War Measures


I was disturbed the other day to read that 23% of Canadians think the Prime Minister should be able to suspend Parliament in the case of an extreme national emergency. A smaller but significant number believe he should be able to suspend the Supreme Court. What was most troubling is that Canadians believe this to a greater extent than almost any other country in the world, including ones with long histories of dictatorship.

And this number is growing.

Where does this urge to authoritarianism come from in a country that publically prides itself on being open, liberal and progressive? Both conservatives and progressives in this country believe rights are paramount and democratic institutions, not merely legislatures but the courts and the public service, are critical bulwarks of freedom.

One might look to history. Canadians have not always been at the forefront of rights. We did abolish slavery earlier than our cousins (though it was actually England that passed the law) to the south but later than a number of other nations including France (temporarily) and Mexico, not to mention Haiti. We were not first off the mark granting voting rights to women either and, indeed, Quebec waited until 1944 to do so.

And we have the experience of the War Measures Act. In 1970, in the face of a kidnapping and murder — after a long campaign of bombings — by the FLQ, a home-grown terrorist organization fighting for the independence of Quebec through violent rather than democratic means, Prime Minister Trudeau invoked the War Measures Act to suspend a whole range of freedoms, allow for arbitrary arrests and detentions, limiting the role of the legislatures and courts and putting armed troops into the streets, not just in Quebec but in several larger English Canadian centres.

It worked. The FLQ members (surprisingly few) were captured, some jailed and others were allowed to go into exile in Cuba. It has taken a very long time — over 40 years — before there was another successful act of terror on Canadian soil.

Once the crisis was over, the provisions of the War Measures Act were revoked and things returned to normal in the peaceable kingdom. Which may be why some are willing to accept such draconian measures now. Perhaps those 1 in 4 Canadians believe that democracy is so ingrained in our culture that even its suspension is not a long-term threat.

But they are wrong. Democracy is a fragile flower and will quickly wilt in the face of fear, anger and trust in powerful men. I for one would rather suspend the Prime Minister and let Parliament deal with the crisis — as messy and inefficient as that might seem.

Because appearances are deceiving. And a crisis serious enough to threaten democracy should not be used as an excuse to end it.

And that’s ten minutes.


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