U.S., Canadian governments invoking terrorist label to quell 'threats'

Protests, misinformation among behavior being targeted, raising concerns of government overreach threatening civil liberties.

Updated: February 18, 2022 - 10:36pm

As the Canadian government targets truckers protesting the nation's COVID-19 policies with unprecedented measures that mirror antiterrorism laws, the U.S. government under the Biden administration is invoking the specter of terrorism and insurrection to crack down on forms of dissent it seeks to stigmatize as threatening.

On both sides of the border, critics fear the latest steps could trample on citizens' civil liberties, including the right to speak and assemble freely.

These concerns reached a fever pitch on Monday, when Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced he would invoke the Emergencies Act, giving him broad emergency powers to quell nonviolent protests led by the so-called Freedom Convoy truckers.

For three weeks, truckers opposing COVID-19 mandates have blocked roads in downtown Ottawa. The protest has become a rallying point for people opposed to a range of Trudeau's policies and inspired others around the world to try their own "freedom convoys."

In response, Trudeau's government claimed sweeping powers under the Emergencies Act, such as banning public assembly in certain locations.

The government also ordered banks to freeze the accounts of those involved in the convoy and cease providing financial services when the institution suspects that an account, either personal or corporate, is being used to further the blockade.

Banks and other financial service providers can now freeze an account without a court order and will be protected against civil liability, according to the Canadian government.

Trudeau said the measures will be temporary, targeted, and "are reasonable and proportionate to the threats they are meant to address."

Conservatives in Canada countered the measure is an "unprecedented sledgehammer."

Andreas Park, a professor of finance at the University of Toronto, warned the new rules may catch "a lot of normal people in the process," apparently referring to those not involved in the convoy.

"Essentially what we're doing now is deputizing the private sector to do monitoring of citizens on behalf of the government and act on the basis of suspicions without due process," she told Time.

The government order argues the Freedom Convoy's activities are "directed toward or in support" of terrorism. It also says the protest and the potential for violence is "for the purpose of achieving a political or ideological objective within Canada," a sentence that mirrors language in the criminal code concerning terrorism.

Indeed, Canadian Justice Minister David Lametti on Wednesday described the government seizure of bank accounts connected to the protest as simply "extending" the procedures used to stop "terrorist financing."

The Emergencies Act will also broaden the scope of Canada's anti-money laundering and terrorist financing rules to cover crowdfunding platforms as a way to stop funding from reaching the Freedom Convoy.

"The blockades and occupations are illegal," Trudeau said Thursday. "They're a threat to our economy, the relationship with trading partners, they're a threat to supply chains and the availability of essential goods like food and medicine. They're a threat to public safety."

The Emergencies Act requires a "national emergency" to be invoked — "something so serious that it cannot be resolved by means of any other law or combination of laws," according to Ryan Alford, a professor of law at Lakehead University in Ontario.

However, similar protests blocking U.S.-Canada border crossings ended peacefully in recent days, without any violence, leading Alford to question the legal justification for using the Emergencies Act to end the Ottawa blockade.

"Trudeau has failed to meet the requirements for invoking the Emergencies Act," Alford wrote. "His doing so is clearly unconstitutional."

Trudeau has yet to meet with the truckers — a point that's not lost on those protesting.

"If the police escalate, we're not going to escalate," Chris Dacey, who says he's been at the protest every day since it began, told Reuters. "We're not going to respond to any type of aggression ... We're here [until] the prime minister talks to us."

Canadians aren't the only ones in the crosshairs of Trudeau's government. Americans may also be targeted — specifically those who support former President Trump, according to Lametti.

"If you are a member of a pro-Trump movement who's donating," he said, "then you ought to be worried."

This isn't the only situation in which some Americans are being linked to "terrorism" for protesting policies with which they disagree.

Last fall, the National School Boards Association (NSBA) sent a letter to President Biden asking his administration to investigate threats against public school officials. In the letter, the NSBA specifically referenced parents who protested mask mandates and the teaching of critical race theory in the classroom, suggesting such actions should be classified as "domestic terrorism."

The NSBA requested that the Justice and Homeland Security departments probe and prosecute these "crimes" under "the Patriot Act in regards to domestic terrorism."

Less than a week later, Attorney General Merrick Garland sent out a memo warning that the Justice Department is "committed to using its authority and resources to discourage" the "threats" described by the NSBA, "identify them when they occur, and prosecute them when appropriate."

The memo directed the FBI to work with each U.S. attorney to convene meetings nationwide to discuss strategies for addressing these threats. Garland also mentioned his intent to launch additional efforts in the coming days which, according to the Justice Department, would "determine how federal enforcement tools can be used to prosecute these crimes."

The NSBA later apologized for the letter after receiving backlash for comparing parent protests to domestic terrorism.

However, new emails first reported earlier this week show the NSBA had advance notice of Garland's memo. The emails are the latest indication of coordination between the NSBA and the Biden administration on the former's letter and Garland's subsequent memo.

Critics said the memo meant the Justice Department was mobilizing the FBI against parents who oppose mask mandates and critical race theory at their children's schools.

When asked last year whether the FBI should use the Patriot Act to surveil parents upset about their kids' curricula at school board meetings, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki offered a non-response: "The attorney general has put out a letter. They will take actions they take, and I would point you to them for more information."

More recently, the Department of Homeland Security put out a "National Terrorism Advisory Bulletin," which discussed how "conspiracy theories," "misleading narratives," and mis- and dis-information can fuel foreign and domestic terrorism.

The bulletin cited "false or misleading narratives regarding unsubstantiated widespread election fraud and COVID-19" online as "key factors contributing to the current heightened threat environment."

On Tuesday, Sen. Marsha Blackburn sent a letter to Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas expressing concern "about the appearance of the Department of Homeland Security policing the speech, thoughts, and opinions of American citizens."

Blackburn went on to urge the department to assure the American people that it "does not consider those who disagree with this administration to be domestic terrorists."

Beyond terrorism, Americans have also expressed concern about being accused of fomenting insurrection.

Since Jan. 6 of last year, several individuals arrested for their alleged involvement in the Capitol riot have claimed the FBI, Justice Department, and federal prison officials under the Biden administration have violated their civil and constitutional rights. In total, more than 700 people have been imprisoned for Jan. 6-related crimes without a trial.

Biden, fellow Democrats, and some Republicans have frequently described those involved in the Capitol riot, supportive of Jan. 6 prisoners, or who question the results of the 2020 presidential election as insurrectionists and threats to American democracy.

According to one prominent historian, what's happening in the U.S. and Canada isn't just linked because of what both governments are doing but also because of a deeper issue they're highlighting.

"The truckers have been iconic of this fault line throughout the middle of North America," Hoover Institution fellow Victor Davis Hanson told Fox News this week. "On one side, you have these people who are muscular, and they brave the weather and are out there with COVID, and they're bringing our food and our building materials and our fuel. And they're opposed, on the other hand, by the 'Zoom Class' who's profited enormously pretty much in safety due to these truckers and people like them.

"It's really a referendum on this ongoing cultural struggle that we're having in this country against an entrenched bureaucratic elite and the corporations, Silicon Valley, the media, versus the average person that has nothing other than common sense and popular support."

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