Catholic debate over implementing the Emergencies Act

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By Paul Schratz, The B.C. Catholic

From the start, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a way of dividing people, and things are no different as parliamentary debate takes place in Ottawa over the prime minister’s invoking the Emergencies Act.

As with every other issue in the past two years, Catholic observers looking at the developing situation see competing issues and struggle to weigh the arguments pro and con from various perspectives. In the case of the Emergencies Act, legal and social justice arguments are now in play.

Matthew Marquardt of Catholic Conscience says the current scenario has landed the country in a complex situation. “Once again we find ourselves at the intersection of much of Catholic social teaching.”

In the first place, a declaration of emergency is intended to be an extraordinary measure that balances individual and community rights and expectations. “Each of the players in this drama – government, protesters, the by-standing public, and voters – should be asking themselves several questions,” Marquardt said.

One question is whether the trucker blockades and associated protests constitute a public order emergency, defined under the act as a situation that “arises from threats to the security of Canada and that is so serious as to be a national emergency.”

Marquardt said the act describes threats to the security of Canada as acts like espionage or sabotage, serious violence, or attempts to overthrow the government.

“The act also specifies that the emergency must seriously endanger the lives, health, or safety of Canadians” and be so serious that no authority or law in the country is able to deal with it.

Although the prime minister has justified his actions by citing the blockades, their impact on the economy, trading relationships, and supply chain, as well as potential violence, “to date, the government has provided no specifics concerning the locations or nature of those threats,” said Marquardt.

Some principles of Catholic social doctrine should come into play to help people discern their actions, “whether as governments, private gatherings or associations, or individuals,” Marquardt said.

Principles that should govern our behaviour are: values of truth, freedom, justice, and charitable love, with charitable love being of the greatest importance; principles of the dignity of human life, the common good, subsidiarity, and solidarity; virtues of prudence, wisdom, and humility.

The Emergencies Act declaration and its resulting regulations, and the protest itself,  involve each of these values, principles, and virtues, he said. The question, then, is whether the act has been invoked in a spirit of truth and justice.

To answer the question, Catholics can consider a number of elements, such as whether the declaration is necessary. “Both the act and Catholic social teaching stress the need to avoid violence and injury” and also emphasize the “desirability of permitting peaceful and respectful protests and other expressions of dissent, as a part of democratic participation,” said Marquardt.

That means asking whether the protests have resulted in significant amounts of violence or unjustifiable inconvenience to the Canadian public, he said.

Another question is whether there is “a clear consensus among those affected by the protests that an emergency exists, or that any specific form of response is warranted.”

He said Catholics are called to bear in mind the principle of solidarity, “namely that what affects others affects me as well.”

“Have the protesters acted in a spirit of solidarity? Have those affected by the protests acknowledged an appropriate sense of solidarity? Has the government responded in a sense of solidarity, or has it acted in a divisive manner?”

Another pertinent question is whether the protests could have been averted by “frank, respectful, and open discussions, grounded in truth and a sense of the common good, of positions and proposals that fairly consider the rights and well-being of all potentially affected parties.”

Marquardt also raises the question of who should enforce any action taken. “Both the act and Catholic social teaching stress the importance of allowing provinces, municipalities, and even individuals to determine whether action is necessary, and to take appropriate steps, before invoking the federal government.”

He pointed out that at least in some cases, authorities were able to warn protesters of imminent removal and arrest, and successfully persuaded a majority of protesters to leave peacefully.

If actions are taken, he asks, “how can they be taken appropriately, in a spirit of wisdom, humility, and prudence?”

Catholic lawyer Phil Horgan appreciates the reasons for bringing in the Emergencies Act. “I fully understand the level of frustration that may exist in Ottawa and in other places” as civil authorities deal with protests that clog streets and roads and inconvenience neighbours,” he said.

But Horgan is troubled by the fact that, rather than meet with the truckers’ leadership, “the government has chosen to call them names, and appears willing to make mass arrests.”

Horgan’s chief objection to the enactment of the Emergencies Act is “it is not justified on the available evidence.” The government’s allegations involving a gun seizure in Coutts, Alta., and the potential for violence do not, he said, justify a national emergency, “which under the terms of the law requires more than that as a precondition.”

He noted two injunctions against the truckers were successfully implemented without serious trouble, while a third was only issued Tuesday – hardly the basis for deciding there is no other way to deal with the protest.

As for the massive powers being given to banks to assess the “suspiciousness” of financial transactions and seize finances without court order or liability, “all of these propositions are draconian, in my view.”

Horgan took part in a two-hour discussion about the government’s action this week as part of the First Freedoms Foundation, a not-for-profit organization for advancing freedom for all Canadians through public advocacy and litigation. Also taking part were Iain Benson, a Catholic legal scholar and lawyer from B.C. now living in Australia. Benson noted “the very long tradition of civil disobedience that we honour when it’s in relation, for instance, to the rise of the civil rights movement in the United States,” apartheid in South Africa, or the Vietnam War. “There’s a cost to civil disobedience, but the ability for it to happen is the hallmark of a free society.”

Civil disobedience also usually happens when normal democratic and communication channels have broken down, Benson said. There are established ways of addressing rights and freedoms, he said, but sometimes the judiciary or politicians won’t listen.

Canada is going to need legislative reform to prevent a recurrence of what’s now happening, Benson said. “There shouldn’t be an allowed emergency declaration unless there’s an evidentiary base for it. They have the onus to provide that up front with the declaration.”