The federal government is pushing ahead with sweeping Emergencies Act powers that could ban gatherings around legislative buildings and national monuments, even as police announce resolutions of border blockades in Alberta and Manitoba.
Federal regulations related to the act published late Tuesday say the powers could be used to “prohibit any public assembly – other than lawful advocacy, protest or dissent – near critical infrastructure that may reasonably be expected to lead to a breach of the peace.”
The regulations list airports, harbours, ports, canals, international and interprovincial bridges and hospitals as examples of critical infrastructure. The regulations also designate “protected places” that “may be secured,” including Parliament Hill and the parliamentary precinct, official residences, government buildings and war monuments.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau faced heated criticism from the Conservatives Tuesday for enacting the never-before-used legislation. The Opposition said it was not needed by police who have resolved various border protests across the country, including reopening traffic on the Windsor-Detroit Ambassador Bridge.
The Prime Minister said the new powers are needed to address cross-country disruptions, including the nearly three-week-old protest over COVID-19 measures in downtown Ottawa. Large trucks continue to block traffic on the streets near Parliament Hill and supporters frequently set off fireworks at night in an urban area scattered with gas cans for fuelling the idling vehicles.
Protesters who blocked the Coutts, Alta., border crossing left on Tuesday, while the RCMP announced that it expects demonstrators will depart a border crossing at the Emerson port of entry on Wednesday.
“We are now confident that a resolution has been reached and that demonstrators will soon be leaving the area,” the Manitoba RCMP said in a statement.
In Coutts, four Alberta men were arrested and accused of plotting to murder RCMP officers, while nine other people are facing weapons and mischief offences as part of what police say was a significant and organized threat at the border protest.
The Emergencies Act requires the government to table a detailed motion and report in both the House of Commons and the Senate outlining its planned use of the law. The motion must be introduced within seven days for a debate and vote in both chambers.
The Liberal government invoked the Emergencies Act powers Monday for the first time since Parliament adopted the law in the 1980s as a replacement for the War Measures Act.
While the government released cabinet orders outlining how some of these new powers could be used, as of late Tuesday, the government had not yet tabled the required motion and report with the full details of the emergency orders.
Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino said at a news conference Tuesday that the powers under the act could be used to prevent public gatherings in specific locations, such as where continuing protests are taking place in Ottawa to oppose COVID-19 public-health restrictions.
“Law enforcement could, for example, declare certain zones in areas that are adjacent to critical infrastructure, like borders, like our national symbols, including legislatures, like war monuments – so that people who are participating in illegal blockades, which are clearly a breach of the peace – as a no-go zone,” he said.
The Official Opposition Conservatives were initially muted in their concern following Monday’s Emergencies Act announcement. However, Conservative MPs expressed vehement opposition to the move Tuesday during the first Question Period since the government’s announcement.
Conservative MPs accused the Prime Minister of adding “oil to the fire” of continuing protests and expressed concern that because the House of Commons is not scheduled to sit next week, MPs may not get a chance to debate and vote on the measures until early March.
Interim Conservative Leader Candice Bergen said the Prime Minister stigmatizes and name-calls people who disagree with him.
“Isn’t it true that the Prime Minister’s actions could serve to actually make things worse and not make things better?” she said.
Mr. Trudeau countered that it is the Conservatives who are inflaming tensions.
“We will always defend the rights of Canadians to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression,” Mr. Trudeau replied. “But these blockades need to end and unfortunately, Conservative politicians continue to encourage the leaders of these blockades.”
Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet urged the Prime Minister to make it clear the powers will not be used in Quebec, where Premier François Legault said this week they are not needed. Mr. Trudeau said local police will decide whether or not the powers are needed.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, who has said he is prepared to support the use of the Emergencies Act, expressed concern with reports that some police and military members have expressed sympathy with the trucker convoy. He also said Indigenous and racialized people see a “double standard” with respect to how police are dealing with the current protests.
The act lays out four different reasons the government could cite for invoking the emergency powers: a public welfare emergency; a public order emergency; an international emergency; or a war emergency.
A cabinet order released Tuesday states that the government is invoking the public order emergency powers.
The order from the federal cabinet says this emergency includes “the continuing blockades by both persons and motor vehicles that is occurring at various locations throughout Canada.” It states that these blockades are having an adverse effect on the Canadian economy and on Canada’s relationship with its trading partners, including the United States.
It also expresses concern regarding the potential “for an increase in the level of unrest and violence that would further threaten the safety and security of Canadians.”
The temporary measures, according to the order, would include “measures to regulate or prohibit any public assembly – other than lawful advocacy, protest or dissent – that may reasonably be expected to lead to a breach of the peace.” The measures could also include directing individuals to deliver essential services, such as the “removal, towing and storage of any vehicle … that is part of a blockade anywhere in Canada.”
Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland said Monday that the emergency powers would include requiring crowdfunding platforms such as GoFundMe to report large transactions to the Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Centre of Canada. This is referenced in the cabinet order.
Other elements in the order include authorizing the RCMP to enforce municipal and provincial laws and “other temporary measures authorized under Section 19 of the Emergencies Act that are not yet known.”
That section is related to orders and regulations, including fines.
Sujit Choudhry, a constitutional lawyer in Toronto, said he’s not convinced the federal government has made the case that existing police powers are inadequate, especially after the Ambassador Bridge blockade in Windsor was resolved without the new powers.
“One of the conditions that has to be met is that the existing laws of Canada are not effective in addressing the situation,” he said. “I’m not satisfied they have proved that.”
The Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) said the federal government has not met the threshold. The organization said governments regularly deal with difficult situations and do so under the powers granted to them by democratically elected representatives.
“Emergency powers should be a moment where we all gasp and say, ‘What is this terrible emergency that requires our democratic leaders to say, “No, we’re not going to follow those laws? We’re going to give ourselves additional powers,”' and we should not get used to that,” said Noa Mendelsohn Aviv, executive director and general counsel at the CCLA.
Invoking the Emergencies Act requires the creation of a joint committee of MPs and senators, who will meet in secret to review the powers. The law gives the committee the power to revoke or amend emergency orders.
Canadian Chamber of Commerce president Perrin Beatty, who was the federal defence minister in 1988 when the Progressive Conservative government adopted the Emergencies Act, said in an interview that he supports Ottawa’s decision.
Mr. Beatty said it’s “sad that it has come to this,” but described the Emergencies Act as a nuanced law that protects civil liberties. As an Ottawa resident, he said he has felt captive in his own community.
“We’re going to need to look at the question of whether we need to increase security in Ottawa with it being a national capital,” he said. “I would hate to see it being necessary, just as I hated, as a former parliamentarian, to see security constantly ramped up on the Hill, but the government may feel it has to, as a result of the world that we live in becoming more dangerous.”
With reports from Michelle Carbert, Ian Bailey and Janice Dickson
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