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Rupa Subramanya: Could Trudeau’s ’emergency’ bring Canadians together — in opposition?


Ironically, the PM’s use of the Emergencies Act may do more to bring Canadians together than all of his boilerplate rhetoric on national unity to date

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OTTAWA — For the fourth time in our history, Canadians are living under emergency rule. The first two times were the two world wars, where such measures were surely justified, given the clear and present danger to the country. The third time the War Measures Act was used was in the October Crisis of 1970, under then prime minister Pierre Trudeau. Historians and scholars are divided on whether the use of wartime powers was justified in quelling the Front de libération du Québec, which left many Quebeckers feeling alienated over the overwhelming use of federal power in their province, although it should be noted that the provincial government asked for federal help.

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The fourth time is the most dubious of all. Invoking the Emergencies Act, a somewhat watered down version of the War Measures Act, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau declared an emergency on Feb. 14 in response to the ongoing trucker-led protests and civil disobedience in Ottawa. Many constitutional scholars, including those at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, have asserted that Trudeau’s emergency doesn’t meet the threshold of serious danger to Canadian national sovereignty.

Truth be told, as someone who has spent a considerable time speaking to the protesters and observing what’s been going on, the “not peaceful” protests, in Trudeau’s words, amount to a bunch of zoning, parking and noise infractions that fall under municipal law. The City of Ottawa and the province of Ontario had already declared states of emergency, and Premier Doug Ford, a few days before Trudeau’s invocation of the federal Emergencies Act, had asserted that provincial and municipal police forces had all the tools necessary at their disposal to deal with the protests.

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The fourth time is the most dubious of all

While much ink will no doubt be spilled by the legal scholars debating the constitutional merits of Trudeau’s emergency, it’s more interesting to ponder the politics behind it. The emergency was declared more than two weeks into the protests and after the Conservative leader, Erin O’Toole, had been fired by his own caucus. Under an interim leader, while they’re searching for a new permanent boss, the Tories clearly have no appetite for an early election. New Democratic Party Leader Jagmeet Singh has made clear his enthusiasm for Trudeau’s use of emergency powers, supporting them even before they were declared. There’s no profit for him in bringing down the government and going into yet another election as the TikTok leader with admittedly great dance moves but without much of an agenda beyond slogans borrowed from south of the border like “tax the rich.”

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As for the Bloc Québécois, whose support base is largely inelastic, it’s anyone’s guess whether it would win or lose from an early election call if the Trudeau government was defeated on a confidence motion over the emergency declaration. It’s noteworthy, at least, that a large proportion of the protesters here in Ottawa are from Quebec, which has seen perhaps some of the harshest restrictions, even more severe than Ontario, throughout the pandemic.

The bottom line is that Trudeau is certainly gambling, probably correctly, that there’s no appetite for all the major opposition parties to gang up on him and bring down the government. But the real debate on Trudeau’s resort to draconian emergency powers is happening on the streets of Ottawa and around dining tables around the country. The protest leaders and many folks I spoke to on the ground say that Trudeau’s use of emergency powers is illegitimate and they intend to continue invoking their Charter freedoms to assemble and protest peacefully.

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Ironically, Trudeau’s emergency may do more to bring Canadians together than all of his boilerplate rhetoric on national unity to date. Last weekend, before the emergency was declared, I warmed up by a fire pit alongside a group of protesters from both Quebec and English Canada. They engaged in the usual banter about the “two solitudes” but what was most striking was a Francophone Quebecker saying to me, as we all huddled around the fire on Wellington Street, that “if these guys there (pointing to Parliament Hill) have brought us together, they’re either doing something very right, or something very wrong.” That was when one of the Anglophones interjected, agreeing and noting that this was the first time in his experience that French Canadians had responded to him in English rather than professing not to understand the other national language, all said in a sense of good humour and camaraderie. The punch line from an older Franco-Ontarien was, “on est de fier Canadiens” (we are proud Canadians), which invited a rousing endorsement from everyone around, English and French.

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The sentiment behind this good-natured exchange stands in sharp contrast to Trudeau’s claim that Canada is the world’s “first post-national state,” implying that traditional core identities are now meaningless in a globalized world. What the truckers’ convoy and the protesters who’ve joined them tell us is that Trudeau was premature in declaring Canada’s post-national moment. Everyone I met declared themselves both proud of their cultural identity, whether English or French, Westerner or from the Maritimes, Indo-Canadian or Asian Canadian, but equally took pride in simply being Canadian. That pride was manifested in Canadian flags festooned everywhere, spontaneous outbursts of “O Canada,” protesters draped in the flag, and homage being paid at the War Memorial in Confederation Square. This is as far from Trudeau’s post-national state as one could imagine. It would be ironic if a proudly national Canadian state instead spearheaded the opposition to government overreach and the encroachment on civil liberties worldwide.

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