Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said this weekend that he will launch a legal challenge against the federal government’s “unnecessary and disproportionate” use of the Emergencies Act to dismantle protests against COVID-19 measures – just two weeks after the Alberta government quietly asked Ottawa for help dealing with demonstrators at the Coutts border crossing to the United States.
In a Twitter video posted Saturday, Mr. Kenney said that “invocation of the Emergencies Act is an unnecessary and disproportionate measure that can violate civil liberties, invades provincial jurisdiction and creates a very dangerous precedent for the future.” He specifically cited the removal of protesters from Coutts by Alberta RCMP officers last week as evidence that “provincial law-enforcement authorities are able to deal with illegal road blockades.”
But a letter obtained by The Globe and Mail shows that Alberta officials sought federal assistance with dislodging protesters from Coutts.
The letter, dated Feb. 5, is from Alberta Minister of Municipal Affairs Ric McIver. It is addressed to federal Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino and Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair. In it, Mr. McIver requests federal help removing nearly 70 tractor-trailers and 75 other vehicles that were blocking Alberta’s busiest border crossing.
“In order to ensure a return of free movement of people, vehicles and goods and services through this pivotal location, we are seeking federal assistance in removing obstructions from the highway,” Mr. McIver writes.
Asked Sunday if Mr. McIver’s plea for assistance contradicted the Premier’s pushback against the Emergencies Act, Mr. Kenney’s spokesperson Justin Brattinga said in an e-mail that “the Coutts situation required federal resources.”
“The use of the Emergencies Act was never something that Alberta asked for, or required,” he added.
University of Manitoba political-studies instructor Bryan Peeler said in an interview Sunday that the invocation of the Emergencies Act raises important legal questions that the courts should weigh in on.
But for Mr. Kenney, he added, “from a political point of view, it looks quite bad that a couple of [weeks] previous to this, you ask the government for help, and then you’re gonna take them to court when they offer you that help.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau invoked the never-before-used Emergencies Act last Monday as Ottawa reckoned with weeks-long blockades that clogged the streets surrounding Parliament. Other demonstrations were taking place across the country, including in Coutts.
The move faced immediate and widespread criticism. Groups including the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) have described it as overreach by the federal government, when more traditional methods could have been used to deal with the protests. MPs spent the weekend in the House of Commons debating the use of the Act.
The invocation of the Act granted banks the ability to freeze accounts of people connected with the blockades, without court orders. The Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Centre of Canada (FinTRAC) received additional powers to monitor transactions on crowdfunding platforms and cryptocurrency exchanges. The RCMP sent banks and exchanges letters last week asking them to stop allowing transactions from several dozen people allegedly involved with the protests.
After a large police mobilization over the weekend, the streets of downtown Ottawa are now mostly clear of demonstrators for the first time since late last month.
Mr. Kenney, who was a Conservative cabinet minister under Stephen Harper, has faced calls within his provincial United Conservative Party to resign over his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. He will face an early leadership review at his party’s annual general meeting in April.
“Everything between now and then is going to be difficult not to view through the lens of that leadership review,” said Feodor Snagovsky, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Alberta.
Prof. Snagovsky said that while the while the Emergencies Act usage deserves scrutiny, “the more partisan the attacks on the Emergencies Act, the more partisan that conversation is going to be. And it’s going to distract from the real questions that we need to ask about the government’s use of the Emergencies Act.”
Mr. Kenney’s spokesperson, Mr. Brattinga, suggested that the Emergencies Act “suspends civil liberties,” but Prof. Snagofsky pointed out that Charter rights are “not absolute.”
“They’re subject to such reasonable limits as can be demonstrably justified in a free democratic society,” he added. “So the rights of people in downtown Ottawa to live their lives in peace and quiet without diesel fumes and air horns also has to be considered. Just like the need to continue cross-border trade.”
Mr. Blair, the Emergency Preparedness Minister, commented on Mr. Kenney’s challenge during an appearance on CBC’s Rosemary Barton Live Sunday morning. “We helped and we responded,” he said. “What [Mr. Kenney] chooses to do thereafter is entirely up to him.”
The CCLA has issued its own federal court challenge against the invocation of the emergency legislation, arguing that there is “no nationwide public order emergency within the meaning of the Act.” And the Canadian Constitution Foundation has issued a similar challenge. Mr. Kenney said he was considering supporting both.
CTV News first reported Mr. McIver’s letter to Ottawa on Saturday.
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