ordinariness. It does not signal a lack of heritage or history or culinary or spiritual richness. Instead, racelessness signifies our transcendence of racism and the ushering in of our healing and unification.

A post-racist world should be embraced by anyone who wants to liberate themselves from the nefariousness of our belief in “race.” If we fail to do this—if we continue to conflate ethnicity, culture, and history with “race”—we will simply perpetuate the same thing many of us claim we want to end: racism.

My 2019 profile of Thomas Chatterton Williams explored similar arguments in his book Self-Portrait in Black and White.

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