Coronavirus: How the Emergencies Act could help Canada’s struggling economy

Click to play video: 'What does it mean to be in a state of emergency?'
What does it mean to be in a state of emergency?
WATCH: What does it mean to be in a state of emergency? – Mar 17, 2020

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Tuesday that the federal government is considering invoking the Emergencies Act to help keep the Canadian economy afloat as the novel coronavirus spreads throughout the country.

Speaking from Rideau Cottage in Ottawa, Trudeau said he has asked House Leader Pablo Rodriguez to speak with his provincial counterparts to recall the House of Commons to bring in “emergency measures.”

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Trudeau said little about what those measures would specifically entail, but when asked what enacting emergency measures would do that differed from current protocol, he said the government was examining the act “to see if it will allow us to do more things that can’t be done otherwise.”

The announcement to consider emergency measures marks an upward trajectory in government response, which previously saw sweeping border closures to help flatten the curve of the virus.

What is the Emergencies Act?

The Emergencies Act received Royal Assent in 1988, replacing the War Measures Act. It was created to provide a legal framework for power to be temporarily consolidated with the prime minister and cabinet to issue executive orders during national emergencies, like COVID-19.

It has only ever been invoked three times in Canada: during the first and second World Wars, as well as during the October Crisis of 1970, when members of the Front de Libération du Québec abducted then-provincial Deputy Premier Pierre Laporte and British diplomat James Cross.

Click to play video: 'Coronavirus outbreak: Trudeau considering recalling parliament ‘briefly’'
Coronavirus outbreak: Trudeau considering recalling parliament ‘briefly’

Daniel Henstra, a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation and associate professor at the University of Waterloo, said emergency measures were intended specifically for events like pandemics and wars and would have been surprised if one wasn’t declared.

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“Certainly COVID-19 is exactly the type of emergency that this legislation was intended for,” he said, but added they aren’t to be taken lightly.

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Invoking a federal state of emergency temporarily, said Henstra, grants a “great deal of power” to the prime minister and cabinet.

Under the Emergencies Act, officials would have the right to take over property, public utilities, provide special services and special compensation, regulate or prohibit public assembly, as well as travel anywhere to or from any specified area within the country, he said.

With that in mind, Henstra clarified that calling a state of emergency does not mean a government will use all measures at its disposal, “it just empowers the cabinet to move more quickly without having to go to the legislature for approval on every move.”

Reallocating government funds

It also allows the government to use public funds, like the public treasury, for example, outside of the various envelopes of the budget that have been approved by the legislature, which Henstra said would most likely be the Trudeau government’s main use for the act.

“Normally, every expense has to be approved through the budgeting process, but in this case, the cabinet can appropriate these funds and use the funds for emergency purposes to send emergency relief to responders or income relief to individuals,” Henstra said.

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The act specifies that a state of emergency can be called by any level of government, whether that be federal, provincial or municipal — and has already been declared in the provinces of Ontario and Alberta.

Late Tuesday afternoon, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney called a state of public health emergency in that province, banning the use of public spaces like casinos, museums and art galleries, gyms and movie theatres, as well as limiting restaurants and bars to a capacity of 50 people.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford also invoked emergency measures Tuesday morning to create a $300 million relief fund and order the immediate closures of gatherings of more than 50 people, based on the medical advice of Canadian Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam.

There are four types of emergencies laid out in the act.

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They include a public welfare emergency, which would include natural disasters, disease, accidents and pollution, an emergency that arises from threats to Canada’s security, war, and an international emergency, which would involve intimidation, coercion or violence towards Canada and one or more other countries.

Jocelyn Stacey, an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia’s Peter A. Allard School of Law, said the federal government has never enacted the Emergencies Act in its current form, but that it would fall under the statute of a public welfare emergency.

“One of the requirements for the federal government to declare a state of emergency is that the emergency exceeds the capacity of the provinces that it affects,” Stacey said.

“In the past where we’ve had other emergencies like fires or floods, it hasn’t been the case that those have extended beyond provincial boundaries or territorial boundaries. The situation that we’re in right now clearly is of a national scale.”

While Stacey said she was unable to predict which measures the Canadian government would be instituting, she said it was clear that financial measures across the country were “desperately needed.”

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So far, the government has made a point of promoting social distancing and urging employers to let their employees stay home — which Stacey said could be difficult for those working in industries that rely on personal interaction like the service industry.

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“Not everybody is able to do that if they’re depending on the next paycheque and things like that,” she said.

Stacey said invoking emergency measures could “expedite” a release of funds for Canadians who may be struggling to do things like pay rent and afford groceries.

To date, Tam said Canada has 440 confirmed cases of COVID-19, and four people have died from the disease.

At a press conference on Tuesday, Tam said a majority of cases appear to be linked to Canadians who recently travelled from affected countries, but that the government was seeing an increase in the virus being passed within a community — better known as community transmission.

Although Tam said 37,000 Canadians have been tested for COVID-19 so far, she said the country needs to move faster if it wants to flatten the curve of the virus.

“Speed trumps perfection,” she said. “The greatest error is not to move.”

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