Freedom. The word generates tremendous emotion in the human heart and has been a rallying cry for people throughout the millennia. However, the concept is increasingly under fire and deserves our careful attention. How do we define freedom, and is it still worth defending?
Christ observed that “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36). Just as God rescued His people from slavery in Egypt, Jesus promised to rescue humanity from the bondage of sin. Although He explained that His purpose was to bring spiritual liberation, not political freedom, we can see that the influence of the Christian faith has been integral to the development of liberal democracies in the West. A free society reflects biblical teaching insofar as it recognizes and protects the value of every human being as created in the image of God.
Former Chief Justice Brian Dickson of the Supreme Court of Canada emphasized the connection between respecting individual rights and human value when he argued that freedom “must surely be founded in respect for the inherent dignity and the inviolable rights of the human person.”1 Importantly, “if a person is compelled by the state or the will of another to a course of action or inaction which he would not otherwise have chosen, he is not acting of his own volition and he cannot be said to be truly free.” In other words, “freedom means that, subject to such limitations as are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others, no one is to be forced to act in a way contrary to his beliefs or his conscience.”2 For Dickson, this approach was consistent with a political and philosophical history that affirmed the worth and dignity of each person.
In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have witnessed a prolonged infringement of fundamental freedoms in the name of public health. The controversy over whether these violations can be justified goes beyond medical or scientific debates. It reflects a deeper tension between individual rights and “the common good” as defined by the political elites.
Unfortunately, freedom is now deemed an extremist concept. Canadian state broadcaster CBC published a news article3 in February 2022 suggesting that calls for freedom are associated with “far-right groups.” Within this framework, freedom does not reflect individual dignity; it is a political demand “that could potentially have a negative impact on others.”4 According to Elisabeth Anker, associate professor of American Studies and Political Science at George Washington University, freedom amounts to nothing more than a refusal “to be bound by norms of equality,” resulting in “dangerous, discriminatory, or anti-democratic” situations.5
mandates and freedom
In this view, people who desire freedom from vaccine mandates must be bigoted extremists with no regard for their fellow human beings. The Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, has characterized those who did not want to be vaccinated as racist, misogynist, and anti-science. When the Trucker’s Freedom Convoy rolled into Ottawa to protest the government mandates, he labeled them a “fringe minority” with “unacceptable views.”6 Then, as the protest moved into its third week, Mr. Trudeau abruptly decided to take on the most draconian powers possible by invoking the Emergencies Act.
In one fell swoop, he suspended the rights and freedoms of Canadians. Mounted police cleared the capital city of unarmed, peaceful protesters and arrested about 200 of them. Millions of dollars in bank accounts were frozen without court orders or criminal charges.7 Trudeau also promised that all those in the protest would suffer a life ban on international travel. Freedom of mobility, freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom to earn a living—all these rights were suddenly made conditional on holding “acceptable views” as determined by the government.
Under the Emergencies Act, a national emergency is defined as an “urgent and critical situation of a temporary nature” that endangers the “lives, health, or safety of Canadians” or threatens “the sovereignty, security and territorial integrity of Canada” to such an extent that the government cannot deal with the crisis under any existing laws.8
Given that the provinces of Ontario, Alberta, and Manitoba cleared out border blockades days before Mr. Trudeau’s announcement, it is hard to accept the claim that emergency powers were necessary. Nevertheless, he insisted that the remaining protest in Ottawa was beyond the capacity of the government or law enforcement to handle.
On February 21, the House of Commons approved the use of the Emergencies Act legislation by a vote of 185 to 151 after Mr. Trudeau warned that he would be willing to call an election if his minority government lost. However, just two days later, it became increasingly clear that he was unlikely to win a vote in the Senate.9 Therefore, on February 23, he announced that he no longer needed emergency powers after all. He thereby avoided the embarrassment of a defeat in the Senate. Without this check on the prime minister’s powers, the state of emergency would probably have extended for at least three more weeks, if not longer.10
In his announcement, Mr. Trudeau confirmed that a parliamentary committee would be formed to assess the government’s use of the Emergencies Act. According to him, the inquiry offered “a fuller understanding of what gave rise to this kind of disregard for laws and threat to our democracy.”11 The irony, of course, is that it was his actions that showed a stunning disregard for the rule of law, including the high bar required to invoke the Emergencies Act.
the impact on religious freedom
Although the use of the Emergencies Act represents one of the worst abuses of political power in Canadian history, it is not the first or only example of government overreach during the pandemic. The Canadian, as well as the global, experience during the COVID-19 era presents an important case study for understanding the concept of freedom during a national crisis. It reveals at least the following:
- liberal democracies are fragile; without strong respect for individual freedom, basic human rights can be removed on a whim;
- one’s opinion can affect one’s ability to buy and sell;
- when the government gets to determine what is a national emergency, regardless of whether it meets the legal definition or not, they can exercise dictatorial power until appropriate checks on that power stop them; therefore,
- safeguards against unbridled power are a must,
- as is the requirement for eternal vigilance in supporting freedom.
As already noted, even the concept of freedom has become controversial. Identity politics has made it increasingly difficult to advocate for freedom. In defining the common good for a select few, the state has embraced notions of group privilege or marginalization, most often based on race or gender identity. From this vantage point, freedom of religion, for example, is seen as a claim for the “right to discriminate.” Of course, this view fails to see the ways in which religion benefits individuals and society.
