OTTAWA -- Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Tuesday that his government is looking into recalling Parliament for a brief period in order to pass emergency measures, including possibly the federal Emergencies Act in response to COVID-19.

What would enacting the Emergencies Act mean? How broad are the powers that would be at the government’s disposal? And why is it being called a "last resort"?

As things stand, federal officials view the Act as a final bridge to cross in the fight against COVID-19’s rapid spread in Canada, as the measure grants "extraordinary powers" to the government. Trudeau said the Liberals are looking at ways to enact certain security and governance measures without having to bring Canada under a state of emergency. breaks down what to expect if the government decides to take this exceptional route.

What is the Act?

The Emergencies Act’s full title is: "An Act to authorize the taking of special temporary measures to ensure safety and security during national emergencies."

Formerly known as the War Measures Act, the current iteration passed in 1988 and has never been used. The last time these federal emergency powers were invoked was during the 1970 FLQ October Crisis, when Trudeau's father was the prime minister.

The Act allows for actions to combat urgent and critical but temporary situations that seriously threaten some aspect of Canadians’ lives, and that cannot be effectively dealt with under any other law of Canada.

There are four types of emergencies listed under the Act:

  • A public welfare emergency
  • A public order emergency
  • A international emergency
  • A war emergency

It’s likely that the COVID-19 pandemic would be deemed a "public welfare emergency" as it fits the bill of an emergency caused by "disease in human beings," which is listed in this category alongside natural disasters and pollution.

And, as it may result in "a danger to life or property, social disruption or a breakdown in the flow of essential goods, services or resources."

Why is Parliament needed?

The Act explicitly states the requirement for parliamentary oversight on an emergency declaration. In addition to consulting premiers, an explanation of the reasoning for declaring an emergency has to be presented within seven days to both the House and Senate.

While this would require parliamentarians to reconvene urgently, it would very likely not mean the entire 338 MPs are heading back to Ottawa. Rather, as Government House Leader Pablo Rodriguez hinted at when Parliament was suspended for five weeks, it could be a smaller number of elected officials who come back, ideally from ridings that don’t require them to fly to get to there.

In order to reach "quorum"—the number of MPs needed for House business to proceed— just 20 MPs need to be in the Chamber, while in the Senate the threshold for quorum is 15 senators.

Even with some time to debate these measures it's entirely possible that passing them could be wrapped up within one sitting day.

What powers does it grant?

Operating on the expectation that the government's interpretation of the Act also views the novel coronavirus pandemic as a "public welfare emergency," here's some of what the government could do:

  • Regulating or prohibiting travel within any area within the country;
  • Evacuating people and removing or requisitioning personal property;
  • Directing any person to render essential services they are qualified to provide;
  • Regulating the distribution of essential goods and resources;
  • Making emergency payments and compensating those who experience loss as a result of actions taken under the Act; and
  • Imposing fines between $500 and $5,000 or jail time between six months and five years, for contravening any order or rule set under the Act.

How long could it last?

Once a declaration of a public welfare emergency is issued, it is considered in effect, and unless the declaration is revoked first by Parliament, it will expire after 90 days. The law does allow for the declaration to be continued if within 90 days the situation has not improved, or amended during the 90-day period if circumstances evolve.