So where should we stand on using the Emergencies Act?

I believe the act was invoked mainly, though not solely, for dramatic effect. Was the situation dire enough to merit so brilliant a spotlight?

Was the declaration of the Emergencies Act justified? Could the government have done what they’ve done without invoking it for the first time? .


  • This is not the War Measures Act, as Justice Minister David Lametti (who is from Montreal) carefully pointed out. When that was declared in 1970 by Pierre Trudeau, the army occupied Montreal, which came effectively under martial law. “Regardez les soldats d’Ottawa,” said the kids. Hundreds of Quebecois were jailed indefinitely without charges ever being laid. Earlier, during the world wars, Canadians of Ukrainian, Italian, and Japanese descent were herded into concentration camps under the same act. It does make you wonder why so many commentators call what’s now happening in Ottawa unheard of here.

The Emergencies Act replaced the War Measures Act (WMA). It does not permit martial law or concentrations camps. It explicitly defers to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It applies when crisis situations cannot be dealt with under normal laws and rules. If some of the reaction has been muted, it’s partly because this isn’t the WMA.

  • They could’ve done most of what they’re doing without the act. They needed it mainly for stuff like extending sentences of people who’d been legally convicted, and imposing financial penalties without running them by a judge.
  • That’s why I believe the act was invoked mainly, though not solely, for dramatic effect. I spent many years in theatre and I don’t undervalue drama. The issue is: was the situation dire enough to merit, as it were, so brilliant a spotlight?

The fact that a mob led and laced with racists, bigots and anti-democrats protested in Ottawa and elsewhere does not justify the act. We have a lengthy lineage of those forces here, despite our mythologies. They have their rights.

What’s new is that this constituency is connected to established political parties and figures who can access power, mostly Conservatives. It’s like what happened in the U.S. on Jan. 6, 2021. Trump and many Republican leaders blessed the rioters. If they’d retained control of the Capitol, Trump could’ve presented himself as a mediator to dislodge them and used that to stay president. It would have meant basic change carried out in an undemocratic way. Many coups that overthrow democracies happen with both outsider and insider support.

I consider this kind of liaising more significant than ties to the radical right. An example? Interim Opposition leader Candice Bergen threw a gratuitous swipe at Omar Khadr in debate Wednesday to let the Islamophobes outside know she was onside with them.

  • There is much room for personal disagreement on this. I tend to think the threat, here and globally, is serious and probably justifies declaring the act. Previous claimed threats, like the Red Menace during the Cold War, didn’t seem plausible to me. When Pierre Trudeau invoked the WMA, I thought he was using it as a lever to crush Quebec separatism, which he loathed. I never felt an independent Quebec was a fundamental threat to Canadian society, though it would’ve meant big changes. I still think that, but I feel more sympathetic to the dilemmas and pressures Trudeau faced.
  • I feel especially pissed when it’s claimed that these protesters represent workers. Workers have got us through COVID, going into hazardous meat-packing plants or doing deliveries. Nearly 90 per cent of truckers are vaxxed. There are surely actual workers in this protest, but those at the core tend to be nutters and ideologues. It was heartening, even inspiring, to see the protesters at Coutts, Alta. immediately disband when they learned that armed zealots were using them.
  • I asked someone who lived through the coup and military dictatorship in Argentina (1976-1983), which led to 30,000 lethal “disappearances,” if taking a stance that was potentially destructive to civil liberties there would have been justified if it had stopped the coup. Yes, she said without hesitation, but pointed out that the coup was both external and internal: the military was assisted by forces deeply established inside the political system.



is a Canadian novelist, playwright, journalist, and critic and has been writing for more than forty years. Until October 1, 2010, he wrote a regular column in The Globe and Mail; on February 11, 2011, he began a weekly column in the Toronto Star. He currently teaches a half course on Canadian media and culture in University College (CDN221) at the University of Toronto. He is a contributing editor of This Magazine. He received his Bachelor of Arts degree in Near Eastern and Jewish Studies at Brandeis University and got his Master of Arts degree in religion at Columbia University. He also studied philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York City. He was once a trade union organizer in Toronto and participated in the Artistic Woodwork strike.[