Since COVID-19 first entered the national vernacular, comparisons have been drawn between the national crisis we face today and wartime. While the claim oozes with hyperbole from the politicians who make it (we are fighting a virus and not the Nazis after all) there is some truth to it. While our national enemy has no strategy and feels no ill will towards us or our way of life it has proven itself more deadly to Canadians than even Hitler’s war machine, taking half as many lives in just one year than were lost in the entirety of the Second World War.
Wartime brings with it more than just death and carnage. In the difficult choices that must be made for the good of a country, it gives leaders a choice. They can continue being politicians, worrying about the next election and their party’s chances of securing victory, or they can seize the moment and become statesmen, doing what’s best for the people and letting politics be damned. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has chosen the former, and Canadians are paying the price with their civil liberties and their lives. But it isn’t too late. Now is the time to invoke the Emergencies Act.
It didn’t have to be this way. In a stroke of wisdom not often seen in Ottawa, parliamentarians passed the Emergencies Act in 1988, giving the federal government the power to “ensure safety and security” in the case of a national emergency. Lawmakers quite literally designed it for this moment.
In March of last year, when little was known about what we were facing, the news spread quickly that all options were on the table and Trudeau was considering invoking the Act. In what was clearly a national emergency by any measure, it made sense. A strong federally coordinated effort would be necessary to curtail the spread of COVID-19 and ensure the safety of Canadians.
Rather than rising to the occasion, Trudeau chose to cling to the hope of reclaiming a Liberal majority at the ballot box by avoiding ruffling feathers and hoping that the measures taken by the provinces and pleas to individuals would be enough to curtail the worst that COVID-19 had to throw at us. As abruptly as the pandemic began, Trudeau backtracked from such a response with Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland saying the move would be treated as a “measure of last resort.”
In comparison to our neighbors to the south, we appeared to be beating the worst of it. While Canadians were still falling ill and dying, it looked like we’d make it through. Trudeau’s poll numbers kept climbing and the Liberals made it clear they were angling for an election. Then November rolled around and with it, a deadly second wave. Trudeau, was again faced with a choice and again he chose political expediency over taking charge and saving lives.
Sending a letter to premiers, the first step required to invoke the Act, the prime minister asked for their opinions on the federal government taking the reins. But rather than the forceful language of a statesman, making the case for why it was necessary, he struck a gee-golly-shucks tone that led Ontario Premier Doug Ford to rebuff the proposal saying that the provinces were “doing very well” in their response and that he “just couldn’t see any reason for it.” Ford is eating his words now, tears and all. With Ontario in crisis and begging for federal assistance, Ford and Trudeau’s willingness to play politics with Canadian lives is precisely why the Emergencies Act is necessary today, and why parliamentarians saw the need for it in the first place.
Even in this time of darkness, there is a way out. The prime minister must take NDP leader Jagmeet Singh’s advice and put the interest of Canadians over his own. The premiers will cry federal overreach, and it will likely cost him his election, but that is the hard choice a leader must make. Trudeau must do what is best for the country and save lives, even if it comes at the expense of maintaining power. It is no less than what is demanded by the office, the people he serves, and the promise he made upon seeking to lead.
Joe Roberts is a veteran political strategist in both the US and Canada, Executive Director of the Centre for Canadian Progress, Co-Host of the political podcast New Left Radio, and Managing Director at Jewish Currents Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @Joe_Roberts01.