War Measures Act

Arguably the most powerful piece of legislation in the federal government’s arsenal, the War Measures Act was first introduced in August 1914, only a few weeks after Canada joined Britain in what became the First World War. This new legislation gave the federal cabinet extraordinary and unprecedented emergency powers to pass laws during times of “war, invasion or insurrection.” 

Proponents of the Act said it was necessary to help Ottawa maintain its constitutional obligation of “peace order and good government”. Opponents, though, argued that it gave the federal government too much power to suspend the rights of Canadians. Some opponents even called it a “constitutional dictatorship”.

Debate over the Act was perhaps at its peak during the October Crisis in the fall of 1970. When questioned by the media on October 13 as to how far he would go to stop the FLQ, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau responded with the now famous “Just watch me”. Three days later he invoked the War Measures Act for the first – and only – instance in peacetime Canada. 

The War Measures Act was replaced with The Emergencies Act on July 21, 1988. Yet the memory and controversies of the original Act are still very much alive today, particularly in discussions about the scope of government and the protection of civil liberties during the current COVID-19 Crisis

Image source: The Globe and Mail

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