The Rise of the Digital Robber Barons: Is government up to the task at hand?

AuthorNormey, Rob

Given Canada's history, we can anticipate that any plans for the federal government to use its "super powers" could erode our civil liberties. We must vigilantly protect fundamental rights and look to the courts to affirm, and in some instances extend, the reach of our Charter protections should government threaten our rights. However, in this article I wish to offer for consideration something of a different perspective--that one of the grave dangers of this decade is that Western governments will fail to exercise their powers to protect citizens.

With good management, Canadians can hope to surmount the immediate challenges posed by COVID-19. There was brief debate about whether or not the federal government should invoke the powers of the Emergencies Act and declare a public health emergency to address the pandemic. Ultimately, cooperative efforts by the federal, provincial and territorial governments sufficed.

A Look Back

If we cast a glance back at Canadian history, we can surely conclude that, in real or imagined emergencies, the federal government is capable of overreacting and temporarily interfering with basic liberties. The predecessor legislation for addressing emergencies of various kinds was the War Measures Act. The federal government employed this Act, in a draconian fashion, during and immediately after the World Wars. A key chapter of Thomas Berger's outstanding account of human rights and dissent in Canada, Fragile Freedoms, recounts the mistreatment of Japanese Canadians during and even after the conclusion of World War II. Berger emphasizes that the evacuation and internment of Japanese Canadians represented a horrible instance of mass racial hysteria, made worse by the egregious conduct of the federal government under Liberal Prime Minister Mackenzie King. During the Hearings of the Special Joint Committee on the Constitution in 1980 and 1981, which considered necessary improvements to the proposed Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the committee agreed that such events must not be repeated. Not only did the government employ racist orders-in-council to deport to Japan residents and Japanese Canadian citizens, but the courts of the day were of absolutely no assistance. Lacking, for the most part, a "rights consciousness", they rejected most of the valiant arguments of Andrew Brewin, the deportees' counsel and a leading democratic socialist of the day. (See Reference Re Persons of the Japanese Race (1946) SCR 248, affirmed by the Privy Council.) Brewin later successfully persuaded the federal government to establish a Royal Commission to examine the question of compensating Japanese Canadians whose property had been confiscated without any payment.

Canadian politicians, with broad support from citizens, ultimately agreed to enact a Charter of Rights and...

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