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The Emergencies Act: Setting a dangerous precedent

On February 24th, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau ended the use of the Emergencies Act, a never-before-used legislation that was in effect for 10 days. Prime Minister Trudeau first invoked the Act as what he called a “last resort” for responding to the occupation of downtown Ottawa and blockades at border crossings.

While there may be differing views about the legislation, it’s hard to deny that such measures would be unnecessary if municipal and provincial police forces had prevented the harassment and harm to others, particularly in Ottawa, and the shut-down of cross-border traffic. The complicity of police in allowing the convoy participants to have free reign allowed these actions to grow out of control.

In the coming weeks, the government is mandated to begin an inquiry into the invocation of the Act. And while the measure is no longer in force, the sweeping powers it gave governments, police, and other authorities to severely limit the actions of the so-called “Freedom Convoy” participants remain of grave concern. 

Canadians should be wary of the use of the Emergencies Act. Police have never been hesitant to contain or dismantle protests by any other group – workers, racial justice activists, unhoused people, peace activists, or Indigenous land defenders. They have done so without needing the powers of this Emergencies Act. 

Indigenous activists and land defenders have often suffered demonization, criminalization, and arrest, while union members have faced massive fines and jail terms for taking part in federal or provincial strikes – in clear contrast to the leniency afforded participants in the convoy movement.

There is little reason to believe that this kind of tolerance and controlled reaction would be the new norm for police actions when other groups protest. The casual fraternization with convoy leaders while Ottawa residents and families were suffering terrible disruption night after night, hugs given by police when the Coutts blockade was dismantled – this conduct is nothing like the Toronto G20 police behaviour that saw kettling of innocent civilians and the largest mass arrest in Canadian history.

It is astonishing that no authorities took decisive action to stop the noise pollution until after courageous Ottawa residents filed class action suits. Similarly, it took the courage of individuals to file legal action to track and contain the dirty money fueling the largest disruption of our country’s capital city in living memory.

There is shocking duplicity in leaders of conservative parties at national and provincial levels who encouraged this occupation and border blockades in the name of freedom, but who went on to condemn the Emergencies Act. They are historically the parties of “law and order,” readily urging immediate police action with minimal accountability or oversight, or applying draconian rules such as Alberta’s Critical Infrastructure Defence Act to any tactics that threaten to the profits of extractive industry.

It is important to recognize that the Emergencies Act is more limited than the War Measures Act. For example, it does not over-ride the Charter. It also automatically requires a public inquiry into the events triggering its legislation.

But using this Act for the convoy situation could nevertheless set a dangerous precedent, paving the way for a future government to justify invoking the same legislation against people acting for social, environmental, and economic justice.

In addition to the government-led inquiry in the coming months, Canadians should demand an independent, arms-length public inquiry into the convoy events, including the inaction and complicity of municipal and provincial authorities and police force. Nothing can be swept under the rug. And at all times, we must remain vigilant and demand that under this or any other legislation, the civil rights of Canadians are paramount.