The House of Commons will debate through the weekend the government’s move to invoke the never-before-used Emergencies Act to deal with protests against pandemic restrictions.
The Liberals are expected to win a Monday evening vote on the contentious issue with NDP support, over the strong objections of Conservative and Bloc Québécois MPs.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau kicked off debate Thursday on his government’s decision to invoke the Emergencies Act in response to cross-country blockades, acknowledging public frustration with pandemic restrictions while declaring the continuing protests illegal and dangerous.
The federal government invoked the Emergencies Act on Monday, doing so for the first time since the law was adopted in 1988. The legislation replaced the War Measures Act, in part to ensure that the measures are compliant with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and adding parliamentary oversight powers.
“We understand that everyone is tired of this pandemic. We understand that Canadians are frustrated with COVID. Some protesters came to Ottawa to express their frustration and fatigue with public-health measures. That’s their right,” Mr. Trudeau said.
“It’s a right that we’ll defend in this free and democratic country. But illegal blockades and occupations are not peaceful protests. They have to stop.”
Mr. Trudeau said the decision to invoke the Emergencies Act was a “last resort” and a decision that was not taken lightly.
“The blockades and occupations are illegal. They’re a threat to our economy and relationship with trading partners. They’re a threat to supply chains and the availability of essential goods like food and medicine. And they’re a threat to public safety,” he said.
The debate on the floor of the temporary House of Commons in Parliament’s West Block took place as a police presence intensified outside. Large trucks are parked tightly along Wellington Street immediately south of the Parliament buildings and in front of the Prime Minister’s Office, which is on the south side of Wellington Street across from Parliament Hill.
Under the legislation, the new powers take effect immediately once invoked. However, the government is required to table a formal motion for confirmation of the declaration of emergency and other documents within seven days. The government tabled those documents on Wednesday evening.
The Canadian Civil Liberties Association announced Thursday afternoon that it will be mounting a legal challenge of the government’s move.
The NDP has said it would vote in favour of the motion, which would mean the Liberal minority government has enough votes for the measure to pass. If that were to change and the motion was defeated, the powers under the act would no longer apply.
Conservative interim leader Candice Bergen said the government’s move is both historic and extremely disappointing as she outlined why her party will oppose the motion.
She said the Prime Minister’s decision to impose COVID-19 vaccine mandates for cross-border truckers contributed to increasing tensions in the country.
“Without even a single meeting with a trucker, without talking through one of their concerns, without apologizing for his insults and listening to what people have to say, without using any other tool at his disposal, he has used this overreach, this Emergencies Act, and it’s wrong.”
Ms. Bergen said the Prime Minister is acting to “save his own political skin” and fails to consider opposing views.
“I urge all members of this House proceed with extreme caution,” she said. “No matter who we represent, we have to represent them with integrity, with hope, with honour and what the Prime Minister is doing … he has for the last two years disregarded these Canadians, called them names and insulted them. It is time to show leadership for every one of us and say no to this Emergencies Act.”
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said the convoy has “brazenly” said it wants to overthrow the government. He asked Ms. Bergen if she regrets supporting a convoy that “is attacking the fundamental democracy” of Canada and that is harassing citizens.
Ms. Bergen, in response, said her party’s position is the appropriate one.
“Obviously, nobody in this House believes that a government should be overthrown,” she said. “What I know is when history looks back on this, Conservatives will have stood up with Canadians, millions of Canadians, vaccinated Canadians, Canadians who were blue-collar workers, Canadians who were white-collar workers, Canadians who have had enough of a Prime Minister who has divided, wedged, stigmatized and traumatized them.”
Federal documents indicate that invoking the act will give police a range of new powers. This can include declaring specific locations as a prohibited area for assembly, which one minister described this week as “no-go” zones.
The documents say this could include Parliament Hill and the parliamentary precinct, as well as official residences, government buildings, war memorials and critical infrastructure such as border crossings and hospitals.
In recent days, border blockades in British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba and Ontario have all been resolved peacefully. Conservative and Bloc MPs argued Thursday that the end of those blockades shows that the new powers are not needed. Federal ministers countered that the invocation of the act, including powers to freeze the financial assets of protest supporters, contributed to the resolution of the border issues.
Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet told the House that the Quebec government does not want the emergency powers used in the province and the Bloc will vote against the measure.
“Freedom is a question of balance, balancing individual freedom and collective freedom,” he said. “Freedom is a test of leadership, and this is a test that the Prime Minister failed.”
Mr. Blanchet met with Mr. Singh to discuss the government’s move and see if they can find a mutual understanding. The NDP said after the meeting that the party’s position has not changed. The Bloc Leader noted in his speech to the House that the NDP voted against the use of the War Measures Act in 1970 and he called the updated legislation the “Botox offspring” of its controversial predecessor.
Mr. Singh began his speech by describing the current situation as a failure of leadership at various levels of government.
“People were abandoned by governments that argued over jurisdiction, rather than helping people; people were abandoned because governments did not take this convoy and its impact on people seriously; and, they were abandoned by the police, some of whom stood with the occupiers and the occupation,” he said.
“We share the concern of many Canadians that the government may misuse the powers in the Emergencies Act, so I want to be very clear: We will be watching; we will withdraw our support if, at any point, we feel these powers are being misused.”
Justice Minister David Lametti addressed the Conservative party’s criticism in the House.
“They say illegal blockades and occupations are ending. I say look outside,” he said. “They are not.”
He also noted that various protests at border points and provincial legislatures ended after the federal government announced plans to use the Emergencies Act.
“We are achieving what we intended to achieve with these measures, and we’re doing it in a most measured and responsible way.”
Yasir Naqvi, the Liberal MP for Ottawa Centre, asked opposition members how they would react if Ottawa-style protests were under way in their ridings.
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