State of emergency: How different levels of government can respond to coronavirus

ABOVE: What does it mean to be in a state of emergency?

As the novel coronavirus outbreak continues to spread across Canada, some governments have declared a state of emergency.

Premier Doug Ford formally declared a state of emergency for Ontario and Alberta Premier Jason Kenney declared COVID-19 a public health emergency on Tuesday. On the same day, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a federal state of emergency was also being considered.

According to Canada’s Department of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, an emergency is a present or imminent event that requires quick action to protect the health, safety and welfare of people and to limit damage to property or the environment.


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A state of emergency is “essentially a symbolic recognition that we’re in an extraordinary period,” said Daniel Henstra, associate professor of political science at the University of Waterloo in Waterloo Ont.

Intended to be temporary, a state of emergency is both to “acknowledge that the government needs to take special measures but also to empower itself to take more executive actions to contain the emergency.”

Any level of government — federal, provincial, territorial or municipal — can call a state of emergency.

The Canadian federal government has legislation called the Emergencies Act, and it outlines four kinds of states of emergency:

  • Public welfare emergency: an emergency caused by a real or imminent fire, flood, drought, storm, earthquake or natural phenomenon; disease in human beings, animals or plants; or accident or pollution.
  • Public order emergency: an emergency that arises from threats to the security of Canada.
  • International emergency: an emergency involving Canada and one or more other countries that arises from acts of intimidation or coercion or the real or imminent use of serious force or violence.
  • War emergency: war or other armed conflict, real or imminent, involving Canada or any of its allies.

The most common are public welfare or public order emergency, said Henstra, but it’s “very rare” that a federal government declares a state of emergency.

Most provincial and territorial governments have a similar act, but they can vary slightly.

In Ontario, the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act allows the government to order closed establishments like public libraries, private schools, and bars and restaurants — which is what Ford announced Tuesday.


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When a state of emergency is called, a number of resources are “unlocked” that aren’t normally accessible by the government.

“I would say the biggest thing is it unlocks the authority to issue executive orders,” Henstra said. “ tap into resources and redirect those, even outside of the approved budget lines.”

This allows previously approved budget items to be “commandeered” and moved to where the greatest need lies.

States of emergency in Canada’s past

In 2019, the Ontario provincial government declared two states of emergency.

The first, in April 2019, was due to severe flooding in the Muskoka region. The second was due to water quality issues in First Nations communities in northern Ontario.

“In those instances, the specific resources needed to be applied to solve the problems,” said Jack Rozdilsky, professor of disaster and emergency management at York University in Toronto.

“By implementing the emergency act, that allowed for local, regional and provincial governments to tap into specific authorities in order to garner resources … evacuate people and deal with the crisis at hand.”

On the federal level, a state of emergency was called by Trudeau’s father, Pierre, during the October Crisis of 1970.

It was considered “a domestic crisis related to terrorism,” said Rozdilsky. “ deployed troops to deal with the FLQ.”

States of emergency are only temporary

These are not meant to be permanent measures, both experts say.

“Up until this point, there have been very strong recommendations from the public health officials of Canada that we should be heeding in order to stop the spread of COVID-19,” Rozdilsky said.

“What the provincial … state of emergency does is it provides some teeth behind these recommendations. This is no longer a recommendation.”


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While it may be scary to hear that a federal state of emergency isn’t off the table, Rozdilsky says Canadians should take comfort in that fact.

It means the government has “realized the seriousness of the situation,” he said.

“They’re going into their toolbox to get the tools that they need to implement measures to stop the potential spread of coronavirus immediately.”

Indicating a ‘serious crisis’

From a citizen standpoint, a state of emergency indicates a “serious crisis,” Rozdilsky said.

“We need to take every measure we can right now to stop the spread of coronavirus before the situation becomes much worse.”

This means cancelling any non-essential travel, practising social distancing and staying home as much possible.

“The actions we take in the present can have a big difference.”

The new coronavirus was first identified in Hubei province, China, in December 2019 and spread rapidly. While the outbreak has begun to level off in China, it seems the virus has found a foothold in a number of countries around the world, and it continues to spread.

Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:

Health officials say the risk is low for Canadians but warn this could change quickly. They caution against all international travel. Returning travellers are asked to self-isolate for 14 days in case they develop symptoms and to prevent spreading the virus to others.

Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.

To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. And if you get sick, stay at home.

For full COVID-19 coverage from Global News, click here.

— With files from Global News’ Daina Goldfinger 

Meghan.Collie@globalnews.ca

© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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