There was little fanfare last summer when Parliament passed a bill that replaced one of Canada's most hated pieces of legislation.
No official celebrations accompanied the demise of the 75-year-old War Measures Act; just the hope that the new Emergencies Act would prevent the repetition of civil rights abuses which have blotted Canada's history.
Some perceive the new statute as a sign that Canada has become a tolerant multicultural society. They're confident we've outgrown the type of irrational behaviour that led to events like the roundup of more than 450 Canadians during the 1970 October crisis and the internment of 22,000 Japanese Canadians during the Second World War.
But others, like Walter Uegama, a former Japanese-Canadian internee, fear that any act of promise carries the chance of betrayal.
"The new legislation marks the maturity of a government," admits Uegama, a professor at the University of Windsor. But, "I don't know why we should expect to be immune from awful events of any magnitude. History doesn't seem to be a good teacher on some of these things."
The War Measures Act, adopted in 1914, gave the government sweeping powers to suspend civil liberties in the event of an emergency. It was used in both world wars, to intern thousands of Canadians, and as recently as 1970.
During the October Crisis, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau received widespread public support when his government suspended civil liberties after the Front de liberation du Quebec (FLQ) kidnappings of British trade commissioner James Cross and Quebec labor minister Pierre Laporte.
Those detained in Quebec had no legal recourse to appeal their arrest, and police as far away as British Columbia tried to use the War Measures Act against political dissidents having no connection with the FLQ kidnappers.
Federal Defence Minister Perrin Beatty says he's confident the Emergencies Act will prevent the recurrence of abuses.
"Under the new law, the government can declare an emergency in a specified area," Beatty said in a telephone interview from Ottawa. "It will allow you to use a scalpel instead of an axe.
"No legislation is perfect," admitted Beatty. "But the new statute adequately balances the protection of civil liberties with the government's right to respond to emergencies."
The main limitation on government action is that in any emergency, ranging from a natural disaster to war, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms will remain in effect. A specific provision in the act prohibits detainment on the basis of race, religion, national or ethnic origin, color, sex, age, mental and physical disability.
Alan Borovoy, spokesman for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, says the new statute "is a significant improvement" over the War Measures Act. But he warns there are no guarantees against the repetition of historic wrongs.
"If you're looking for guarantees, you have to go outside the planet Earth," he said from his Toronto office. "If you're going to have emergency powers, there will always be the risk of abuse, but they have significantly reduced the risk of such behaviour."
Borovoy notes, however, the Emergencies Act controls how far the government can go, not the House of Commons, The statute can be amended like any other piece of legislation, he says.
"Given the right circumstances, politicians could undo the safeguards contained in the act. International situations and other threats to the country increase the risk that those in authority behave irrationally, and the courts could be reluctant to interfere."
But Canada has made progress since the 1940s, he adds. "In 1939 a boatload of Jews fleeing nazism was turned away by this country; in the 1970s we welcomed boats full of Vietnamese fleeing communism. In 1941 we locked up whole communities of Japanese Canadians; in the 1980s, we're compensating them. It doesn't mean we've reached any egalitarian millennium. There are still a lot of racial problems in this country and disquieting discrimination."
Borovoy urges "people concerned about civil liberties never to relax their vigilance. The onus is on our citizens to be perpetually vigilant because governments will respond to our pressure."
Ethnic groups which suffered civil rights abuses are now demanding compensation from the government. So far, only the JapaneseCanadians have been successful in their bid to have the government acknowledge their internment, which, up until the 1980s, had been deleted from the history books. Supporters of the redress movement say Canadians must be informed at all the blots on their past.
Lubomyr Luciuk, a Queen's University geography professor, is spearheading a claim by UkrainianCanadians who were interned during the First World War.
"Some people say who don't we just forget it, but if we don't do something, we stand the chance of seeing it repeated," says Luciuk. "It happened in 1914, in 1941 and in 1970, who shouldn't it happen again? It won't happen again if we deal with it during peace time."
By granting compensation, the government "will not only help to fill in a blank page in Canadian history but will ensure that no other Canadians of whatever ethnic, religious or racial origin are ever again subjected to such national humiliation and gross violations of their basic human and civil rights."
Walter Temelini, a professor of Italian Studies at the University of Windsor, advocates "the honest teaching of history.
"We should make kids aware that their country can be cruel toward its citizens, and that should be taught in history. I'd like to believe we have grown, but my experience tells me that we act according to the same fears. If we don't teach the next generation, they can fall into what happened to their predecessors," he says.
"A people that doesn't know its past, is condemned to repeat it."
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Document URL: http://www.infoukes.com/history/internment/booklet02/doc-039.html
Copyright © 1994 Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association
Copyright © 1994 Lubomyr Luciuk
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Originally Composed: Sunday September 22nd 1996.
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