It is hard to overstate the impact that COVID-19 has had on Canada. An unprecedented recession. Hundreds of billions of dollars of economic activity evaporated; millions of jobs temporarily lost. Nearly 36,000 Canadians have died; tens of thousands ended up in hospital. The health care system was at times overwhelmed.
The worst pandemic in a century also sparked unprecedented monetary policies from the Bank of Canada, and unprecedented deficit spending to backstop jobless Canadians and idle businesses. It shut schools. It closed borders.
It was an emergency, or rather a series of emergencies, more serious than any since the Second World War. And in its early months, many people demanded that Ottawa invoke the Emergencies Act. Yet the Trudeau government repeatedly declined to do so.
It was the right choice – and that does not in any way diminish the gravity of COVID-19. Nor does it mean Ottawa and the provinces got everything right in dealing with it. It’s just that it’s hard to see what the Emergencies Act, and its arrogation of additional powers to the feds, would have done to fix what defects of pandemic policy there were.
That revisiting of recent history does not, by itself, prove that the Trudeau government was wrong to invoke the Emergencies Act on Monday. But the contrast between the crisis of the past two years, and the crisis that prompted this week’s declaration of a state of emergency, should spark questions.
And the contrast between the two crises becomes even starker in light of recent developments.
Last weekend, when the government would have been studying the law and preparing to announce its use on Monday, there were multiple border blockades. There was also a real fear that the sight of the law not being enforced risked emboldening other prospective blockaders, sparking copycat actions that could do grave harm to the economy, and even call into question whether Canada is governed by elected governments or convoys of trucks.
But by the time the state of emergency was declared Monday afternoon, the picture had changed considerably. The most significant blockade, the one at the border in Windsor, was already gone. At the border in Coutts, Alta., a group of heavily armed men had already been arrested and the remainder of the blockaders announced they would be leaving. The Surrey, B.C., border crossing was being cleared Monday and reopened Tuesday. Also on Tuesday, the blockaders at Emerson, Man., agreed to pack up and go home.
By Thursday, when the Trudeau government finally allowed Parliament to begin several days of debate on the Emergencies Act, the erstwhile national emergency appeared considerably less national, and less emergency-ish, than a week earlier.
The only remaining blockade is the one that started it all three weeks ago: Margaritaville-on-Rideau – the parked trucks, and their partying occupants, who as of Thursday evening were still besetting Ottawa and refusing to move.
The law, and the forces of law and order, must make those people move. And the law, and the forces of law and order, must ensure that no future blockades are set up on Canadian highways, rail lines or border crossings.
But is the heavy artillery of the never-before-used Emergencies Act the way to do that?
That is what Parliament has to decide. The government has the unilateral power to trigger the law, but Parliament can revoke that decision, or limit any measures and powers derived from it. In other words, it is now in the hands of Parliament to ensure the government is not using an indiscriminate sledgehammer.
The Conservatives and Bloc Québécois say they will vote against the motion. The New Democrats support it, and have the votes to give the Liberals a majority. However, on Thursday NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said in French that, “We are ready to pull our support if we no longer need to continue, if the measures are no longer necessary, or if the government adds powers.” Good. Looking at the facts on the ground is the best way to consider which, if any, emergency powers are necessary, and how long to allow them to run for.
Reasonable people can disagree as to whether activating the Emergencies Act, and the suite of legal tools the government crafted from it, made sense seven days ago. But whatever the strength of the arguments then, improved circumstances leave them considerably weaker today.
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