It is 1946. The Quebec police were instructed to “arrest all known or suspected Witnesses on the spot.” That is to say: Jehovah’s Witnesses. A group particularly loathed by Maurice Duplessis, the tyrant prime minister of Quebec.
“If this is true, Quebec’s police power is being used to lock up men and women for having a religious opinion,” says one Globe and mail editorial of that December, entitled “Return of the Inquisition.”
That was true. This was The great dark: The great darkness. During Duplessis’s tenure, some 1,500 Witnesses were arrested and prosecuted for crimes as minor as disturbing public order and as serious as sedition. Many others were intimidated, harassed, and frightened by the state in other ways, all because the devout Duplessis feared they were a threat to the Catholic Church. Duplessis ignited anti-Semitic fervor by accusing his opponents of working with Ottawa to settle dozens of Jewish refugees in Quebec.
Duplessis died in office in 1959, just after the Supreme Court ordered him to pay $ 33,000 in damages to a Jevoah Witness whose liquor license was unfairly canceled – an early victory for freedom of religion in Canada.
The following decade in Quebec was a total rejection of the Duplessis mandate and a dismantling of the absolute dominance of the Catholic Church in the province. The Silent Revolution removed religion from public life, enshrined Quebec’s generous social safety net, and began one of the most important cultural awakenings of the 20th century. Quebec would even pass its own bill of rights in 1975, protecting freedom of religion.
A similar push in Ottawa to patrol its constitution would be, in a word, acrimonious. There was a fundamental struggle for powers: Who was really responsible for the rights of Canadians? In a Supreme Court reference, the higher court determined that the proposed constitution was so broad that any provincial law or regulation “would be open to attack if it did not conform to the provisions of the Bill of Rights.”
And, with the benefit of a few decades of hindsight, we can say quite confidently: yes. That’s what makes it great.
A police officer looms over a student, demanding to know her name, her real name. When he finally succeeded, the Montreal cop raised his voice. “That’s your fourth fine for breaking curfew!” The Scream.
At just 19 years old, the student told the Canadian Press she had racked up $ 6,000 in fines for failing to observe the mandatory 8 p.m. curfew, which lasted more than five months, until Quebec’s third wave of punishments to early 2021.
“The curfew does absolutely nothing, because I’m going to see my friends anyway,” he told the Canadian Press. “But if I have to pay, I will pay and learn from my mistakes.” Her friend next to her had also racked up about $ 1,500 in fines, more than three arrests.
Meanwhile, one province away, two Ontario Provincial Police officers approached a group of preteens. “[They] he yelled at these children, who weren’t wearing masks and were not socially estranged, ”one of the children’s mothers told me earlier this year. The police demanded identification from the youths. “We have no identification, we are children,” replied one.
When one of the boys tried to get his scooter out of the officer’s hands, rightly objecting to being illegally detained, the policeman tightened his grip and leaned over, pushing the boy to the ground.
It was an irritating sight that came just days after Prime Minister Doug Ford announced, in essence, a police state. Citizens were told to stay home. Gatherings of any kind were prohibited. The police would have broad and virtually unlimited authority to detain and question anyone. It was a set of orders so unfathomably draconian that no municipal police force would enforce them.
During the pandemic, Canadians tolerated an extraordinary violation of their civil liberties: schools and businesses were closed, stay-at-home orders were issued, masks were required, and travel was restricted. And, in general, Canadians were happy to follow those orders. The courts rightly found that any violation of our civil liberties by these measures was justified under section one of the Charter.
In other words: We give up some of our freedoms to ensure everyone’s health and safety. That is the goal of a society.
That’s why Ford and Legault’s jittery and disorderly police states were so irritating. Citizens had seen those leaders waste their sacrifices time and time again, abandoning public health measures based only on an optimistic whim, only to send COVID-19 cases through the roof.
What’s worse, these clumsy measures had absolutely no scientific basis. These leaders were forcing us to give up more and more freedoms, without protecting us, due to their own incompetence.
