On the 50th anniversary of the War Measures Act, we don’t need a coronavirus sequel
]When then prime minister Pierre Trudeau brought in the War Measures Act in 1970, it was the first time the controversial law had been invoked during peace time. THE CANADIAN PRESS
Ordinary citizens under siege. An atmosphere of ambient anxiety. A cloud of rumours and conspiracy theories. A Trudeau government at the helm. Sound vaguely familiar?
Welcome to Québec in 1970 — on the eve of the October Crisis. Fifty years ago in Québec might seem to be another world, yet it’s also part of our present coronavirus pandemic world.
Canada’s War Measures Act came into effect just after the start of the First World War. It gave the federal cabinet sweeping powers to censor publications, jail citizens, take over and dispose of private property. Individual lives were negatively affected. More than 8,000 men, women and children — many from the Austro-Hungarian, German and Ottoman Empires — were interned.
Life behind barbed wire was, historian Kassandra Luciuk reveals, a life-threatening ordeal mainly meted out to people judged to be “enemy aliens” because they had the bad luck to be born under the rule of the wrong empire. Historian Mary Chaktsiris further reveals that across Canada, more than 80,000 men identified as enemy aliens were forced to register with authorities, report to them regularly and experienced state control over their movement.
Unions and theatre troupes targeted
Then came Section 98, added to Canada’s Criminal Code in 1919, which made it a criminal offence to belong to any association whose purpose was to bring about “governmental, industrial or economic change in Canada” through the use of advocacy of force or violence. Its terms were so broadly defined that they were applied to trade unions, discussion groups and even theatre troupes and gymnastic clubs.
But Section 98 generated more mayhem and resistance than deference, so Mackenzie King’s Liberals, keen to win support on the left, ended it in 1936. Or did they?
In fact, it lived on in spirit and in the Defence of Canada Regulations imposed under the umbrella of War Measures in 1939. This allowed the government to confiscate property, ban publications, intern inconvenient Canadian trade unionists, socialists, minorities and, most famously, more than 22,000 Japanese Canadians.
And this brings us back to October 1970. The invocation of the War Measures Act in 1970 was part of a long tradition. Prompted by two high-profile kidnappings and the assassination of Québec’s minister of labour and vice-premier, the government of Pierre Trudeau suspended civil liberties and enhanced police powers of arrest and interrogation.
Hundreds arrested in 1970
Across Canada — but most of all in Québec — hundreds were arrested, denied legal counsel and ultimately released, often without any explanation.
A policeman searches a woman in Montréal during the October Crisis in Québec in 1970. THE CANADIAN PRESS
By and large, both in Québec and the rest of Canada, people were convinced then that the state had acted appropriately to quell an insurrection by a radical cell of Québec separatists. Only with time did many question the government’s actions, with some arguing that Ottawa’s case seemed far-fetched and self-interested. To this day, the imposition of War Measures stirs bitter memories in Montréal and Québec.
Emergencies Act replaced War Measures
Such memories led to a widespread move to close the books on War Measures, and in 1988 it was succeeded by the Emergencies Act, its kinder, gentler, Charter of Rights-friendly successor. Yet, as was the case in the 1930s, what seemed the death of the old bill was in many ways resurrected under another name. The Emergencies Act similarly gives cabinet the capacity to govern without almost any parliamentary oversight.
In the peculiar atmosphere of ambient anxiety fuelled by COVID-19, we once more hear the clarion call: an emergency situation demands extraordinary powers.
At the beginning of the pandemic, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau mused about using the Emergencies Act for the first time to allow the government to, among other things, have total control over medical supplies. But the country’s premiers have since told Trudeau invoking the controversial law is unnecessary. Still, the Trudeau government has sought the right to impose taxes without prior parliamentary approval.
Thanks to vastly fortified means of surveillance via technology, the ability to regulate the lives of citizens can now be carried out on a microscopic level beyond anything imagined by Mackenzie King or Pierre Trudeau.
The Emergencies Act has a controversial legacy, one that historians have regularly critiqued and pointed out. Whether it’s the War Measures Act or Section 98, Ottawa’s top-down impositions often come at a hefty price. Canadians should remember that before granting their governments sweeping — and not easily revoked — powers.
The Wilson Institute for Canadian History — in partnership with Université Laval, McGill-Queen’s University Press and the Bulletin d’histoire politique — is hosting a conference Oct. 15-16 on the 50th anniversary of the October Crisis.
Anand doesn’t rule out using Canada Emergencies Act to help curb COVID-19 third wave
Procurement Minister Anita Anand isn't ruling out any options that could help Canada curb its third wave of COVID-19, including invoking the Canada Emergencies Act.
