The B.C. Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) is joining its national counterpart in opposing the use of the Emergencies Act to end border blockades and an entrenched protest in Ottawa.
The federal Liberal government invoked the act for the first time since its creation in 1988 on Tuesday, granting police additional enforcement powers to remove blockades.
MPs are currently debating the act, and if they do not vote in favour of its use on Monday, the state of emergency will be revoked.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau kicked off debate on the matter Thursday, arguing using the act was necessary because “the situation could not be dealt with under any other law in Canada.”
Meghan McDermott, policy director with the B.C. Civil Liberties Association disputed that assertion, stating that police regularly use existing laws to disperse protests that have become dangerous or illegal.
“Protests across Canada are often met with a lot of heavy-handed police force. Police can and do crush dissent and free expression regularly in Canada,” she said.
McDermott said the BCCLA, a staunch advocate for free expression, does not condone the use of force against protests.
But she pointed to quick enforcement against the Coastal GasLink blockades in Northern British Columbia, the Fairy Creek blockades on Vancouver Island and recurring climate change protests in Vancouver as evidence police have ample powers under existing law.
In the last year, heavily-armed tactical RCMP units were used to arrest Wet’suwet’en pipeline opponents in northern B.C., Mounties arrested more than 1,000 people at the Fairy Creek protests, and Vancouver police cleared multiple bridges and intersections of environmental protests within hours of them setting up blockades.
“Just the example of people here in Vancouver protesting, there’s no problem whatsoever with the police using their powers. We don’t need to go to Ottawa and to ask for a public order and more emergency to be declared,” she said.
“It’s just overreach. It’s absolutely unnecessary. There are ample powers through common law, through statutory powers for enforcement officers to deal with a protest that’s been obstructing so many activities and been restricting other people’s freedoms for for this amount of time. It can be done outside of declaring an emergency.”
McDermott said invoking the act also sets a dangerous precedent, opening the door for its use against future protests that haven’t risen to the level of disruption or illegal activity as the demonstration that has paralyzed downtown Ottawa.
The BCCLA is calling on the federal cabinet to revoke the use of the act, and, barring that, for MPs to vote it down.
She said the group hasn’t joined a legal challenge of the act launched Thursday by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA), but supports it in principle.
In a Thursday press conference, the CCLA said it was seeking a judicial review because the Emergencies Act orders do not apply only in Ottawa and affect the rights of every Canadian.
She said the group believes the measures are clearly unconstitutional and it will be asking the courts to step in to defend the rule of law and the constitutional rights of all people across the country.
Through the Emergencies Act, new powers have been granted to freeze bank accounts of protest participants and bar people from assembling in specific places or joining protests that threaten trade, critical infrastructure, individuals or property.
It is also now illegal to bring children to within 500 metres of the blockades or provide supplies or property to participants.
Trudeau has maintained using the Emergencies Act is a measure of last resort to bring an end to the illegal and undemocratic blockades that have harmed Canadians for nearly three weeks now.
Trudeau said the act is not prohibiting lawful protest, including by those who disagree with the government’s management of the COVID-19 pandemic, but he said these blockades are illegal and partly funded by foreign nationals, and threaten Canada’s economy, its trading relationships and public safety.
— with files from the Canadian Press