Reacting to court challenges announced on Feb. 17 to Ottawa’s declaration of a “public order” emergency, federal cabinet ministers vigorously defended the need to roll out extraordinary enforcement powers under the federal Emergencies Act which, among other things, compel financial institutions to freeze suspected “Freedom Convoy” participants’ bank accounts, enable police to commandeer tow trucks to help dismantle the big rigs blocking Ottawa’s streets and authorize police to control access to a large “red zone” they have cordoned off in the nation’s capital.
As police moved Feb. 18 in Ottawa to arrest dozens of “Freedom Convoy” demonstrators who would not voluntarily leave the area, Justice Minister David Lametti, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland, Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair, Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino and Government House Leader Mark Holland held a virtual press conference in which they disputed allegations by critics that there is not an emergency justifying the government’s decision to give police additional powers across the country, including to break up the three-week old “illegal blockades” in Ottawa.
“To those who claim that the disturbing situation across our country is not a national emergency, I encourage them to talk to their fellow Canadians who have been living through it — the residents of downtown Ottawa, people in Windsor and Winnipeg, those affected by multiple border closures,” Lametti told reporters. “My point is that these illegal blockades and occupations have been national in scope, and are still hurting Canadians.”
Lametti pointed out that in places where trucker blockades protesting government-imposed COVID-19 health restrictions were cleared, “we have already seen attempts to re-establish them. They pose an ongoing threat to our economy and to our security.”
Lametti said Canada is facing a “rapidly evolving” situation in which new blockades could emerge, requiring quick action by the authorities. “To do that we have given law enforcement the tools they need to finally end these occupations, and to make sure that any attempts to re-establish blockades — blockades that cost our economy millions of dollars — are thwarted.”
He said the threat of violence from the blockades has been evident in several places across the country, including in Coutts, Alta., where four men involved in an on-and-off blockade this month of a Canada-U.S. border crossing were charged with conspiring to murder police. “Some of those are alleged to have had much more sinister motives than simply opposing vaccine mandates,” remarked the justice minister, who is on leave from his post as a law professor at McGill University.
Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino
Mendicino, a former federal Crown whose cabinet responsibilities include the RCMP, told reporters “there is an ongoing and fluid situation” and that the feedback he has gotten from police is that the “tools that have been used under the Emergencies Act have been of great assistance.”
Mendicino said the interim chief of the Ottawa police “specifically stressed the importance and the utility of our government’s invocation of the Emergencies Act” — with powers “that allow officers to prohibit assembly and [create] so-called ‘no-go’ zones” where there have been breaches of the peace.
The public safety minister said “enforcement authorities and other partners” have also started using the financial controls authorized by the Emergency Measures Regulations “to choke off any proceeds or currencies which could be used to aid and abet the illegal blockades.”
As well, he said, “the RCMP are making full use of the delegated authorities to them to ensure that we can commandeer all of the assets, the equipment and the tools that are necessary to not only maintain the efforts to end the illegal blockades at our borders and within our communities, but equally to prevent future such” actions.
Mendicino said that “the powers are being exercised responsibly … in a manner that is proportional to the circumstances, and they’re being exercised in a manner that is consistent with the Charter.”
He also highlighted “safeguards” in the Emergencies Act, such as continuing parliamentary review, that he said will ensure respect for the ss. 7 and 8 Charter guarantees of liberty and security of the person, and to be protected against unreasonable search or seizure.
The Trudeau government will have to defend in court its Feb. 14 declaration of a public order emergency as the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) and the Canadian Constitution Foundation announced separate legal challenges this week — arguing that the stringent legal threshold under the Emergencies Act was not met.
“The government emergency declaration is unprecedented and seriously infringes the Charter rights of Canadians,” CCLA executive director and general counsel Noa Mendelsohn Aviv said in statement Feb. 17. “The government has brought in an extreme measure that should be reserved for national emergencies — a legal standard that has not been met. Emergency powers cannot and must not be normalized.”
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