Maxime Bernier, the leader of the People’s Party of Canada (PPC), was arrested last Friday after speaking at an anti-lockdown protest in St-Pierre-Jolys, Manitoba. He was arrested for violating provincial health orders, which prohibit indoor and outdoor gatherings on both public and private property and mandate 14 days of self-isolation for anyone entering the province.
The arrest was hardly a surprise. Before his trip, he received a letter from the Manitoba Department of Health informing him that attending the planned rallies would be illegal. He also received two citations at a different rally earlier that day, and the officer issuing the ticket warned him that he could be arrested if he continued attending rallies.
Undeterred, Bernier continued with his plans. Upon arriving in St-Pierre-Joly, a town of about 1,000, Bernier addressed those who had gathered to hear him speak. There were less than a dozen people in attendance. The whole event was outdoors and physically distanced.
Shortly after the protest, his truck was pulled over and he was arrested on the spot. “Do you have anything on you that’s going to hurt me?” the arresting officer asks.
“No. Nothing that will hurt you,” Bernier replies. “Only my words. Only my philosophy. Only what I believe in.”
Our Leader Maxime Bernier was wrongfully arrested this afternoon by the RCMP in St-Pierre-Jolys, Man., for attending rallies with supporters.— Maxime Bernier (@MaximeBernier) June 11, 2021
-PPC Team pic.twitter.com/sbOpu6RORn
“This isn’t about COVID anymore,” PPC spokesperson Martin Masse said in a statement following the arrest. “It’s political repression. This is the kind of stuff countries like China and Russia do.”
After being released on bail, Bernier weighed in on the events. “I knew I risked being arrested in Manitoba after the threatening letter I got from the province’s public health official and declarations from local despot Brian Pallister,” Bernier said. “But it’s still always a shock when it happens, when the police treat you like a criminal and handcuff you because you dared talking [sic] to a dozen people outdoors in a small village half an hour before.”
Rules for Thee, but Not for Me
If there’s one silver lining from this ordeal, it’s that the event has shed light on the small but passionate anti-lockdown movement in Canada. Bernier is widely regarded as a leader in this movement, and he has been travelling the country for months defending the rights of Canadians. Other notable figures in the movement include Adam Skelly, who got arrested for violating lockdown orders back in November, and Pastor Artur Pawlowski, who went viral after confronting police in his church back in April.
Underlying the resistance against the lockdowns is a simple appeal to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which is basically the Canadian version of the Bill of Rights. The Charter guarantees a number of fundamental freedoms, including “freedom of peaceful assembly” in section 2(c). It seems obvious that lockdown orders violate this fundamental freedom, but apparently most Canadian politicians either don’t realize this or, more likely, just don’t care.
With that said, not all Canadians are being denied the right to peacefully protest. In fact, at the exact same time that Bernier was being arrested, hundreds gathered in Toronto to protest Islamophobia in the wake of a hate-motivated attack in London, Ontario that killed four Muslims. The attack was indeed vile and tragic. But the double standard here is hard to miss. In fact, thousands gathered in London later that evening to show solidarity with the Muslim community. The night before, hundreds marched in Guelph with the same purpose.
But here’s the real kicker. On Tuesday, three days before Bernier was arrested, a vigil was held in London for the victims of the attack, and the attendee list was a who’s who of Canadian politics. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was there, along with Conservative leader Erin O’Toole, NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, Bloc Québécois leader Yves-François Blanchet, and Green Party leader Annamie Paul. The vigil was attended by thousands, and Ontario’s COVID-19 restrictions were temporarily eased for the event.
Ontario and Manitoba are, of course, different provinces, each with their own jurisdiction. But both of them are bound by the Charter. The right to peaceably assemble does not depend on who you are, where you are, or what you’re protesting.
Or at least, it shouldn’t.
Equality Under the Law
Though we often take it for granted that we live in a relatively free society, it’s worth remembering that this freedom is based on certain pillars. One such pillar is equality under the law, the idea that everyone should be subject to the same rules regardless of their status or political affiliation. This principle is foundational for freedom. Without it, governments can weaponize the law against political opponents or oppress particular groups. They can deny rights for some while upholding them for others.
Unfortunately, as governments interfere more and more with our lives, equality under the law becomes almost impossible to uphold. As the economist Ludwig von Mises wrote in Human Action, “there is no such thing as a just and fair method of exercising the tremendous power that interventionism puts into the hands of the legislature and the executive. In many fields of the administration of interventionist measures, favoritism simply cannot be avoided.”
The selective enforcement of gathering prohibitions is a perfect example of this point. But the solution is not to enforce these restrictions more equally. The solution is to abandon these authoritarian measures and start respecting people’s rights.
Of course, some may say that rights should be curtailed when the government decides it needs more power. But what’s the point of enumerating rights if they can just be revoked the very moment they become most necessary?