The Quebec government recently ordered the province’s cathedrals of commerce – also known as shopping malls – to close. The edict followed another imperative obliging all places of religious worship to lock their doors.
Yet Prime Minister Justin Trudeau subsequently suggested Canadians might not have seen anything yet when it comes to 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. It takes powers that are normally only in the hands of provinces or even municipalities and puts them at the federal level,” he said.
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 Elliot Trudeau, during the 1970 October Crisis.
The PM did give a peeved-papa “get to your room” tongue-lashing to miscreants who’ve been photographed defying the clear intention of voluntary social distancing measures.
“Enough is enough. Go home and stay home,” he said.
But his scolding tone quickly gave way to a note of eagerness at the positive measures his government has taken to roll out an $82-billion anti-COVID-19 economic package. That was topped up 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.
As he put it bluntly: “Nothing that could help is off the table.”
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. We must start working now to prevent coronavirus from mutating into a political disease that exhausts our capacity to sustain the traditional freedoms of liberal democratic society.
The great weakness of power 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 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?
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’re a normal part of our condition.
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, 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 would have been confined within living memory to prisons and other high-security institutions?
Almost certainly not.
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.
Those security measures aren’t going anywhere no matter how much they infringe on our basic freedom of movement. We’ve resigned ourselves to them. Far worse, 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.
So 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.
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