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

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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.”

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.

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.

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.

“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.

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.”

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.

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