Canada Is Wondering What Exactly Emergencies Are

After protests are forcibly ended, questions remain about government power.

By , a Nigerian freelance journalist currently based in Canada.
People walk near Parliament Hill past the remains of a truck blockade in Ottawa, Ontario.
People walk near Parliament Hill past the remains of a truck blockade in Ottawa, Ontario.
People walk near Parliament Hill past the remains of a truck blockade in Ottawa, Ontario, on Feb. 19. Scott Olson/Getty Images

On Feb. 14, Justin Trudeau, Canada’s prime minister, invoked the Emergencies Act following waves of protests across the country against COVID-19 vaccine mandates.

Ten days later, the government said it was revoking the act because the “situation is no longer an emergency.” The Emergencies Act, which was passed as law in 1988, gives the government sweeping powers and can be used in the event of national emergencies. But Canadians are now debating whether the act goes too far—and how it should be used in the future.

Back in January, hundreds of self-described truckers drove to Ottawa, the capital city, in a convoy protesting against vaccine mandates and COVID-19 restrictions. Days later, thousands of Canadians joined, demanding the government drop the COVID-19 mandates.

On Feb. 14, Justin Trudeau, Canada’s prime minister, invoked the Emergencies Act following waves of protests across the country against COVID-19 vaccine mandates.

Ten days later, the government said it was revoking the act because the “situation is no longer an emergency.” The Emergencies Act, which was passed as law in 1988, gives the government sweeping powers and can be used in the event of national emergencies. But Canadians are now debating whether the act goes too far—and how it should be used in the future.

Back in January, hundreds of self-described truckers drove to Ottawa, the capital city, in a convoy protesting against vaccine mandates and COVID-19 restrictions. Days later, thousands of Canadians joined, demanding the government drop the COVID-19 mandates.

The protests, dubbed by the participants as the Freedom Convoy, snowballed into an occupation, with the protesters, as well as occupying streets in Ottawa, blocking access to the U.S.-Canada border crossing and disrupting commerce.

After the House of Commons passed a motion confirming the time-limited emergency powers, the government moved in on the protesters. Two weekends ago, a combined team of police from across the country started a large-scale operation to end the occupation and clear the protest grounds, which had makeshift tents and trucks. About 200 demonstrators were arrested, including key protest leaders.

This was the first time the legislation had been invoked since it was created. The original 1988 act replaced the 1914 War Measures Act, which was used on three occasions in Canadian history: World War I, World War II, and the October Crisis of 1970, when it was invoked by Pierre Trudeau, Justin Trudeau’s father, to quell a separatist movement in Quebec after a request from the provincial government. The Emergencies Act was originally intended as a reduction of the scope of the War Measures act, itself created during the panicked reaction to World War I.

The government has come under intense criticism, and the measures have drawn ire from both the Canadian right wing and conservative Americans. Conservative opposition parties said the act will only stoke anger and division and said the move was proof of Trudeau’s leadership failure to control the protests. The left-wing New Democratic Party criticized Trudeau on some points but voted in favor of the act.

Experts say invoking the law was not necessary. “We continue to express necessary concerns about the use of this legislation as well as the constitutionality of the orders that the government put in place,” said Abby Deshman, who leads the Criminal Justice Program at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. Deshman and her team have filed a lawsuit and are challenging the act in court. “Our court case is still active, and we are obviously relieved that the declaration was revoked and the orders are no longer in place.”

Deshman said a bad precedent has been set for future use of the act if the country is under national security threats. Trudeau doesn’t rue his decision in using the act against the protesters. “There will continue to be threats to Canada, to our democracy, to democracies around the world, and we cannot shy away from using tools that are necessary to maintain the safety and security of citizens,” he said.

The Emergencies Act itself is a powerful and potentially dangerous tool. The law gave the government potentially enormous powers to crush the protest, but Trudeau ruled out the possibility of deploying the military against the demonstrators and said, “It is the last resort.” That doesn’t, of course, rule it out in the future.

“The scope of these measures will be time limited, geographically targeted, and proportionate to the threats they are meant to address,” Trudeau said during the announcement. “The act will be used to strengthen and support law enforcement agencies at all levels, wherever needed across the country.”

The law, which covers four types of emergencies—public welfare, public order, international, and war emergencies—can be invoked only when a situation “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” or “seriously threatens the ability of the Government of Canada to preserve the sovereignty, security and territorial integrity of Canada” and when the situation “cannot be effectively dealt with under any other law of Canada.” That’s a set of relatively extreme circumstances—but ones also subject to plenty of interpretation.

“We don’t think the government met the legal threshold to invoke the act,” Deshman said. She told me that her group was not discontinuing its legal action against the government.

“Even though the orders are no longer in force, we think that the Canadian public needs clarity about the legal use of the emergency legislation.”

But others are in favor of the use of the act. “It was necessary to do that, and the act itself is crafted for cases when there is an emergency that the [provincial] government doesn’t have the capacity to respond to,” said Christopher Cochrane, an associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto Scarborough. “The provinces have laws to end the occupation, but the premiers did not have the will to do it.”

The government of Ontario declared a state of emergency to end the protest, but it only escalated. “There was certainly an element that the protest would have been a national security threat,” Cochrane said.

One of the most controversial dimensions to the Emergencies Act has been tracking and blocking funding of the protest organizers.

In early February, the GoFundMe platform had seized over $8 million in donations to the protest organizers for violating its terms of service and opted to refund donors. After the seizure, the organizers started another funding campaign through bitcoins and had donors from the United States and across Canada.

Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s deputy prime minister, said it is about “following the money” and “stopping the financing of these illegal blockades.”

“That was an important turning point to make people leave, when they knew that these financial tools were now available,” said Julian Campisi, assistant professor of political science at the University of Toronto Scarborough. “It was a big stick to wield.”

After the protesters have been cleared from Parliament Hill by the police, the government is still justifying invoking the legislation by insisting the protests were illegal, endangering public safety, and destroying the economy.

“What we are facing today is a threat to our democratic institutions, to our economy, and to peace, order, and good government in Canada,” Freeland said. “This is unacceptable. It cannot stand and it will not stand.”

Despite dozens of arrests, the protesters have vowed to continue pressing their demands and have started regrouping on private properties outside the city where they had been camping for more than three weeks. But the demonstrations may have achieved one of their goals—rattling the government to end the vaccine mandates. The government has announced it is lifting all COVID-19 restrictions in March.

Patrick Egwu is a Nigerian freelance journalist currently based in Canada, where he is the Gordon N. Fisher/JHR Fellowship holder for 2021-22 at Massey College .

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