Outside, it certainly looked like public order was in crisis. The trucks were still dug in on Wellington Street and blockading parts of downtown Ottawa after more than two weeks. The city’s police chief just resigned. Many Ottawa residents were more than willing to tell you this is an emergency.
But inside the House of Commons, there were important questions to ask: Does this meet the legal threshold of a Public Order Emergency required to invoke the Emergencies Act? What are the facts that make the government believe, as it said in the declaration invoking emergency powers, that the blockades are associated with threat of serious violence for an ideological purpose?
Yet those were not the questions raised in Question Period.
One might have thought this would be a momentous clash. The government had just invoked the Emergencies Act the previous afternoon, and had to face the opposition.
It’s high time that something be done about the blockades. But you would expect the opposition to demand to know the basis on which this extraordinary step had been taken. You might think the Prime Minister would make a stirring statement to justify it. You should hope the Justice Minister, David Lametti, would be forced to stand up to defend, in detail, the legal basis for this move. You might expect the opposition to grill the government about those important legalistic things because the answers have to be heard.
But Parliament didn’t live up to those expectations.
The first query, posed by interim Conservative Leader Candice Bergen, seemed promising. She wanted to know when the government was going to table the declaration of emergency before Parliament for debate, as it is required to do – and in particular, she wanted assurances that the government would not wait till Friday, just before the House breaks for a week. Maybe there would be a quest for accountability.
Mr. Trudeau wasn’t there to provide it. He dodged the question about the timing of debate and moved quickly to provide assurances that extraordinary powers would be limited. The measures will be “time limited and geographically targeted,” and will comply with the Charter of Rights, he said. “They are reasonable and proportionate to the threats they are meant to address.”
Mr. Trudeau devoted part of his answers to insisting the government was not overreaching and part of it to accusing the Conservatives of supporting the demonstrators. The Bloc Québécois wanted assurances it would not apply in Quebec. Ms. Bergen said it would make things worse, and accused Mr. Trudeau of failing to end it by ending all COVID-19 mandates and restrictions.
Two Conservative MPs suggested Mr. Trudeau would use the state of emergency to impose new COVID-19 restrictions on provinces – which, for the record, is not in the emergency order.
Somehow, there wasn’t much grilling about how the extraordinary step had been taken. It is past time for action on truck blockades, but you would expect questions about what, and how, and the law.
Earlier in the day, Mr. Trudeau’s government had issued an order in council that justified invoking the Emergencies Act because of blockades that it said were being conducted with activities that use or threaten serious violence “against persons or property, including critical infrastructure, for the purpose of achieving a political or ideological objective within Canada.”
The wording used came straight from the definition of terrorism in the CSIS Act, noted Leah West, a Carleton University professor who specializes in national security law. Was this a reference to Monday’s arrests of 13 people with a cache of guns at the now-disbanded border protests in Coutts, Alta.? Is it a threat uncovered elsewhere? Or is the government simply referring to truck blockades in Ottawa and potentially elsewhere?
Somehow, no one asked about that in Question Period. The government never felt the need to explain it. Mr. Trudeau left less than halfway through.
Perhaps the real reason for invoking the Emergencies Act is just that, so far, police have struggled to unblock border crossings and enforce the law in Ottawa for fear of violent clashes, while many Ottawa residents complained they have been abandoned.
Certainly, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh argued that police and governments have not done enough. In Question Period, he noted the Coutts arrests, and that some police and military personnel have expressed sympathy and support for “the occupation” – suggesting obliquely that perhaps authorities are on the side of the blockades, rather than residents.
But there was something else being hinted at by government ministers, and the declaration of a Public Order Emergency – an organized violent insurrection akin to terrorism that requires special powers. That’s something you would expect MPs to ask about and ministers, and the Prime Minister, to explain.
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