Q and A with the Experts: The Emergencies Act

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Physical distancing is a key practice in slowing the spread of COVID-19, but some people are still not taking this recommendation from Public Health officials seriously. Is it time to force the issue?

Professor Philip Boyle, an expert in public safety and urban governance at the University of Waterloo, discusses the Emergencies Act and stopping the spread of COVID-19.

What is the Emergencies Act and what powers does it give the federal government?

The Emergencies Act is federal legislation that defines the power of the federal government during a national emergency. In 1988 the Emergencies Act repealed and replaced in the War Measures Act (WMA), which provided the federal government with sweeping powers to issue regulations necessary for the defence of Canada upon declaration of a ‘national emergency’ which was defined in the WMA as ‘real or apprehended war, invasion, or insurrection.’ Famously, the WMA was invoked only three times: During WWI, WW2, and the FLQ crisis of 1970.

The Emergencies Act differs from the WMA in at least two significant ways: first, it broadens the definition of a ‘national emergency’ to include not only conventional warfare but also public welfare emergencies, public order emergencies, and international emergencies.

If there were to be a declaration of a public welfare emergency in the current context, the federal Cabinet could issue enforceable evacuation orders, control the distribution of food, and establish temporary hospitals. However, those same orders would have to be consistent with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which is the second main difference between the WMA and the Emergencies Act.

How could enacting the Emergencies Act help contain the pandemic?

Halting all domestic travel would be possible under the Emergencies Act. This could help stop the spread of COVID-19 between Canada’s provinces and territories. These orders would go above and beyond the orders issued under the already-invoked Quarantine Act, which require people returning to the country to self-isolate for 14 days.

What are the arguments for and against enacting the legislation?

The argument in favor of emergency powers is that exceptional circumstances require exceptional powers that can be exercised without undue delay to address the needs of the moment. While understandable, a concern with the nimbleness enabled by emergency powers is that they tend to accelerate the acceptance of government practices that we would otherwise object to, such as the normalization of employee surveillance or tracking of individual mobile phones (to track infected persons, for example). Emergency powers are both necessary and dangerous for human vitality.

The University of Waterloo has a number of experts available for comment on various aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic, click here to see the up-to-date list.

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