Unspecified 'civil emergency' leaves Albertans scratching their heads — again

An unspecified "civil emergency" was declared in Alberta on Sunday night and it took nearly 16 hours for officials to say why. It marks the third time this month that RCMP have set up a perimeter in a rural part of the province and warned the public to stay away, without revealing exactly what's going on until hours — or days — later.

Social media speculation in the absence of official information raises concerns

Some Albertans received this push notification on their cellphones of a 'civil emergency' about 180 kilometres northeast of Edmonton on Sunday night. (@Sonnyjames22/Twitter)

An unspecified "civil emergency" was declared in Alberta on Sunday night and it took nearly 16 hours for officials to say why.

It's the third time this month that RCMP have set up a perimeter in a rural part of the province and instructed the public to stay away, without revealing exactly what's going on until hours — or, in one case, nearly two days — later.

Experts say it's unusual for law enforcement to be so vague in situations like this and, while there are often legitimate reasons to keep some operational details from the public, police in Alberta seem especially slow at releasing the most basic of information.

The most recent incident saw RCMP close a highway near St. Brides — a tiny community about 180 kilometres northeast of Edmonton — and tell the public to avoid the area.

Push notifications were sent to Albertans' cellphones at 8:55 p.m., informing them of what was deemed a "civil emergency." The Alberta emergency public alert system advised: "Take necessary precautions."

Against what, however, was unclear.

Police didn't say what the emergency was. Neither did the provincial government.

Delay and speculation 

Hour after hour passed without any official update. Albertans went to bed and woke up the following morning to learn the emergency was ongoing.

At 8:44 a.m., the province announced the alert had ended. But there was still no word on what it was.

It wasn't until 12:46 p.m. that RCMP revealed the incident was related to an armed standoff with police.

In the meantime, speculation had run wild on social media with all sorts of theories — some suggesting it was a traffic accident, others guessing it was an escaped convict.

More than one person interpreted a terse RCMP quote about the "fluid situation" to mean some type of chemical or other hazardous liquid had spilled.

After the story was picked up by an online conspiracy-theory aggregator, some even half-joked about an alien invasion, noting the nearby Town of St. Paul is home to Canada's first UFO landing pad (a gimmick built in 1967 as part of the country's centennial celebrations.)

The Twitter account @Conspiracylizer, which aggregates online stories about conspiracy theories, picked up on the 'civil emergency' in St. Paul, Alta. (@Conspiracylizer/Twitter)

But the lack of timely information is no laughing matter, according to Democracy Watch co-founder Duff Conacher.

"The public has a right to know those things as early as possible so that they can decide how they want to act as a result," he said, noting a chemical spill could be a real concern for many people.

"What if you have a family member in that area who calls you and says, 'I'm really sick and I think I'm dying?' You kind of want to know what's going on."

David Fraser, a Halifax-based privacy lawyer, said it's rare for police in other jurisdictions to withhold basic facts about the nature of an emergency situation — especially after something as potentially alarming as a "civil emergency" is declared.

Privacy lawyer David Fraser says police typically reveal basic details about the nature of a public emergency relatively quickly and was surprised by how long it took RCMP in several Alberta incidents. (CBC)

"A declaration like this is extraordinary," he said.

"I would think that declaration should include much more than just the fact that there is a declaration and to stay out of a particular area."

RCMP Sgt. Jack Poitras said it's not clear why the emergency alert was sent out in this particular case — as opposed to the more common method of a police press release — and admitted to "hiccups" in the communication process that led to the 16-hour delay.

But it's not the first time this month Albertans have been left in the dark on details after initially being warned about an emergency situation.

Pincher Creek cases

At 7:39 p.m. Saturday, RCMP issued a press release about an "unfolding situation" in Pincher Creek, about 200 kilometres south of Calgary.

The release said police had set up a containment area and asked the public to stay away and refrain from posting photos of the incident on social media.

The wording was reminiscent of a similar release RCMP had issued early in the morning of Feb. 8, which began in a similar, vague way and turned out to be a serious situation. 

Authorities warned people that they were dealing with a "dangerous situation involving a person," closing schools, municipal buildings and some streets, and warning the public to stay away in the town of about 3,600.

RCMP officers were dispatched from across southern Alberta, and the RCMP emergency response team was sent in from Calgary. An RCMP helicopter and armoured vehicle also assisted.

Police revealed by midday they were dealing with a suspect who had allegedly fired a gun at officers and refused to leave a home, resulting in a seven-hour standoff.

(The man's lawyer said at a later bail hearing that an initial 911 call "made up" that shots had been fired, adding evidence suggested people actually heard a front door slamming.)

The details of the second Pincher Creek incident, on Saturday, weren't made public until Monday, however.

More than 40 hours after the initial press release, RCMP issued an update saying the incident — involving an armed and barricaded man — had ended with the man's death, which was deemed to be non-suspicious.

This is typically how police refer indirectly to a suicide, which is a sensitive topic and one not usually reported in the news media unless there is a public interest.

Public safety and public anxiety

Sean Holman, a journalism professor at Calgary's Mount Royal University, said there is generally a public interest in knowing at least the basic details of what happened when armed police secure and area and order people to keep out.

In the absence of official information, he said speculation can flourish, and that can lead to public safety concerns of its own.

"Part of public safety involves guarding against public anxiety," he said. "Because when there is anxiety, when there is uncertainty, the public's actions become unpredictable."

Holman, who focuses much of his work on freedom of information and government accountability, said things that are routinely disclosed in a timely way in other parts of Canada are often treated differently in Alberta.

Alberta is and has long been one of the most secretive jurisdictions in the country.- Sean Holman

"Alberta is and has long been one of the most secretive jurisdictions in the country," he said.

"We seem to often have public agencies with attitudes that they know best when it comes to the information that they provide to the public, rather than thinking that the public has a right to this information."

Poitras said there are sometimes logistical challenges with gathering and disseminating information during emergency responses in rural areas in particular, but the RCMP do take it seriously.

"We're certainly trying to improve in those areas and make sure you get the news in a timely fashion," he said.

What is a 'civil emergency' anyway?

During the ongoing "civil emergency" on Sunday evening and Monday morning, questions abounded on social media as to exactly what that means.

They were met with a terse reply.

It's an incident that "disrupts normal civilian activities," according to @511Alberta, the province's Twitter account that normally deals with highway conditions.

That's also the definition listed on the Alberta Emergency Alert website, which offers no further detail.

CBC News asked on Monday for more information from Alberta Municipal Affairs, the provincial department responsible for the emergency alerts, but received no answer.


Robson Fletcher

Data Journalist

Robson Fletcher's work for CBC Calgary focuses on data, analysis and investigative journalism. He joined CBC in 2015 after spending the previous decade working as a reporter and editor at newspapers in Alberta, British Columbia and Manitoba.