• RJ Smith

Dubious Precedents for Trudeau's Heavy-Handedness

Naomi Mckinney via unsplash

Emergency legislation poses grave difficulties in liberal democracies. On the one hand extraordinary situations require extraordinary measures. On the other the gravest human rights abuses occur under the auspices of such laws.

Carl Schmitt’s ‘state of exception’ doctrine—under which urgent threats justify an omnipotent executive government—allowed Hitler to consolidate absolute power in Germany in the 1930s.

The 9/11 terrorist attacks allowed George W. Bush to institute an extraordinary surveillance program and detain prisoners indefinitely without trial through the Patriot Act from 2001.

The Canadian Emergencies Act allows the Canadian government to unilaterally requisition property and impose fines and terms of imprisonment when a national emergency is declared.

The Act defines a national emergency as “an urgent and critical situation…that seriously endangers the lives, health or safety of Canadians and is of such proportions or nature as to exceed the capacity or authority of a province to deal with it.”

Notably, whether there is a critical situation that seriously endangers the safety of Canadians and which provincial authorities are ill-equipped to deal with is for the Canadian government to decide. The country’s judiciary will only intervene if the government’s view about these matters is deemed unreasonable.

This is a high bar to meet. And even if the courts were to rule against Justin Trudeau, he may already have succeeded in breaking up the protests by the time the judgment comes down, rendering the decision academic.

Courts are an essential and powerful counterbalance to political power. But liberal democracies can only function while their leaders act with restraint. Whether Mr Trudeau has done so is a political question to be answered by Canadians at the next election.

Most voters are aware that the Emergencies Act has never been invoked in its 34 years of operation. Indeed the only occasion in peacetime legislation of this kind was used in Canada was when the Prime Minister’s father—Pierre Trudeau—was in power.

The year was 1970. The Quebec Liberation Front (FLQ) had just taken the provincial Deputy Premier Pierre Laporte and a British diplomat named James Cross hostage.

Trudeau responded by deploying troops, leading to the arrest of some 500 FLQ sympathisers in what is now known as the October Crisis.

The FLQ kidnappers killed Laporte, and the Canadian public overwhelmingly supported Trudeau’s heavy-handed measures.

There is therefore historical precedent for Justin Trudeau’s actions. Whether they will have the same response as those of his father half a century ago is a different question.

Most Canadians are capable of distinguishing the actions of violent terrorists and peaceful protestors. Indeed, if 1970 proved anything, it might be that Canadians don’t like thugs. What is unclear is whom they will perceive to be guilty of thuggery in the current showdown.

The image of men, women and children draped in Canadian flags being bundled into police vehicles could backfire on the younger Trudeau, especially given the image he has cultivated during his premiership.

Since coming to power in 2015, Trudeau has apologised for just about every evil of which the Canadian government has ever been accused, from LGBT oppression to the unjust conviction of a tribal chief named Poundmaker in 1885.

Now Trudeau is arrogating extraordinary powers to himself to crush a protest comprised of ordinary Canadians making demands considered uncontroversial two years ago.

The courts may not prevent him from doing so. But Canadians may begin to wonder whether Trudeau is the wholesome figure he has hitherto presented himself as.


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