Canadians have lived in a “splendid, naïve sort of superiority” that domestic extremism is not an issue in the country, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s national security advisor says.
Not only is that “simply not true,” Jody Thomas told an Ottawa security conference Thursday, the issue is also “here, and it is here to stay.”
“We have a lot to unpack in this country in terms of understanding what’s going on and its impact on democracy, our institutions and our society,” Thomas said during a panel of the Ottawa Conference on Security and Defence.
“This is a problem that is not going away,” Thomas said, and it will require “significant” effort to “try and understand and resolve.”
Thomas, who moved from the Department of National Defence to the National Security and Intelligence Advisor role in January, was responding to questions about the government’s use of emergency powers to address the convoy protests that paralyzed Ottawa and blockaded border crossings in February.
Even if international border crossings — and the billions in cross-border trade that depends on them — were not blocked, Thomas said she believed the Ottawa protest was significant enough to warrant the use of the Emergencies Act.
While styled as a protest against mandatory vaccinations for cross-border truckers, protest organizers’ overriding goal — stated publicly — was to force democratically elected governments to remove all COVID-19 public health measures or be replaced.
“The people who organized -that protest, and there were several factions there, there’s no doubt (they) came to overthrow the government,” Thomas said.
“Whether their ability to do that was there, whether their intent, an understanding of how to do that was realistic is actually irrelevant to what they wanted to do.”
Thomas suggested that online “echo chambers” — where people can find whatever information source that suits their existing or desired worldview — partially fueled the events in Ottawa last month.
A strong mistrust — if not outright anger — toward mainstream media was evident among the protesters that occupied downtown for weeks, along with widespread anti-government sentiment. Conspiracy theories, including one about the World Economic Forum think tank “infiltrating” governments around the world, were referenced by some protest organizers.
“If you live in this echo chamber you believe this is true, you believe that the government is restricting your freedom in a way that probably is not quite valid or accurate,” Thomas said.
Global News’ Rachel Gilmore reported this week that some users on the online platforms used to organize the convoy protests and push their message — predominantly encrypted messaging app Telegram — have moved on to push Russian propaganda about the ongoing invasion of Ukraine.
But while Canadians’ attention has shifted away from the protests to that conflict, the protests — and the Trudeau government’s unprecedented use of emergency powers — is still to face considerable scrutiny in Parliament.
A joint committee of parliamentarians will review Trudeau’s decision to invoke the Emergencies Act, and a separate inquiry will examine the circumstances leading up to that decision.
The decision has been criticized by some national security law experts, who have argued the protests did not meet the threshold required to invoke emergency powers – or that the government has not provided sufficient evidence to support that decision.
For her part, Thomas said she believed the emergency declaration “was justified in terms of the threat that was there.”
Thomas also suggested there was a double standard at play in some Canadians’ reaction to the convoy protests.
“I also think that we apply middle-class values to things. And, you know, if there had been a religiously-motivated extremist in that group, our reaction would have been quite different,” Thomas said.
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