Talk about being in the right place at the right time. While my friends watched Cougar Creek and the Bow River overflow and destroy about sixty houses in the process – I sat in sunny Mount Forest sipping a beer and reading Theory & History (which I highly recommend, by the way). My vacation back to Ontario was conveniently scheduled during the Alberta floods. I picked those dates virtually at random, after my former room-mate told me, “June is the rainy season.” Yeah, no kidding.
But by last Monday I was on a plane back to Canmore. Touching down in Calgary my first glimpse of the disaster wasn’t the flooded downtown or roads destroyed by the power of water – but the police state apparatus that is grossly apparent when a “state of emergency” is announced. At the Calgary airport I checked in at the bus depot that would take to me back to Canmore. I was asked for proof of residency, “my papers” as it were. At the time, only locals were allowed East of Calgary.
En route, I saw a lot of police cars and military vehicles. That was essentially the only other traffic on the highway. Near the casino, where the prairies become the foothills, the police set up a checkpoint where I was again asked for proof of residency. Once in the Bow Valley, the Trans Canada Highway became condensed, with the left lane reserved for oncoming traffic while the opposite side of the highway was completely closed. While the reasons for this are understandable (some sections remain completely impassable), the idea that the clean-up will take 10 years must be a reference to more damaged areas of Alberta or recognition of the government’s incompetence.
Access to the roads is still heavily enforced even a week after the disaster. It was only yesterday at 3pm that the Trans Canada reopened to the public from Calgary to Lake Louise. But it’s still strictly two-lanes, with entire sections of the highway closed off. Before yesterday’s reopening, only returning residents and commercial trucks were are permitted to travel. Virtually overnight residents of Canmore and Banff became prisoners of their own town. Tourists were trapped until further notice. Given the bureaucratic nature of the state, the permission to travel was arbitrarily enforced. An acquaintance of mine was struck in Calgary because she had yet to update her ID from Ontario to Alberta. Finally, after many phone calls and headaches, the bureaucrats let her through. Yesterday morning, my boss fought with local bureaucrats at the Banff gate where a commercial truck was being held. Despite the prior approval that this truck would be permitted to pass, someone had changed their mind. Finally, after about three hours, the truck was allowed to pass.
In an emergency, the police state is apparent. The apparatus is already there, but Canadians rarely get to see it. It often surfaces as petty tyranny: traffic and parking tickets, marijuana laws, regulatory frameworks that inhibit free enterprise. But when the government declares a state of emergency, the coercive arm of the state assumes absolute power. Showing one’s “papers,” limits on transportation, tourist captivity, mandatory price fixing and other hallmarks of dictatorships are displayed. It is a dangerous precedent to allow the state to encompass this much power. While it may remain hidden when times are good, bad times bring out the worse in government tyranny. The time to dismantle this apparatus is now. For we may not have a chance when disaster strikes again.