Nfld. & Labrador

Police in N.L. now have sweeping powers to enforce pandemic public health orders

Officers authorized to stop vehicles, enter any premises, and detain people and take them to the border if they are not complying with public health measures.

Opposition negotiated expanded categories for approved entry under new bill

Premier Dwight Ball spoke with reporters via teleconference in a virtual scrum during Tuesday's session of the House of Assembly. (Government of Newfoundland and Labrador/YouTube)

The Newfoundland and Labrador government gave sweeping new powers to the police to enforce public health orders under the COVID-19 pandemic.

Fifteen MHAs sat in the House of Assembly Tuesday to amend the Public Health Protection and Promotion Act, authorizing officers to stop vehicles, enter any premises, and detain people and take them to the border if they are not complying with public health measures.

"You can be put on the Marine Atlantic ferry and sent back to Nova Scotia," Premier Dwight Ball told reporters in a virtual scrum Tuesday afternoon.

Bill 38 gives inspectors powers to enter any premises, take samples, conduct tests, make copies, and take photos or videos. It also allows them to inspect premises, processes, books and records. 

The law also protects lawmakers, the chief medical officer, inspectors and peace officers and others from personal liability. 

Ball said the changes are only in effect during the province's public health emergency, and allow those orders to be enforced if someone arriving "needs to be sent back where they came from."

"It's extreme, by some people's estimation," Ball said. "Yet [it] was a requirement to make sure that the RCMP and the RNC would be able to enforce the special measures orders that were put in place by the chief medical officer."

'Leaky as a sieve'

Bill 38 comes after tourists were reportedly entering the province from other jurisdictions, potentially spreading COVID-19, and prompting stricter enforcement at the borders as the province asked people to only travel for essential reasons. 

Progressive Conservative Leader Ches Crosbie said Tuesday they are "dubious" of the police powers the bill allows. 

"The enforcement at the points of entry was just not there. It was leaky as a sieve. Then the government decided, very quickly, to tighten up on that," Crosbie told reporters.

Progressive Conservative Leader Ches Crosbie told reporters Tuesday he is 'dubious' of the sweeping police powers contained in Bill 38. (Government of Newfoundland and Labrador/YouTube)

He said they ended up excluding categories of people many felt had a valid right to be able to come to the province, since everyone has to submit a 14-day isolation plan. 

Crosbie said it was asked that those categories be expanded, instead of arguing over the enforcement provisions themselves that were passed into law roughly three years ago.  

"What we negotiated today is a softening of that, I think overly strict and somewhat unbalanced approach, which may in fact well be in contradiction of aspects of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms."

Those who can travel to the province under the travel ban exemption include students, retirees, temporary workers, those relocating for work or those who have to take care of a family member.

From left, Liberal Leader and Premier Dwight Ball, NDP Leader Alison Coffin and Progressive Conservative Leader Ches Crosbie. (CBC)

Crosbie acknowledged the carriers through which travellers arrive are under federal jurisdiction, not provincial, and can't just take someone who does not want to go. 

Question period resumed

Tuesday marked the first sitting of the House of Assembly since March 26, and it amended the Liquor Control Act and the Liquor Corporation Act, allowing businesses like craft breweries and restaurants to deliver alcohol during the pandemic.

It also pushed through temporary changes to the witnessing of documents in the province, allowing lawyers to do it remotely.

Three PC MHAs, NDP MHA Jim Dinn and Independent MHA Eddie Joyce were in attendance, with the rest of the slots  filled by Liberal MHAs.

Throughout the pandemic, all three political parties have been working together in an all-party committee to try to navigate the province through COVID-19.

Before the session, Crosbie said he wanted to focus on the province's financial issues and its five-stage plan to relax health orders in the coming months.

"There's no stage zero," he said. "Does that mean we're going to have a state of emergency for a year and a half or two years?"

The House of Assembly opened its doors Tuesday for the first time since March 26. (Mark Cumby/CBC)

New Democratic Party Leader Alison Coffin said she looks forward to more regular sittings of the House of Assembly, citing the importance of democracy and accountability in government.

"I think a lot of the urgency around the pandemic has abated and we've dealt with some of the immediate issues," Coffin said, adding it's time to "shift focus" back on holding the government accountable. 

Budget 'difficult to put in place'

One non-COVID-19 related issue: a provincial budget has yet to be released.

During Monday's daily COVID-19 briefing, Premier Dwight Ball said the pandemic leaves uncertainty as to when a new provincial budget will be released.

"I speak to premiers on a weekly basis and sometimes twice a week, and the budgets that they would have put in place before this pandemic is not really worth the paper that it was written on."

Ball said he would anticipate seeing the House of Assembly open on other occasions during the pandemic to handle other items of legislation. 

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Patrick Butler and Heather Gillis

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