The Emergencies Act.

AuthorDavison, Charles

When I agreed to write about the Emergencies Act, I had no idea that I would end up doing so at a time when the federal government was actually considering resorting to this never-before-used legislation. But with the arrival and spread of COVID-19 in Canada, this Act is an option the government has considered. While its use seems unlikely at time of writing, by the time you read these words the Act may well be in effect in some or all of Canada. Coming events will determine this.

The War Measures Act

The Emergencies Act was enacted in 1988 as a replacement for the War Measures Act (WMA). The latter was passed in 1914 shortly after the beginning of the First World War. The WMA gave the federal government the ability to quickly respond to international developments as it saw fit. The Act was short--only three pages--but dramatic in its scope and impact. Upon the government declaring there was a "war, invasion or insurrection, real or apprehended", the Act gave it sweeping powers without the need to consult with or submit to the supervision of Parliament. Invocation of the WMA gave the federal government the power to:

* impose censorship on all publications and writings;

* arrest, detain, exclude and deport persons without the need for charges or trials;

* take over control of harbours and ports and all means of transportation;

* intervene in all trading of any sort.

Breaching a government order could result in imprisonment for up to 5 years.

Probably the most controversial aspect of the use of the WMA during each world war was the government's internment of large groups of persons based solely upon their ethnicity and racial backgrounds. Thousands of persons were imprisoned in camps hundreds of miles from home, suffering not only the loss of their liberty but also properties, income and other aspects of their usual, peacetime lives. Fear of spies and saboteurs among these ethnic communities usually lay behind the government's actions. But the vast majority of those imprisoned bore no allegiance to any foreign power. Almost all were loyal Canadian citizens who had committed no crime though none were permitted to appear in court to contest the government's orders before being interned.

The "final straw" which ultimately led to the repeal and replacement of the War Measures Act was the only time it was invoked during peacetime: in October 1970 during the so-called "FLQ Crisis". After years of bombings in Quebec, the violent Front de Liberation du Quebec (FLQ) kidnapped the British Commissioner for Trade and the Quebec Minister of Labour. The FLQ then threatened more violent actions if its demands were not met. (James Cross, the Commissioner, was ultimately released while Pierre Laporte, the Quebec Minister, was murdered.) After appeals for assistance from the mayor of Montreal and the premier of Quebec, Prime Minster Pierre Trudeau and his cabinet invoked the War Measures Act, effective at 4 a.m. on October 16, 1970. Within Quebec, the police...

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