On Sunday, the Quebec government ordered the province’s cathedrals of commerce – also known as shopping malls – to shut down. The edict followed last week’s imperative obliging all places of religious worship to lock their doors.
Yet Prime Minister Justin Trudeau suggested today at his regular news conference in Ottawa that Canadians might not have seen anything yet when it comes to such draconian measures to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.
Subject to a conference call with the premiers and territorial leaders, Trudeau said, the federal government could temporarily upend Canada’s constitutional order by invoking the federal Emergencies Act in short order.
“One of the key elements of the Emergencies Act is that it is an override on the provinces,” he said. “It takes powers that are normally only in the hands of provinces or even municipalities and puts them at the federal level. We will certainly be talking about the Act at the Premier's meeting this evening to make sure we all understand what tools each different order of government has and where we might need to do more.”
It must be said the Prime Minister looked like a man reluctant to go there. This was no “just watch me” moment. There was no imitating the bravado of his father, Pierre Elliott Trudeau during the 1970 October Crisis. There was none of the “bring the hammer down” rhetoric that even found its way into a recent Globe and Mail column by esteemed health writer André Picard.
The PM did give a peeved-Papa “get to your room” tongue-lashing to miscreants who’ve been photographed defying the clear intention of the social distancing measures that have been in place since the novel coronavirus began flinging its way around the globe in late January. But his scolding tone quickly gave way to a note of eagerness in his voice at the positive measures his government has taken to roll out an $82 billion anti-COVID economic package, which was further topped up today with a $5 billion aid fund for Canadian farmers.
None of which should leave us in any doubt about his willingness to use federal law to force Canadian compliance with Ottawa’s best guess on how to corral and control COVID-19. He is, after all, a Trudeau who has publicly voiced his approval at least for the Chinese government’s ability to things done. If he needs to play political authoritarian cards to maintain Canada’s economic, social and public health order, expect him to lay them down like a Royal Flush.
As he put it bluntly today: “Nothing that could help is off the table.”
Nor should there be from the perspective of democratic politics. Reasonable voices at both the elite and Dull Normal level, backed by expert epidemiological and public health consensus, want whatever’s necessary done to get this infernal pandemic out of our lives. No less an establishment icon than Goldy Hyder, CEO of the Business Council of Canada, has said publicly it’s time Canadians were “told not asked” to do the right coronavirus thing.
The rationale the Prime Minister outlined again today coloured within the lines of such calls.
“If you choose to get together with people or go to crowded places, you're not just putting yourself at risk. You're putting others at risk. Your elderly relative who's in a senior's home. Your friend with a pre-existing condition. Our nurses and doctors on the front lines. Our workers stocking shelves at a grocery store. They need you to make the right choices. They need you to do your part,” Trudeau said.
Then he added this: “We've all seen the pictures online of people who seem to think they're invincible. While you're not. Enough is enough. Go home and stay home.”
Certainly, as a pressing-need justification, that’s difficult to refute. True, some believe the raw numbers of infections and deaths don’t correlate to current levels of fear. But both the speed of the spread and the rise of the body count prove something real and menacing has us at its mercy. The risk from hapless half-measures far outstrips the immediate danger of full-on attack.
It’s the point where the attack begins to pay off, however, that we need to already be thinking about. It’s the point when temporary measures of social distancing need to be balanced with precautions against long-term social conditioning. The coronavirus has unquestionably unleashed an alarming threat to our collective physical well-being. We must start working now to prevent it mutating into a political disease that exhausts our capacity to sustain the traditional freedoms of liberal democratic society.
Elements are already coming into place around us that risk erasing our ability to recognize, never mind recollect, our basic liberties. They are not the work of some mysterious, string-pulling evil cabal. They’re an entirely unintended effect of good people under enormous pressure trying to do the optimal thing through use of powers we have granted them.
The great weakness of power, however, is its incapacity to limit itself. When power marches forward, its last step invariably justifies the next step. A key requirement of consolidating those steps is forgetfulness.
What? That Prime Minister Trudeau will “forget” to revoke the Emergencies Act? Of course not. That Quebec Premier François Legault will “forget” to allow churches, mall, parks and so on to re-open? Obviously: no. Rather, that we will forget, over time, what full liberty felt like on the other side of those measures. That we will be conditioned by them to accept they are a normal part of our condition.
Democracy’s genius is its function as mechanism for periodically resetting the steps taken by the powerful. Liberty can be collectively re-balanced and individually renewed. What happens when the reset button fails or, far worse, when we forget it’s even available to be used?
An answer can be found at the airport. When you last took a flight, whether short haul or to the Antipodes, you might have been moderately miffed at the security lineups or embarrassed when your undies popped out of your bag during a random search. But did it occur to you that the degree of search and seizure to which you were subjected, as a matter of course without right of protest, would have been confined within living memory to prisons and other high-security institutions? Almost certainly not.
Why? Because we collectively made our peace years ago with being undressed, scanned, searched and possibly interrogated as the trade-off for travel in the era of the war against terror. Is the war against terror still raging? I don’t know. Do you? The one thing we do know without fail is those security measures aren’t going anywhere no matter how much they infringe our basic freedom of movement. We’ve resigned ourselves to them. Far worse, we’ve forgotten there was a time they weren’t a normal condition of airports. We’ve forgotten how we lived when liberty was fully alive among us.
Such an outcome in the face of COVID-19 would be the worst collective effect of the sophomoric acts of rebellion against calls for responsible social distancing and self-isolation. Even restored to bodily health, we would be democratically soul sick, amnesiacs oblivious to the spirit of liberal freedom that was once our birthright.
So, such scofflaws need to be brought to their senses sooner, not later. But we mustn’t stop with convincing them to avoid pushing the powers that be into taking a fateful next step. We must begin thinking about how we protect our traditional freedoms as well as our transient physicality.
As it happens, I recently interviewed my colleague Milton Friesen, director of Cardus’ Social Cities project, and Anna Farrow, executive director of the English Speaking Catholic Council in Montreal. They had planned a conference on social isolation that – get this – was called off because of social distancing. But they have engaging ideas on an approach to be taken in the months and years ahead. They’ll be the subject of my next column.