“A national emergency is an urgent and critical situation of a temporary nature that (a) 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 …” – from Article 3, Emergencies Act of 1988.
The Emergencies Act was enacted by Parliament to replace the old War Measures Act. The WMA had been used just three times – during the First and Second World Wars and in the FLQ crisis of 1970. The Emergencies Act has never been activated, but the soaring infection rate in the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic is leaving the federal government with few options.
Ottawa’s scientists are projecting that the number of new cases is headed toward 20,000 a day, and they fear that without rigorous new controls holiday gatherings of families and friends could push that figure to 60,000 after Christmas.
Although the provincial premiers would profess to be outraged, I suspect that more than a few of them would be relieved if the Trudeau government stepped in and took over the COVID battle within their borders for the 90-day emergency period stipulated in the act.
The Emergencies Act would not give the federal government new powers. It would simply enable Ottawa to exercise powers that are already available to the provinces – most of whom are reluctant to employ the full arsenal – and to apply them on a consistent basis across the country or throughout certain regions, whichever would work best.
Listening to Prime Minister as he delivered his sombre forget-about-a-merry-Christmas update on the pandemic on Friday, it was clear that the government is close to a decision point. But he stopped short. His reluctance to invoke the Emergencies Act is understandable. He is only too aware of the controversy that erupted before he was born when his father used the WMA to crush the FLQ. And, as the head of a minority government, just about the last thing he needs is a brawl with the provinces.
Ontario’s blustering Premier Doug Ford, for example, sounds as though he is cruising for a confrontation. “That’s not their jurisdiction,” he says. “We don’t need the nanny state telling us what to do. …He’d have a kickback like he’s never seen from not just me, from every single premier.”
Maybe. Ford’s protestations and assertions of constitutional supremacy would be more convincing were it not for a suspicion that he is trying to deflect attention from his government’s ongoing failure to protect Ontarians from the pandemic. As several other provinces are, Ontario is setting new infection records virtually every day. And once again, patients in long term care homes, especially the for-profit ones, are bearing the brunt of the deaths.
Premier Ford sends mixed messages. One day he insists that people stay at home; the next he encourages businesses to open up. He threatens to act against for-profit LTC operators, yet he introduces a new law to protect those operators from lawsuits by families of residents who died in the homes. On Friday, he ordered a limited lockdown in Toronto and Peel, but for just 28 days, so as not to interfere with Christmas.
My sense is that most Canadians could not care less which level of government does the heavy lifting required to flatten the curve of the second wave until such time, many months from now, as vaccines are tested, approved and made available for distribution across the country – a daunting national challenge in itself.
Above all, I think the country is looking for leadership. It responded to it from Justin Trudeau when the pandemic swept in last March. Although the threat has grown graver, it is harder to get Canadians, suffering from pandemic fatigue, into crisis mode a second time. It will take more than a fresh round of pleas for cooperation from the steps of Rideau Cottage.
It may take a dramatic assertion of national leadership – the kind of national leadership that Donald Trump manifestly failed to provide in the United States – to give Canadians the emotional jolt they need to get back on the safe path. The Emergencies Act would offer such a jolt.
Cambridge resident Geoffrey Stevens, an author and former Ottawa columnist and managing editor of the Globe and Mail, teaches political science at the University of Guelph. His column appears Mondays. He welcomes comments at [email protected].