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What is a state of emergency?

Police stand guard at G20 Summit in Toronto, June 25, 2010. REUTERS/Mark Blinch

In general, a state of emergency can be declared by any jurisdiction — federal, provincial, territorial or municipal — due to severe disruptions caused by violent protests, armed conflict, terrorism, war, or natural disasters.

But what does that mean and what powers does the act bestow authorities to deal with the situation? Conversely, what individual rights are being overridden in the process?

In Canada, the Emergencies Act, which replaced the previous War Measures Act in 1988, allows the government to implement “special temporary measures to ensure safety and security during national emergencies and to amend other Acts in consequence thereof.”

In the past this law has been triggered by significant threats posed by world wars and the domestic October Crisis of 1970, when Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau deployed troops into Quebec after the FLQ separatist group kidnapped two politicians, one of whom — Pierre Laporte — was executed.

In that case police were allowed to arrest and detain individuals without bail, normally a violation of their Charter rights.

The act defines an emergency as an “urgent or critical situation of a temporary nature” that meets one, or both, of the following criteria:

  • It seriously endangers the lives, health or safety of Canadians and is of such proportions or nature as to exceed the capacity or authority of a province to deal with it.
  • It seriously threatens the ability of the Government of Canada to preserve the sovereignty, security and territorial integrity of Canada.

Recently, states of emergency have been imposed more for natural disasters than anything else. Saint John, N.B. invoked emergency measures, such as curfews, due to heavy snow accumulation, while Calgary declared a state of emergency in the aftermath of extreme flooding in 2013.

In both situations the respective mayors called upon the province to officially issue the decree. On the provincial level the responsibility usually rests with the minister of municipal affairs.

Like most Canadian cities, Calgary has its own Municipal Emergency Plan bylaw that allows it to declare a state of emergency that can last a maximum of 14 days, or up to 90 days in the event of a pandemic. An example of a pandemic was the 2003 SARS outbreak in Toronto, during which 25,000 people were quarantined after the city declared a state of emergency.

Municipal emergency plans establish certain protocols and outline which individuals and organizations are responsible for responding to emergencies.

These acts often shield municipalities from liability for anything done in the course of carrying out their duties during an emergency. This does not mean the government or its representatives can willfully commit crimes, but they are usually exempt from damages or injury to person or property arising from doing their jobs during a crisis.

While this is generally true, the RCMP was judged to have illegally seized guns from flood-stricken Alberta homes during a forced evacuation in 2013.

In 2007, the federal government passed the Emergency Management Act to help speed up and optimize a disaster response.

In addition to providing emergency funds, the act allows authorities to prohibit or restrict travel, order evacuations, enter any buildings without a warrant, and regulate the distribution of essential goods and services. However, in Canada, the federal government cannot get involved unless “the province requests assistance or there is an agreement with the province that requires or permits the assistance.”

Another interesting aspect of the EMA is it allows citizens to be conscripted to help, much like when people are drafted to serve in a war. This may impact businesses, as they have critical employees such as emergency workers or snowplow drivers enlisted to help elsewhere. Non-compliance can be costly, with fines up to $100,000 for corporations and up to $10,000 for individuals; a jail term up to six months is another penalty.

A state of emergency, however, doesn’t always have to be declared for police to be granted special powers.

During the 2010 G20 summit in Toronto, the Ontario government revived the wartime Public Works Protection Act, to give security personnel the power to demand people produce identification and to conduct searches without warrants. The legislation was replaced by the Security for Courts, Electricity Generating Facilities and Nuclear Facilities Act in 2014, after it was deemed to have been an inappropriate application of a law that was originally designed to protect electrical generating facilities from Nazi saboteurs during the Second World War.

Read more:

Emergencies Act

Emergency Management Act

Emergency Management Framework for Canada