Move to declare state of emergency in N.W.T. 'proactive,' says premier

In what Premier Caroline Cochrane is calling a "proactive" move, the N.W.T. government has declared a state of emergency in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, though it says the risk to people in the territory has not changed.

Premier Caroline Cochrane and public safety director Ivan Russell addressed reporters at noon press conference

A file photo of Premier Caroline Cochrane. Her government declared a state of emergency for N.W.T. (Katie Toth/CBC)

In what Premier Caroline Cochrane is calling a "proactive" move, the N.W.T. government has declared a state of emergency in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, though it says risk to people in the territory has not changed.

The declaration, made in a news release Friday morning, states that Minister of Municipal and Community Affairs Paulie Chinna first made the declaration on Tuesday, March 24. It is in effect until April 7.

Minister of Municipal and Community Affairs Paulie Chinna signed a state of emergency declaration for the N.W.T. on March 24, giving her sweeping power to enact measures like evacuations and price fixing. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

A state of emergency grants the territorial government the ability to exercise extraordinary powers during a time of crisis. It is different from a public health emergency, which was declared last week, in that it grants sweeping powers to the government, while a public health emergency expands the authority of the chief public health officer.

"This step was not taken because the risk of COVID-19 to the territory has increased, or that the situation was worse than before. It is not," said Cochrane, speaking to reporters via videoconference. 

"The main reason for this decision was to make sure that the emergency management organization has all the tools it needs to follow the orders of the chief public health officer and help stop the spread of COVID-19 in the territory."

The Department of Municipal and Community Affairs is responsible for overseeing the territory's emergency plan and emergency measures act. The declaration was made on the advice of Ivan Russell, the territory's public safety director.

N.W.T. Director of Public Safety Ivan Russell speaks to media at a March press conference with chief public health officer Dr. Kami Kandola. On Friday, Russell said that the measures invoked by the state of emergency declaration have not yet been enacted, but are now available to the minister, if needed. (Andrew Pacey/CBC)

In the video conference, Russell said that the main focus of the declaration is to put people and resources in place to preserve public safety. 

A state of emergency declaration allows the territorial government to broaden powers that includes acquiring public or private property to combat the emergency, requiring qualified people to provide aid, the ability to enter any building without warrant, to order evacuations from areas or communities, or to fix prices on goods.

At this point, none of those measures have been enacted, Russell said, but are now available to Chinna if needed.

"This is not a step the [N.W.T. government] takes lightly, but at this time it is necessary," he said.

"These are unprecedented times, and we are all working hard to ensure your safety. We ask for your cooperation in following the demands of the chief public health officer in order to keep each other safe."

The news release states that the declaration was made to make sure the Emergency Management Organization (EMO) can better support and implement orders issued by the chief public health officer. 

"[It] gives the EMO the authority to control and direct all persons, including the [N.W.T. government] and public agencies involved in emergency management plans or programs under the Emergency Management Act."

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N.W.T. with 1 case, 1,800 self-isolation plans completed

Russell said that there were no specific incidents that prompted the declaration at this time, but that a "growing concern on what is happening in southern Canada," including impacts on transportation and reduced flight schedules, were factors. 

"All these things combined makes it relevant that we have these powers readily available to the minister to enact," he said.

The territory currently has one confirmed case of COVID-19 as of Friday morning, according to the territory's Health Department. On Thursday, Dr. Kami Kandola said that the N.W.T., unlike its provincial counterparts, is still in a "containment" phase of its response to the pandemic.

Closure signs at a playground in Yellowknife. Cochrane thanked local and Indigenous governments, businesses, and residents for doing their part to fight the spread of COVID-19 in the territory. (Randall McKenzie/CBC)

The N.W.T. has taken aggressive measures to combat potential spread, including closing its borders to non-residents, with some exceptions.

According to a government spokesperson, the territory has had about 1,800 individuals submit a self-isolation plan form — a form that the government requires anyone to submit prior to travelling into the territory, or have recently returned.

Cochrane said that the move "is, really, proactive, so if we do get into a position where we need more authority, we already have it installed."

"If something dramatic happens in the communities, can we make further orders? Can we order a businessperson to obey with the orders? If we're short staffed, can we order people to take those positions? This allows us to do that."

Responding to why the declaration was made public three days after it was signed, Cochrane said that the delay was meant to give cabinet time to deliberate and prepare their departments. 

The premier assured residents that the government has put "everything it has" into the fight to stop the spread of COVID-19, and thanked, residents, businesses, and Indigenous and local governments for doing their part. She also noted the chief public health officer has not yet had to mete out punishments based on people violating her orders.

"We know we face challenges, but northerners are tough, resilient people, and I'm confident that we can meet this challenge together," she said.

Here's a side by side comparison of the powers granted in a public health emergency and state of emergency:

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