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What Did the Parliamentary Debate Reveal or Clarify?
The debate in the House of Commons on the motion to confirm the public order emergency declared when Prime Minister Trudeau invoked the Emergencies Act on February 14 concluded on February 21. The debate spanned four marathon sessions, totaling more than 60 hours of statements and questions. Throughout, MPs dutifully filled up their allocated time slots, as well as the additional 10 minutes for questions and comments.
What did the parliamentary debate reveal or clarify as concerns the public emergency, the public emergency order, its necessity or any other related matter? What constitutes a “public order emergency” is defined in the Emergencies Act as “… an emergency that arises from threats to the security of Canada and that is so serious as to be a national emergency.”
A “national emergency” is defined as “an urgent and critical situation of a temporary nature that (a) 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 (b) seriously threatens the ability of the Government of Canada to preserve the sovereignty, security and territorial integrity of Canada, and that cannot be effectively dealt with under any other law of Canada.”
When the cabinet of the party in power believes, on reasonable grounds, that a “public order emergency” exists and necessitates the taking of special temporary measures for dealing with the emergency, it may “so declare.”
Trudeau and his Minister of Public Safety, Marco Mendicino, kicked off the debate with the Prime Minister repeating what he had been saying for days, both in and out of the House: that there was no option but to invoke the Emergencies Act and the extraordinary regulatory policing powers it let loose. “Invoking the Emergencies Act is not something we do lightly. This is not the first, second, or third option. It is the last resort,” he told the House, adding that it was important for “Parliament to play its role.” Asked repeatedly, no answer was provided as to what were the “first, second or third options” that the Liberals employed.
The only argument, if it can be called that, given by the Liberals over and over and over again throughout the debate and to the media was that the Liberal government’s decision to invoke the Emergencies Act was needed when, in the words of Prime Minister Trudeau, “It became clear that local and provincial authorities needed more tools to restore order and keep people safe” and that it was not a decision he or his government “took lightly.” He said his government wouldn’t keep the enhanced powers provided for under the Act in place “a single day longer than necessary.” “Even though things seem to be resolving very well in Ottawa, this state of emergency is not over,” he added.
In his initial remarks in the debate, Mendicino declared the Liberal aspirational aim of having “a principled debate about why it is that the government has chosen to invoke the Emergencies Act, the paramount reason being the health and safety of all Canadians.”
The role of the NDP in all of this has been to enable the government to proceed with the seizure of ever more police powers. NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh entered the debate saying the NDP reluctantly supports the invocation of the Act and he reiterated this position after the vote without ever having contributed anything concrete to discovery of what precisely it is being used for, other than giving police “more tools,” as Trudeau put it.
“We share the concern of many Canadians that the government may misuse the powers in the Emergencies Act, so I want to be very clear: We will be watching. We will withdraw our support if, at any point, we feel these powers are being misused,” Jagmeet Singh told the House of Commons at the start of the debate. During the debate, news agencies report that early on Monday, “Singh again promised his party’s ‘reluctant support’ for triggering the Emergencies Act,” saying it was not a “blank cheque.”
Even though the Act he voted for states that it cannot be in force for more than 30 days from the date it was invoked, in this case February 14, Singh said New Democrats would not support its use for that long and called on the government to provide regular updates to MPs. If the expression “grandstanding” is to have meaning, it was on full display when he said, “New Democrats are prepared to trigger a second vote if they decide that the measures provided for under the Act are no longer necessary.”
Throughout the debate, it was left to the Conservatives and the Bloc Quebecois to repeatedly reference former NDP leader Tommy Douglas’ description of the use of the War Measures Act during the FLQ Crisis as using a “sledgehammer to crack a peanut.” No MP, however, even those who should know the history well, recalled the black-ops of the RCMP leading up to that crisis, such as the planting of bombs and issuing fake communiques.
As the debate unfolded, it was clear that even the most basic repeated question such as what police powers are contained in the Emergencies Act regulations that could not be exercised under existing criminal law and police powers was provided evasive responses.
Nonetheless, during his February 21 press conference held while the debate was going on, Trudeau said there is still a threat that trucks are planning to reinitiate occupations. According to Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino, who appeared with Trudeau at the news conference, a number of people affiliated with the protests remain in the city. “We have to remain vigilant, and not only in Ottawa but at our ports of entry,” he said.
Most significantly, Trudeau told reporters that the Emergencies Act was important because it would provide the opportunity for “reflection” on what further permanent measures need to be put in place to address what has now been officially established as “ongoing threats,” – control and protection of critical infrastructure; foreign funding of opposition to the government; and “ideologically motivated extremism.”
One of the repeated issues raised during the debate involved the state of unity amongst the Canadian people. MPs attacked and counter-attacked each other for dividing the people on the basis of anti- and pro-vaxxers, supporters and opponents of vaccine mandates. The Conservatives accused the Liberals of using vaccines and vaccine mandates as a “wedge issue” in the 2021 Federal Election.
The Conservatives attacked the Liberals for unjustifiably vilifying the “Freedom Convoy,” and anyone who expressed support for an end to vaccine mandates. Interim Conservative Leader Candice Bergen attacked the Prime Minister for calling protesters “racist and misogynist.” The Prime Minister, she said, “said their views were unacceptable and that they were on the fringe. He call[ed] them and anyone who supported them or even talked with them things like Nazi supporters.” Another Conservative MP said, “The Prime Minister’s instinct, unfortunately, and we have all seen it in the House over and over, as recently as yesterday, is to divide.”
The Liberals accused the Conservatives of standing with those whom they indeed have called racist and misogynist, extremist and so on. On February 16, Trudeau said, “Conservative Party members can stand with people who wave swastikas. They can stand with people who wave the Confederate flag,” prompting the Speaker to ask him not to use inflammatory language and several Jewish Conservative MPs to demand an apology, which he never offered.
Amidst the accusations and counter-accusations, nothing whatsoever was clarified about the Emergencies Act nor what its invocation means for the Canadian polity. On the contrary, the “debate” showed once again that the so-called democratic institutions depend on a process which is quintessentially and precisely based on dividing the Canadian people.
The proceedings bore witness to complaints by former MPs about how debates are conducted. A 2010 report by the Samara Institute for Democracy entitled It’s My Party: Parliamentary Dysfunction Reconsidered quoted several former MPs on the matter. It stated: “‘[The] thing about debates is we don’t really have debates in the House of Commons’ was the frank assessment of a senior and long-tenured parliamentarian. ‘It’s a lot of reading your speeches and talking points and messages, and getting the points across,’ but no one is allowed to be persuaded. He argued, in what shouldn’t be a radical statement, ‘You should actually be able to have discussions and change your mind on issues.'”
The report quoted another former backbench MP, “If you’ve ever had the misfortune of watching a debate over a piece of legislation you know that it’s one canned speech followed by another canned speech, where Speaker B makes no attempt to address Speaker A’s point. They just read from a script with a different conclusion.”
1. A “wedge issue” is defined as “a divisive political issue” that aims to pick up votes from a narrow — but important for first-past-the-post vote counting — base of voters. In the 2015 Federal Election, the Harper Conservatives hired Australian campaign consultant Sir Lynton Crosby who is billed as “political wedge master.” One of the “wedge issues” they deployed as a trial balloon to garner votes was a proposal to have a police hotline for people to report on “barbaric cultural practices,” at a time they were raising doubts about Syrian refugees being brought to Canada.
(Renewal Update, posted February 22, 2022)