The House of Commons voted Monday to support the federal government’s unprecedented use of the Emergencies Act to deal with the so-called Freedom Convoy protests and border blockades.
The 185-151 result was not only a vote in favour of the declaration of emergency, but it became clear on Monday that it was also seen as a vote of confidence in the government, despite Prime Minister Justin Trudeau refusing to state that it was.
The final tally was a fait accompli given that the NDP had already stated it would “reluctantly” support the Liberal minority government. As expected, the Conservatives and Bloc Québécois voted against.
Following several days of marathon debates in the House, the vote Monday evening was just the first hurdle for the government. The Senate must also vote on whether to confirm the use of the act, with debate beginning Tuesday morning.
Despite ports of entry being open for trade and travel, and despite the streets of Ottawa having now been cleared of protesters after a weeks-long occupation, Trudeau continued to insist that the emergency declaration is necessary.
But he also wouldn’t provide a timeline for when it will be revoked, amid criticism and legal challenges arguing that invoking the act was an overreach by the federal government.
“We don’t want to keep it in place a single day longer than necessary,” Trudeau told reporters Monday ahead of the vote. “This state of emergency is not over.”
The Liberals have pointed to the fact that protesters remain in the vicinity of Ottawa, and the need to be “vigilant” about potential new blockades at points of entry, as reasons for keeping the declaration in place for now. They also highlighted letters of support from police associations including the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police.
The government says the Emergencies Act meant that tow truck drivers were compelled to remove vehicles that had clogged streets for weeks, and the act allowed police to establish “no-go zones” to clear protesters and led to the freezing of bank accounts related to the blockades.
The declaration of emergency was invoked by the government for the first time in history last Monday, to tackle blockades by individuals protesting COVID-19 vaccine mandates and other public health measures, among other issues.
Right-wing extremists and white nationalists were also connected to the protests, where symbols of hate including swastikas and the Confederate flag were spotted.
Police cleared the blockaders out of Ottawa on Friday and over the weekend, removing their big rigs that had disrupted the lives of local residents with honking and diesel fumes. Almost 200 arrests have been made to date.
The declaration of emergency expires at the end of 30 days, though it can be renewed, or revoked earlier.
Interim Conservative leader Candice Bergen said in a statement after the vote that invoking the act was unnecessary, and that the government already had the tools it needed to clear the blockades under current Canadian law.
The Conservatives plan to table a motion to trigger a new vote on the declaration of emergency. The act allows for such a vote if a motion with the signatures of at least 20 MPs is tabled. “We will continue to fight this power grab by the prime minister and his government,” Bergen said.
During question period on Monday, Bergen pointed out that the trucks are now gone. She pressed Trudeau on the duration of the state of emergency, asking on what date “will he end these unprecedented and invasive measures.”
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Trudeau responded that the act is providing police forces with “critical measures” and that the government “will gladly lift them” when they are no longer required.
It became apparent on Monday that the vote to support the act was also a vote of confidence in the minority government, with two Liberal MPs clearly stating in the House that it was, although Trudeau refused to confirm that when asked by reporters.
If the motion had indeed been a vote of confidence, it would have meant the government would have fallen and an election would’ve been triggered if the motion failed.
NDP and Liberal MPs were forced to vote in favour of invoking the act in order to avoid an election, argued some opposition MPs, seizing on a speech given in the House on Monday by Toronto Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith.
He said he was “not convinced” that the Emergencies Act was still required beyond Monday, but said he would vote to support it as “it is now a confidence vote.
“The disagreement I’ve expressed here does not amount to non-confidence, and I have no interest in an election at this time,” he said.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh told reporters ahead of the vote that “we’ve always recognized” that it’s a confidence vote, but said his party was voting based on what he said is an ongoing threat to Canadians’ safety.
“It would seem that the prime minister is strong-arming his backbench and the NDP to vote in his favour by threatening an election,” Conservative MP Raquel Dancho said during question period.
Quebec Liberal MP Joël Lightbound, who recently broke ranks by publicly stating the government is diving Canadians on COVID-19, also said in the House that it was a vote of confidence, and if not for that he would have voted against invoking the act.
The NDP is prepared to pull its support when it feels the act is no longer necessary and will trigger a new vote, Singh told reporters.
Needing to address the issue of funding to the convoys, especially foreign funding, and ongoing threats of new blockades are some of the reasons the NDP will continue to support the Emergencies Act for now, Singh said.
“And we want to see a commitment from this government that this type of emergency act doesn’t apply to Canadians who are rightfully and legally raising their concerns,” Singh said.
He described the convoy blockades as an unprecedented situation.
“This is a group of folks very clearly connected with the extreme right-wing,” he said. “The organizers clearly had a goal in mind of undermining democracy, and that’s something that we cannot allow to continue.”
A parliamentary committee will be struck to review how powers are exercised under the act. And the government is also required to call an inquiry into the circumstances that led to the declaration within sixty days of its expiry.
Jacques Gallant is a Toronto-based reporter covering politics for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @JacquesGallant
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