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The Emergencies Act has been enacted. Here's what that means

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has made history by becoming the first leader of this country to invoke the federal Emergencies Act, to try to bring an end to the ongoing trucker convoy protests paralyzing Ottawa and border blockades.

“This is not something that's been used ever. But, it exists for a reason… Right now, the situation requires additional tools not held by any other federal, provincial or territorial law. Today, in these circumstances, it is now clear that responsible leadership requires us to do this,” Trudeau said in announcing the unprecedented move on Feb. 14.

From compelling tow-truck drivers to haul out the big rigs, to freezing bank accounts, what does enacting the Emergencies Act mean? How broad are the powers that will be at the government’s disposal? And what role does Parliament play?

CTVNews.ca breaks down what you need to know.

WHAT IS THE EMERGENCIES ACT?

Formerly known as the War Measures Act, the current iteration passed in 1988, bringing in new parliamentary oversight and a requirement for Charter of Rights and Freedoms compliance.

The last time these federal emergency powers were invoked was during the 1970 FLQ October Crisis, when Trudeau's father was the prime minister. Prior to that it was used in both the First World War and Second World War.

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

The Act was called a "last resort” when federal officials were looking at, but never acted on, using these powers in March 2020 to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.

WHAT POWERS DOES IT INCLUDE?

There are four types of emergencies listed under the Act: A public welfare emergency; a public order emergency; an international emergency; and, a war emergency.

In this instance, the government is enacting a public order emergency, which is described as: “an emergency that arises from threats to the security of Canada and that is so serious as to be a national emergency.”

The Act gives the government a range of options to enact to address a public order emergency, and in this instance federal officials are moving forward with a wide-sweeping range of new measures:

  • enabling the RCMP to have the jurisdiction to enforce municipal bylaws and provincial offenses;
  • prohibiting taking part in a public assembly where it’s considered a breach of peace and goes beyond lawful protest;
  • regulating the use of certain property, including goods used in blockades;
  • designating secure and protected places and infrastructure that are critical to the economy such as border crossings and airports;
  • compelling those capable to render essential services, so in this case ordering tow truck drivers to move vehicles blocking roads;
  • authorizing financial institutions to essentially stop the financing efforts, including immediately freezing or suspending affiliated accounts without a court order; and,
  • imposing fines of up to $5,000 or imprisonment of up to five years on those who breach any of the above orders.

While the Act covers the entire country, the powers will only apply to regions that need them due to blockades or protests, and other regions of the country are unlikely to see “any impact,” according to the prime minister.

WHAT HAPPENS ONCE EMERGENCY DECLARED?

Once a declaration of a public order emergency is issued, it is considered in effect, and unless the declaration is revoked by Parliament or extended, it will expire after 30 days.

After three weeks of what Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino has described a “lawless” behaviour at times, the government is hoping the emergency order can be revoked in less than a month.

Federal officials will have to outline in a declaration why the government feels the powers are needed given the circumstances on the ground, and what exact powers it wants to enact.

This, and a motion for confirmation of the declaration of emergency, has to be presented within seven days to both the House and Senate. A cross-party and closed-door Parliamentary Review Committee will also be struck.

MPs are set to adjourn for a week on Friday and the Senate is not currently sitting until Feb. 22 so it’s possible one or both Chambers would have to be recalled depending on when this motion is received.

The timeline for parliamentarians being engaged was still being worked out as of Monday evening.

Within 60 days of the declaration of emergency being revoked or expiring, the government will have to convene an inquiry to study the use of the powers. The report stemming from this work will have to then be presented to Parliament within 360 days.

WAS THIS NECESSARY NOW?

While Justice Minister and Attorney General David Lametti asserted Monday that the government believes the clear conditions set out in the Act to make this declaration have been met, immediate expert reaction was mixed.

“The threshold for invoking this is extremely high. And, I question whether or not the legal thresholds have been met here,” said Leah West, an assistant professor of international affairs at Carleton University and national security law scholar in an interview on CTV News Channel.

West questioned whether some of the measures, like compelling tow-truck drivers to move in, couldn’t have been done under the provincial emergency powers already granted.

“It's a matter of actually going about enforcing the orders and regulations and the laws that we have, and that's been the real issue, is that there's all kinds of laws that are being broken every day, every hour by the protests in downtown Ottawa. Those laws aren’t being enforced,” West said.

Former CSIS director and national security adviser Richard Fadden said in his assessment, the situation merited invoking these powers, citing the federal banking measures as a clear example of where no other jurisdiction could intervene.

“I think it's pretty clear that there have been instances where the provinces whatever they have done, have not had the necessary constitutional authority to make a difference,” Fadden said in an interview on CTV News Channel's Power Play.

“I think in the end, it boils down to the fact that the primary level of government to ensure that peace, order and good government is present in Canada, is the federal government.”

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