From Trump to Trudeau: A Dangerous Precedent in the Use of Emergency Powers

By: Daniel Mantzoor

April 6, 2022

On February 14, 2022, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau invoked The Emergencies Act, a last-ditch attempt to quash protests of the Canadian government’s controversial COVID-19 policies. Specifically, the action arose in response to the so-called “Freedom Convoy,” a group of Canadian truckers demanding an end to the nation’s vaccine mandate on truckers traveling across the U.S.-Canada border. Protestors took to the capital in Ottawa, blockading streets and continuously honking their horns. The declaration marks the first time The Act has been invoked since it became law in 1988. Trudeau justified his actions by noting the challenges law enforcement were facing to effectively enforce the law. “We cannot and will not allow illegal and dangerous activities to continue,” he asserted in an address to the nation. He did, however, maintain that the government’s powers were temporary, geographically limited, and would not curtail the freedom of Canadians.  

Trudeau’s declaration granted unpreceded powers to the Canadian federal government. Law enforcement were permitted to regulate public assembly and seize vehicles used in the blockades. Particularly concerning, tow-truck operators, who were largely reluctant to assist law enforcement, could be forced to remove trucks and other vehicles from Canadian roads. Additionally, the Act allowed authorities to target private financial institutions, regulating the use of funds relating to the protests. Indeed, the government did just that – over 200 financial accounts were summarily frozen. The Canadian Civil Liberties Association called the invocation “unnecessary, unjustifiable and unconstitutional” and said it “threatens our democracy and civil liberties.” Fortunately, the order was revoked in just 10 days. “The situation is no longer an emergency,” Trudeau said, assuaging concerns of a more protracted conflict. Even so, Trudeau’s action signifies yet another instance of dangerous executive overreach.

On February 15 of 2019, President Donald Trump declared a national emergency on the border with Mexico. After failing to secure border wall funding from Congress, he took matters into his own hands. The declaration allowed Trump to divert billions in funds appropriated to the U.S. Department of the Defense towards building a southern border wall. In a joint statement, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senator Chuck Statement called the measure a “power grab by a disappointed president, who has gone outside the bounds of the law to try to get what he failed to achieve in the constitutional legislative process.” To many, the President’s action was a transparent attempt to circumvent the legislature and please his base. It was difficult to argue – even by Trump’s fiercest defenders – that this measure was not at least, in part, motivated by the president’s trademarked promise to “build a wall.” The Court, nonetheless, upheld the declaration, overturning a lower court injunction temporarily blocking the transfer of funds. President Joe Biden, upon entering office, ultimately terminated the declaration and halted construction of the wall.

Despite representing distinctly opposite sides of the political aisle, Trudeau and Trump have exhibited an eerily similar penchant for executive fiat in the face of political difficulty. Indeed, the obstacles faced by both men were not the same, nor did they, necessarily, warrant the same level of concern. Depending on who you’re asking, Trump’s concerns were wholly unjustified, while Trudeau’s were significant and commendable. Regardless of one’s opinion on the matter, neither of these debacles rise to the level of a true emergency – such as, for instance, the COVID-19 pandemic, which has, at the time of writing, claimed the lives of over 6 million individuals worldwide. Emergency orders like these cheapen the significance of actual crises, further diminishing an already-deteriorating institutional trust. Ironically, if our leaders wish to one day regain the public confidence, it will likely take less, not more, unilateral action on their part. Admittedly (and fortunately), neither Trump nor Trudeau’s actions amounted to much. We can only hope that their actions don’t serve as a harbinger of a more dangerous and lasting abuse of power in the years to come.

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