The COVID-19 pandemic has raised a lot of questions around jurisdiction and federal-provincial responsibility for restrictions and other measures. Understandably, most people had no idea what the Emergencies Act was when it was raised as a “last resort” that could be used by the federal government to try to control the pandemic.
The reason people may be unfamiliar with Emergencies Act is because it has never been used. Its predecessor, the War Measures Act, has been used three times: during both the First and Second World Wars, and during the 1970 October Crisis. It was used sparingly because of the level of power it authorizes. This includes taking special temporary measures to ensure safety and security during national emergencies. It provides the most sweeping powers of any emergency law in Canada and essentially removes the power that premiers have over their own provinces.
In the context of COVID-19, the federal government toyed with the idea of invoking the Emergencies Act to manage pandemic response across the provinces. Were they to follow through and invoke the Act, the federal government (and specifically Prime Minister Trudeau’s Cabinet) would be given sweeping control over health, commerce and cross-border travel. The provision of essential services and distribution of essential goods are also powers granted through the Act. A full list of powers granted to the federal government under the Emergencies Act can be found here.
As cases rise across the country, the use of this emergency power is back on the table. That said, the Prime Minister and Canadian premiers alike seem loath to see it happen.
Recently, British Columbia Premier John Horgan asked the PM to consider restricting cross-province travel, while others have been more focused on health transfers and securing more funding for pandemic management. For now, the PM has chosen to allow the premiers to continue doing what they have been – governing their own domain. This could shift if cases continue to rise and the federal government feels the need to bring the hammer down to keep citizens safe.