March 21, 2020. Briefing by Prime Minister Trudeau, responding to a question:
PM: “We have not removed from the table any options. We are looking at a broad array of measures that we can move forward with. At this time we do not see the federal Emergencies Act as an essential tool today, but we are continuing to look at the situation and will make decisions based on the best recommendations of science.”
Question: “What do you need to see before declaring a federal emergency?”
PM: “I think the key issue is are there things that we need to be able to do as a government that we cannot do with the very strong existing regulations that are in place and that our government has as tools.”
You would have to be a hermit living in a cave not to have heard of the COVID-19 pandemic. Governments all over the world have introduced special laws to deal with the emergency. As the rates of infections, hospitalizations and deaths have increased, so has the severity of government responses.
But the existing legal powers of government may soon become insufficient. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has recalled Parliament to enact legislation permitting special financial measures to support Canadians impacted by the closing of schools, workplaces, restaurants and bars. That is his first Parliamentary step, but probably not his last.
There are two Canadian laws that have never been used before, but may have to be if conditions worsen. These are the Emergencies Act and the Quarantine Act. I had not been familiar with either of these laws until this pandemic arose, but now have read them both. Fortunately, because these laws have not been used before there is no large body of case law to wade through to understand how they have been interpreted. Because they have never been interpreted, my interpretation is as good as, or as bad as, anyone else’s.
As between the two laws, I would expect the federal government to use the Emergencies Act first, and if it later becomes necessary, to use the Quarantine Act. Both of these laws give the government extraordinary powers of a somewhat dictatorial nature. Because giving a government dictatorial powers is always dangerous, these laws provide some soft safeguards which, one can only hope, will prove to be adequate.