What to expect if the federal government decides to initiate

With the rapidly progressing COVID-19 pandemic, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been asked about other potential measures that the Government of Canada can take to keep Canadians safe and the Canadian economy moving. The following is a Bluesky Brief on the Emergencies Act, a tool in the government’s legislative arsenal to protect the health and wellbeing of the country.

What is the Act?

The Emergencies Act’s full title is: "An Act to authorize the taking of special temporary measures to ensure safety and security during national emergencies." Formerly known as the War Measures Act (which no longer exists, and the only times it was invoked was during World War I, World War II and the 1970 FLQ October Crisis when Trudeau's father was the Prime Minister), the current iteration passed in 1988 and has not yet been used.

The big difference between the former War Measures Act and the Emergencies Act is that the latter must be approved by Parliament, the term is limited, and any laws passed are subject to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Emergencies Act allows for actions to combat urgent and critical but temporary situations that seriously threaten some aspect of Canadians’ lives, and that cannot be effectively dealt with under any other law of Canada.

There are four types of emergencies listed under the Act:

  • A public welfare emergency

  • A public order emergency

  • An international emergency

  • A war emergency

The COVID-19 pandemic would likely be deemed a "public welfare emergency" as it fits the bill of an emergency caused by "disease in human beings" or "a danger to life or property, social disruption or a breakdown in the flow of essential goods, services or resources."

Does Parliament have to approve the Emergencies Act?

The Emergencies Act explicitly states the requirement for parliamentary oversight on an emergency declaration. In addition to consulting premiers, an explanation of the reasoning for declaring an emergency must be presented within seven days to both the House and Senate.

While this would require parliamentarians to reconvene, not all it would be needed. If there is general agreement it need only be a quorum. To reach quorum, only 20 Members of Parliament must be in the Chamber for House business to proceed, while in the Senate quorum is 15 Senators. Even with some time to debate these measures, it is entirely possible that passing them could be wrapped up within one sitting day.

What powers does the Emergencies Act grant?

Operating on the expectation that the government's interpretation of the Act also views the novel coronavirus pandemic as a "public welfare emergency," here's some of what the government could do.

  • Regulating or prohibiting travel within any area within the country;

  • Evacuating people and removing or requisitioning personal property;

  • Directing any person to render essential services they are qualified to provide;

  • Regulating the distribution of essential goods and resources;

  • Making emergency payments and compensating those who experience loss as a result of actions taken under the Act; and

  • Imposing fines between $500 and $5,000 or jail time between six months and five years, for contravening any order or rule set under the Act.

What would change from last week?

Depending on the details of the specifics within whatever is passed under the Emergencies Act, the federal government would be able to order and direct with the full force of law a lot of those things that it currently suggests, recommends, requests or implores of individual Canadians, corporations and the provinces and territories.

How long could it last?

Once a declaration of a public welfare emergency is issued, it is considered in effect and, unless the declaration is revoked first by Parliament, will expire after 90 days. The law does allow for the declaration to be continued if within 90 days the situation has not improved or amended during the 90 days if circumstances evolve. The actual length of the emergency is unknown but will almost certainly be at least 4 months and could easily be more.

What could this mean?

The ability of the Federal government to get things done in the national interest will be dramatically increased. Expedited resource allocations, contract selection and awards, transfers to Provinces and Territories, decisions on resource prioritization, schedule compressions, enhanced executive authorities and the list continue. No matter what, the federal government will listen to those voices it knows and trusts to offer advice, recommendations and corporate contacts to assist with the rapid injection of billions of dollars into the fight against COVID-19.

If you have questions, contact the Bluesky Strategy Group team at 613-241-3512

Tim Barber, Principal, x 223

Susan Smith, Principal, x 221

Stuart McCarthy, Sr. Vice President, x 225

Neil Brodie, Vice President, x 224

Hon. Joe Jordan, PC, Senior Associate, x 232

Hon. Andrew Leslie, Lt. Gen. (ret’d), PC, Senior Associate x 238

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