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EDITORIAL: New Democrats lose their courage

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New Democrats have always made it known they stand behind civil rights, and in the past some of its more notable members have expressed a determination to avoid most confrontations that require the excessive physical force of the state, be it through the Canadian Armed Forces or the police.

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In 1939, when the government was voting on Canada’s entrance into the Second World War, James Woodsworth – one of the founders of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, the political party that pre-dates the NDP – voted against the measure. His was the lone dissenting vote. But with it, he earned the public admiration of the Liberal prime minister.

“There are few men in this Parliament for whom I have greater respect than the leader of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation,” William Lyon Mackenzie King said during the debate. “I admire him in my heart, because time and again he has had the courage to say what lays on his conscience, regardless of what the world might think of him. A man of that calibre is an ornament to any Parliament.”

Thirty years later, the NDP’s conscience was again called upon when the Liberal government sought support to invoke the War Measures Act because of great civil unrest – kidnappings and the murder of an elected official – in Quebec courtesy of the FLQ.

Leader Tommy Douglas famously stood against the use of the War Measures Act, as did most of his caucus. In a debate on Oct. 16, 1970, Douglas said he believed the government had enough powers without invoking the “draconian” War Measures Act. He called the day “a black Friday for civil liberties in Canada”.

But that “conscience” and “courage” was nowhere to be seen on Monday. The NDP stood solidly behind the Liberal government in supporting use of the Emergencies Act. The legislation expands police powers and enables banks to freeze the accounts of those who Canadians accused of financing the protests or receiving financial support. Other personal assets can also be seized.

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Supporters of the legislation said during Monday’s debate that the Emergencies Act was necessary because of the truckers’ blockade at Windsor and, in particular, the most recent civil disruption in Ottawa – which has ended. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau repeatedly argued that Canada remains in a state of emergency.

NDP members, including their leader, were consistent in suggesting a great reluctance to side with the government, but none had the courage of a Woodsworth or a Douglas.

Many cited the fact that Monday’s vote was also a confidence vote, and its failure would have sent Canadians into an election.

They clearly feared an election more than the Emergencies Act, which almost certainly violates certain civil liberties that Canadians have cherished for decades.

-Peter Epp

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