And where was the federal government through all of this? Nowhere. Trudeau was constantly silent. There was no “attack” on those provincial rights incompatible with the Charter. Without federal intervention. The right to walk freely after dark is not safeguarded. Or to ride, safely, in a park.
Only total, absolute and total deference to the province.
Many Canadians were surprised to see the scenes of angry protesters after Justin Trudeau’s campaign in this election, spit and stones flying. The level of animosity felt like a chilling reminder that not everyone has been happy making sacrifices for the public good.
Many were also surprised to see the leader of the Popular Party, Maxime Bernier, make an unexpected and unwanted return. The vast majority of the country has seen his party for what it is: an illogical and conspiratorial move, designed to harness real frustration for Bernier’s ambitious ends. They recognized their ethno-nationalism as a dangerous, hateful, and illogical response to that frustration.
Many, however, were not surprised by anger because they were also angry, perhaps not for the same reasons, and certainly not enough to vote for a charlatan of a politician like Bernier, but angry all the same.
And here’s the thing: they are right.
Throughout 2021, we have let Canadian courtesy and duty stand in the way of what should have been very real and very hot anger with our political classes. With few exceptions, notably many of the major city mayors and prime ministers of the Atlantic, our politicians were negligent, absent, or actively damaging.
Unfortunately, we do not have a mechanism in our constitution that forces our politicians to do their job correctly in times of crisis. However, we have a guarantee in that document that, crisis or not, violations of our basic freedoms should only be allowed when necessary and justified.
Ottawa is supposed to be the main proponent of the Charter. However, the silence has been deafening. In a campaign with all this anger bubbling underneath, no one was willing to address it. Apparently out of fear of offending Legault or Ford.
When I asked conservative leader Erin O’Toole if her party can really pretend to be the party of individual freedom, when it seems that she is comfortable with the provinces effectively doing what she wants. “We are the party of freedom and respect,” O’Toole said. “And part of that respect is respecting the constitution. Respecting the provincial jurisdiction ”.
I asked NDP leader Jagmeet Singh a similar question: As prime minister, would you let the provinces run the show? Have a civil liberties concern? Singh scoffed at Trudeau’s “hands-off approach” during the pandemic, but simply went back to talking about domestic vaccine production.
Unfortunately, this is a trend.
Those leaders have stumbled against each other to defend Quebec’s ability to ban anyone wearing a religious symbol from entering large sectors of the public service. (When the moderator of the debate Shachi Kurl dared to describe such a law as “discriminatory”, the three men lined up to denounce their affront to the nation of Quebec).
The echoes with Duplessis should be quite evident here. In fact, earlier this month, Legault made the comparison himself: “He had a lot of flaws, but he defended his nation,” the prime minister said. “I wasn’t ‘awake’.”
Our federal leaders have been similarly quiet when the Ford administration introduced an extraordinary limitation on political speech by restricting third-party advertising in provincial elections.
Both Legault and Ford have used the clause, however, an aberration, an error and a fundamentally dangerous tool, to protect their unconstitutional legislation and to nullify the Charter. Except more of that.
So now it is up to the courts to untangle this mess and, we hope, find a way to preserve our basic rights. But it shouldn’t have to come to this.
We should be crazy.
Some people are irrationally angry: angry at healthcare workers, angry at vaccine mandates, angry at having to wear masks. That anger is wrong.
But there are many good reasons to be angry at our politicians who have left their posts in the last year.
We no longer have a guarantee in this country that the laws passed by our provincial legislatures respect our basic civil liberties. We now know that the provinces can do practically anything, however misguided or ineffective, in the name of an emergency. We can’t even be sure that when they do, Ottawa will bother to clear his throat in objection.
We come out of this election with the status quo, no matter who wins. If we find ourselves in a new wave of the pandemic in the coming months, it is very possible that we will see a return to curfews and stay-at-home orders. We can see our civil liberties shattered once again because prime ministers have no idea what they are doing, and Ottawa is terrified to intervene.
This is not how things are supposed to work. Our Charter is not optional. It shouldn’t be applied only in hindsight, after years of protracted litigation. It is a document that our Prime Minister is supposed to uphold and defend at all times.
What we need now is a politician who is willing to say that.