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COVID-19: What you need to know about states of emergency

Several provinces have declared a state of emergency or state of public health emergency in response to the coronavirus outbreak. Meanwhile, the Trudeau government is examining the Emergencies Act. CBC News explains states of emergency, who can invoke them and the powers they give to governments.

Federal, provincial and municipal levels of government have power to declare state of emergency

Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced Tuesday that funds would be supplied to senior homes to increase COVID-19 precautions in protection of seniors. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

In response to the coronavirus outbreak, a number of provinces, including Ontario, Alberta, British Columbia and Prince Edward Island, have declared a state of emergency or state of public health emergency.

Ontario, for example, has ordered the closure of restaurants and bars. Ontario and Alberta have prohibited gatherings of more than 50 people in a number of venues.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his government is examining the Emergencies Act.  

CBC News explains the details of a state of emergency, including who can invoke one, and the powers given to governments.

What is a state of emergency?

A government will declare a state of emergency when it says it needs to take immediate, temporary and extraordinary measures to ensure safety and security because of a major crisis. 

Those events can include war, natural disasters, major accidents or disease outbreaks. 

Who can declare a state of emergency?

Each level of government — federal, provincial and municipal — has the power to declare a state of emergency for their jurisdiction.

For example, St. John's declared a state of emergency in January after Newfoundland was hit by a massive snowstorm. B.C declared a provincewide state of emergency in 2018 because of wildfires. 

The federal government can invoke a national state of emergency under the 1988 Emergencies Act, and every province and municipality has their own emergency management legislation. 

In Ontario, the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act gives the government the power to declare a state of emergency.

"For the most part, across the country, provincially and then federally, we have to [first] do what we can do legally under all other legislation," said Prof. Jack Lindsay, an associate professor and chair of applied disaster and emergency studies at Brandon University in Manitoba. "When we've exhausted all our options, and we have to go to extraordinary measures locally, then provincially, we can declare a state of emergency."

Federally, the government can invoke the Emergencies Act when a situation endangers the lives and health of Canadians that "exceed the capacity or authority of a province to deal with it."

Is there a difference between declaring a state of emergency and a state of public health emergency?

It's complicated. Ontario declared its state of emergency under its Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act. Alberta, P.E.I. and Quebec invoked public health emergencies under their respective public health acts.

For Alberta, the powers available to them in a public health emergency are more limited and a subset of the wider powers of their Emergency Management Act, Lindsay said. 

P.E.I's powers under the province's Public Health Act are much more focused on the provision of health care than the wider powers of their Emergency Measures Act. Quebec's Public Health Act also provides powers more directly relevant to a communicable disease, he said.

As for Ontario, its Health Protection and Promotion Act doesn't have the same distinct 'public health emergency' option, which is likely why they declared their state of emergency under the Emergency Management Act, Lindsay said. 

"I suspect Ontario went with their state of emergency as it seems easier to implement what they want to accomplish," he said.

Lindsay said the provinces are trying to find the balance between exercising the powers they need without appearing to overreact.

What powers do governments have during a state of emergency?

A state of emergency allows governments to exercise extraordinary powers that essentially suspend rights during the time of the crisis.

"It is [the] provincial legislation that gives local authorities and the provincial government the power to declare a state of emergency and to exercise extraordinary powers,"  said Lindsay, who has researched states of emergency.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says his government is examining the Emergencies Act. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Those powers include controlling movement, forcing people to evacuate an area, closing down public or private places, the requisition of property and the power to search properties without a warrant.

The provinces also have the ability to force a person or a class of persons to do work, Lindsay said.

"We can require service of the skill that you have," he said. 

The Emergencies Act gives powers to the prime minister to respond to four different types of emergency scenarios: public welfare (natural disasters, disease), public order (civil unrest), international emergencies and war emergencies.

The powers the federal government has to respond to a public welfare or public order emergency are very similar to powers the provinces have, Lindsay said. 

However, an international emergency would allow the federal government to take action regarding defence production and immigration. A war emergency, according to the Emergencies Act, allows the federal government to exercise very broad and vague powers and make orders and regulations that "are necessary or advisable for dealing with the emergency."

Has the federal government ever invoked the Emergencies Act?

No. The government has used emergency powers during events that predated the act, including both world wars and the 1970 FLQ crisis.

But in more recent crises, including 9/11, the SARS outbreak or the 2009 flu pandemic, it has not used the Emergencies Act.

Trudeau said his government is currently examining the act to determine how it could be used for this pandemic. If it did invoke the act, it would be under the public welfare emergency category.

But Lindsay said the bar to invoke the act is generally pretty high. The federal government would need to consult with the provinces and would have limited power.

In 2018, British Columbia declared a state of emergency because of wildfires burning across the province. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

As well, if the federal government invokes the Emergencies Act, it automatically triggers an inquiry into the measures taken afterward.

"At the end of the Emergencies Act, the federal act requires the federal government to launch an inquiry and to lay before the House within one year a result of that inquiry. And I really don't think the federal government ever wants a microscope on its emergency management system."

Is there a time limit for states of emergency?

Yes. In Ontario, a state of emergency must end 14 days after being invoked but can be extended once by cabinet for another 14 days. The legislature can then extend the period for another 28 days.

Federally, the termination of a state of emergency depends on the type of emergency. In this case, the declaration of a public welfare emergency would expire at the end of 90 days.

About the Author

Mark Gollom

Reporter

Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.

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