With stunning ease, issues of conscience regarding the COVID-19 vaccines were largely ignored and even maligned, religious or conscientious exemptions were rarely allowed, and those who refused to comply were segregated from the rest of society. Students were kicked out of classes, and parents lost their jobs because the public and private authorities refused to accommodate the beliefs or practices of a minority of Canadians. It seems that the willingness of the government to disregard fundamental freedoms during a pandemic or a protest betrays a lack of understanding about the principles that underlie our constitution.
seven absolute rights
Within Western liberal democracies, legal scholars hold that there are legal principles that can never be lost or compromised. In his book Seven Absolute Rights, Professor Ryan Alford defends the importance of maintaining the rule of law during times of crisis.12 He argues that certain principles of law precede the state and remain in effect even in times of national emergencies. They are “nonderogable” rights, meaning that no crisis can ever justify their infringement. Unfortunately, Alford says, modern states have moved away from this bedrock principle of law.
In the United States, for example, he argues that the US Supreme Court in the case of Al-Aulaqi v. Obama “held that an American court could not second-guess the executive’s decision to target an American citizen for extra-judicial killing.”13 The problem is that when an executive can assert that no court has jurisdiction to review its decisions based on “national security” concerns, then “the American executive can violate its constitution with impunity.”14 This executive power annuls the fundamental rights in a constitution and the nonderogable principles of the rule of law. Freedom is in clear and present danger.
So what are the seven absolute rights? According to Professor Alford, they are
- the right not to be subjected to extrajudicial killing,
- the right not to be subjected to emergency measures that have no legal or constitutional justification,
- the right not to be tortured,
- the right not to be subjected to arbitrary detention,
- the right not to be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment or excessive bail,
- the right not to be punished for what is said in the course of parliamentary proceedings, and
- the right to be tried by an impartial judge who is a member of an independent judiciary.15
Professor Alford shared with me his concern that Western universities have failed to properly teach students the history behind these important principles. Law schools, he laments, are increasingly more concerned with identity politics revolving around a mantra of diversity, inclusion, and equity. This mindset risks undoing the heritage of freedom that has taken many centuries to develop.
Just as the people of Israel were called to look back on their heritage to recognize God’s faithfulness and remain obedient to His commands, we must look back to understand and appreciate how the principles of law have been applied from one crisis to another. If that history is forgotten and the present is deemed to be new or unprecedented, we will struggle to respond appropriately. Professor Alford warns, “Our constitutional order cannot have a future unless we understand that the substantive protections of the rule of law can only be found and understood if we pay closer attention to our past.”16
Like so many other things, freedom during the COVID-19 era became increasingly complex, with many groups clamoring for the acceptance of their definition. In the wake of the pandemic, we would be wise to look back and ask ourselves whether we did all we could to protect our freedom.
Christian history is replete with examples of followers of Christ who stood up against all odds to maintain freedom, even if that meant dying to proclaim the truth of Christ. Their courage speaks to the strength of individual conscience, guided by the Spirit. If we wish to flourish and live in peace, our society will do well to safeguard space for conscience and belief.
1. R. v. Big M Drug Mart Ltd., 1985 CanLII 69 (SCC),
 1 SCR 295, at para. 94, accessed March 21, 2022, https://canlii.ca/t/1fv2b.
2. Big M Drug Mart Ltd., 1985 CanLII 69, at para. 95.
3. CBC Radio, “Why the Word ‘Freedom’ Is Such a Useful Rallying Cry for Protesters,” CBC, February 13, 2022, https://www.cbc.ca/radio/checkup/what-s-your-reaction-to-the-ottawa-standoff-and-the-border-blockades-1.6349636/why-the-word-freedom-is-such-a-useful-rallying-cry-for-protesters-1.6349865.
4. CBC Radio.
5. CBC Radio.
6. “Trudeau Says ‘Fringe Minority’ in Trucker Convoy With
‘Unacceptable Views’ Don’t Represent Canadians,” Global News, January 27, 2022, https://globalnews.ca/video/8542159/trudeau-says-fringe-minority-in-trucker-convoy-with-unacceptable-views-dont-represent-canadians.
7. The seizure of funds affected not only truckers who had vehicles in the protest but also those who supported the truckers by means of the online crowdfunding websites GoFundMe and GiveSendGo.
8. Emergencies Act, R. S. C., 1985, c. 22 (4th Supp.), https://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/eng/acts/e-4.5/page-1.html.
9. Others have speculated that the about-face was motivated by a crisis in the Canadian banking system. Within days of the government’s announcement that it was freezing bank accounts, five leading banks in Canada faced prolonged outages, prompting concerns over a bank run. See Disha Mitra, “Canada’s Major Banks Go Offline for Hours” Tech Story, February 17, 2022, https://techstory.in/canadas-major-banks-go-offline-for-hours/.
10. The act expires after thirty days but can be continued indefinitely by proclamation. Given that a two-week emergency in March 2020 has now reached its third year, with no indication from the federal government that restrictions will be lifted anytime soon, it’s not hard to imagine the government seeking to extend the public emergency order.
11. Amanda Connolly and Saba Aziz, “Trudeau to Revoke Emergencies Act After Convoy Blockades End,” Global News, February 23, 2022, https://globalnews.ca/news/8639534/justin-trudeau-emergencies-act-announcement/.
12. Ryan Alford, Seven Absolute Rights: Recovering the Historical Foundations of Canada’s Rule of Law (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2020).
13. Alford, xi.
14. Alford, xii.
15. Alford, xv.
16. Alford, xvi.
Barry W. Bussey, PhD, is the president and CEO of First Freedoms Foundation.