When asked about whether Canada would be considering the Act on Sunday, she told The West Block's Mercedes Stephenson federal cabinet would reconvene over the weekend and again early next week to "consider all options."
The Canada Emergencies Act would give the federal government the power to issue executive orders and reallocate public funds quickly following a Parliamentary review.
Canada stopped short of declaring a federal emergency during the first wave last year, but plenty of provinces have already declared public health emergencies and invoked emergency measures.
The act itself has never been used in Canada.
The now-repealed War Measures Act, which allowed the federal government to take action to ensure safety and security during national emergencies, has been invoked three times in Canada: during the First and Second World Wars, and during the October Crisis of 1970, when Front de Libération du Québec members abducted then-provincial Deputy Premier Pierre Laporte and British diplomat James Cross.
Anand's comments come at the heels of a bleak moment for Canada's pandemic response.
The country is undergoing a severe third wave driven by new, more transmissible variants of the coronavirus that are threatening to overwhelm Canada's health care systems. Many provinces are locking down after reporting record-high daily cases of the virus.
But none have been hit as hard as Ontario, where severe hospitalizations and ICU cases are skyrocketing. On Friday, the province reported a record-shattering 4,812 new cases of the virus.
A record 1,955 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 and there was an all-time high of 701 patients in intensive care units, as well as 480 patients in ICUs on a ventilator. Health officials say that number could increase to 18,000 cases per day.
On Saturday, Ontario reported another 4,362 cases of the virus. Hospitalizations increased by 110 -- another pandemic high.
Read more: How can the feds step up their coronavirus response? Experts are divided
Anand said the federal government is working to help provinces and territories "in every way we can." She said the federal government has procured multiple mobile health units for COVID-19 hotspots Toronto and Hamilton, one of which is set up at the Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto.
"That is something that we can do from the federal government perspective, is to provide these these hospitals, in essence, to help to deal with capacity issues," she said.
Anand dodged questions on whether the federal government had failed in its vaccine rollout, saying more than 12.7 million vaccine doses had been delivered to Canada. She noted that the country ranked second out of all G20 countries for the rate of vaccinations and reiterated that Canada was doing well for a country with no domestic production.
"We're doing whatever we can in an extremely competitive global environment ... with no domestic production at the current time ... to bring in as many vaccines as possible," she said.
She also stressed the importance of following public health guidelines, insisting that vaccines are just one part of ridding the country of COVID-19.
"We have to remember that vaccines are a very, very important part of addressing the pandemic," she said.
"But other measures such as social distancing, staying at home and isolating and wearing masks and reducing travel, all of that is also important in terms of addressing the pandemic."
Coronavirus: How the Emergencies Act could help Canada’s struggling economy
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Tuesday that the federal government is considering invoking the Emergencies Act to help keep the Canadian economy afloat as the novel coronavirus spreads throughout the country.
Speaking from Rideau Cottage in Ottawa, Trudeau said he has asked House Leader Pablo Rodriguez to speak with his provincial counterparts to recall the House of Commons to bring in “emergency measures.”
Trudeau said little about what those measures would specifically entail, but when asked what enacting emergency measures would do that differed from current protocol, he said the government was examining the act “to see if it will allow us to do more things that can’t be done otherwise.”
The announcement to consider emergency measures marks an upward trajectory in government response, which previously saw sweeping border closures to help flatten the curve of the virus.
What is the Emergencies Act?
The Emergencies Act received Royal Assent in 1988, replacing the War Measures Act. It was created to provide a legal framework for power to be temporarily consolidated with the prime minister and cabinet to issue executive orders during national emergencies, like COVID-19.
It has only ever been invoked three times in Canada: during the first and second World Wars, as well as during the October Crisis of 1970, when members of the Front de Libération du Québec abducted then-provincial Deputy Premier Pierre Laporte and British diplomat James Cross.
Daniel Henstra, a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation and associate professor at the University of Waterloo, said emergency measures were intended specifically for events like pandemics and wars and would have been surprised if one wasn’t declared.
“Certainly COVID-19 is exactly the type of emergency that this legislation was intended for,” he said, but added they aren’t to be taken lightly.
Invoking a federal state of emergency temporarily, said Henstra, grants a “great deal of power” to the prime minister and cabinet.
Under the Emergencies Act, officials would have the right to take over property, public utilities, provide special services and special compensation, regulate or prohibit public assembly, as well as travel anywhere to or from any specified area within the country, he said.
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