By Henry Srebrnik, [Moncton, NB] Times & Transcript
Lord Acton warned that it is human nature for people given power over others to wield that power ever-more broadly.
This impulse has been particularly evident with restrictions that violate Canadians’ mobility rights as enshrined in section 6 (2) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
It states that every Canadian has the right to live and work in any province. No legislature can overrule it with Section 33, the Charter’s notwithstanding clause.
True, the government can attempt to justify its actions limiting a right by using Section 1 of the Charter, which stipulates that it remains subject “to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.” But this has not been tested in court. Nor has the federal Emergencies Act been invoked.
Prince Edward Island was all but cut off from the rest of Canada for months on end – this was even reported in a Washington Post article of July 6. Other Maritime Provinces also shut their borders, while in British Columbia officials were telling Albertans not to cross the provincial border to cottages they owned in that province.
Since mid-April, 375 individuals have been denied entry to PEI. A Montreal woman with a 91-year-old mother on the island has been unable to visit. A Manitoba man who managed to get in after his application was denied was sentenced for violating the Public Health Act.
There were internal travel restrictions in various provinces and territories. Security checkpoints were implemented in several regions in Quebec, including along the Ontario border.
The Newfoundland and Labrador government gave sweeping new powers to the police, authorizing officers to stop vehicles, detain people and take them to the border if they were not complying with public health measures.
How quickly xenophobia rears its ugly head. On PEI cars with out-of-province licence plates had profane notes left on their windshields. British Columbia Premier John Horgan suggested drivers of such vehicles should consider taking public transit or riding a bicycle if they’re feeling harassed. Some have been victims of sabotage.
These border bans have fuelled criticism from civil rights advocates. Canada “should know better than to allow provinces and territories to claim lands as their own, to the exclusion of others,” wrote Michael Bryant, executive director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA), in the National Post May 21.
The border restrictions are not based on population density and the need for social distancing, he noted. Instead, they’re based on residency. “It’s not their border to patrol,” he insisted.
The CCLA in May sent letters to each of the provinces and territories contending that if a province or territory limits those rights, its reasons must be justified.
“So far, what we’ve seen from these governments hasn’t convinced us that there is good evidence that these limits are reasonable,” Cara Zwibel, director of CCLA’s Fundamental Freedoms Program, told the CBC in May. A challenge of the Newfoundland and Labrador ban is now before its supreme court.
On July 3, the four east coast provinces did ease inter-provincial travel restrictions within the region, creating an “Atlantic bubble.” However, the rest of Canada remains shut off.
Long before this pandemic upended our lives, the French philosopher Michel Foucault, in a series of lectures he delivered in 1976 titled “Society Must be Defended,” laid out the basis of a new concept of power in the modern world, which he called “biopower,” or power over life.
Foucault became convinced that human freedom was deeply imperiled by alliances of opinion-makers, experts, and politicians. Against them, liberal democracy, with its guarantees to certain basic liberties and to participation in a process of collective self-determination, appears powerless.
A politics centered on life, promising safety and well-being to a populace that must forgo its rights, can become a murderous totalitarianism, Foucault argued.
During the French Revolution, for instance, Jacobin extremist Maximilien Robespierre’s regime, which inaugurated the infamous Reign of Terror, was named the Committee of Public Safety.
In the twentieth century, too, dictatorial regimes contended they were saving their people from enemies, often portrayed as carriers of disease. Of course COVID-19 is real, but we must nonetheless always be wary of losing our liberties.