The Emergencies Act Explained

In the News

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has announced that he intends to invoke the Emergencies Act. What is this law? What powers does this give the government? Are there any limits to its power during an emergency?

What is the Emergencies Act?

The Emergencies Act was passed in 1988 and replaced the well-known War Measures Act. It has never been used since its adoption.

The Emergencies Act gives the federal government special powers to deal with situations that are urgent, critical, and temporary.

What kind of emergencies justify using the law?

The situation must endanger the lives, health, or safety of Canadians and cannot be dealt with by the provinces.

It is also possible to use the Emergencies Act if the situation threatens the federal government’s ability to preserve the sovereignty, security, or territorial integrity of the country.

The law identifies four types of emergencies that can justify its use:

  1. a public welfare emergency (for example, something that affects public health or safety),
  2. a public order emergency (for example, riots),
  3. an international crisis
  4. war

What does the Emergencies Act allow?

The law gives the federal government a broad range of powers in an emergency. For example, the government could:

  • restrict travel to and from certain areas
  • restrict public assemblies that might lead to public disorder
  • secure special protected areas
  • take over public utilities or services

A person who does not respect the rules imposed during the emergency can receive a fine and be sent to prison.

Can the federal government do whatever it wants?

No. The law imposes limits!

The first limit is the Canadian Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, which continues to apply during any emergency.

The second major limit is Parliament. Any declaration of emergency must be presented to the House of Commons and the Senate within 7 days. Either the House of Commons or the Senate can also vote to cancel a declaration of emergency.

In addition, Parliament will review any order made by the federal government under the Emergencies Act within 2 days and may change or cancel it.