By John Redekop
Social media is rife with assertions that invoking the Emergencies Act made Canada a dictatorship.
Is that true?
The unequivocal answer is a resounding “no.” The critics fail to differentiate between what is permitted and what is done, between possibility and actuality.
A dictatorial government governs for its own benefit, unhindered by any commitment to political ethics or the common good. That situation differs fundamentally from limited authoritarian actions by a democracy, in war-time or peace-time, to preserve democracy itself. This does not mean, however, that all of the short-term authoritarian actions are justified. The point to be stressed is that short-term deviations from democratic practices and values does not make the country a dictatorship.
Reports can be misleading. Consider the Soviet Union. Both the 1936 Stalin Constitution and its 1977 revision, proclaim freedom “of speech,of the press, and of assembly, … street processions and demonstrations” and much more.
Both guarantee “the right to profess or not to profess any religion, and to conduct religious worship.” On paper the USSR was a democratic utopia.
The reality, of course, contradicted these proclamations. There was no freedom of the press, of religion, or in politics. The critics who assert that because of the wording of the Emergencies Act, Canada is now a dictatorship must, if they are consistent, also assert that because of the wording in the Soviet constitution, the USSR was a freedom-loving democracy.
Turn to the United Kingdom. In this paragon of liberty and freedom there are, in fact, no fundamental restrictions on what the national government can do. The United Kingdom has no written constitution. Legally, the British parliament can enact any dictatorial law. Thus the UK has much greater legislative scope to govern in a totalitarian manner, and without any time limit, than Ottawa has under the Emergencies Act. Does the UK not have a Bill of Rights? Yes, indeed, but it is only a parliamentary statute which any parliament can set aside. The UK, of course, is in no danger of becoming a dictatorship. Its governments have chosen to act democratically. They have chosen to be guided and constrained by judicial decisions, political “conventions,” and, most importantly, their own consciences and values. It is the decency of the rulers, not any written words, that make the UK a model democracy.
Turning to Canada we see that if any national or provincial government should want to act dictatorially, it can do so at any time without invoking the Emergencies Act. Article 33 of the 1982 constitution states that “Parliament or the legislature of any province may expressly declare in an Act of Parliament or of the legislature, as the case may be, that the Act or a provision thereof shall operate notwithstanding” that it is otherwise unconstitutional. Several provinces have actually exercised this amazing grant of power but generally not in an unfair manner.
Virtually every democracy grants short- or long-term dictatorial power to its governments to preserve democracy when threatened. Neither such provision nor the exercise of such power makes the country a dictatorship.
Invoking the Emergencies Act by the Liberal government may not have been warranted, but the Trudeau government has thus far acted with restraint. To date it has ordered towing companies to remove vehicles, lifted licences, frozen some bank accounts, and blocked assorted financial transactions. Other actions may follow.
Perhaps the indignant critics who insist that Canada has become a dictatorship because of what the Emergencies Act enables government to do, should instead be grateful for the fact that when such exceptional powers have been utilized by the Canadian Parliament during the First World War, the Second World War, and in 1970, the overall results, despite some truly regrettable and tragic failures including the mistreatment of Japanese-Canadians, have helped preserve this amazing democracy.
John H. Redekop, Ph.D, is a professor emeritus in political science at Wilfrid Laurier University. He lives in Abbotsford.
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