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Briefing: Canada’s Emergencies Act in the Age of COVID-19

Max Bell School MPP student Omar Akeileh looks at why Ottawa has been reluctant to invoke a federal state of emergency during the pandemic.

The challenges of governing Canada have become starkly evident during the COVID-19 pandemic: the country’s enormous landmass, coupled with a meager population of 38 million people, levelled across three distinct levels of government in a decentralized federation, have all but ensured major difficulties in managing the crisis.

Canada’s population demographics are not without their advantages. Thanks to our low population and its sparse geographic distribution, we do not – yet – find ourselves in scenarios like those unfolding in Europe or south of the border, where massive infection outbreaks have occurred, completely overrunning health care systems and resulting in a catastrophic loss of life.

Conversely, since we are governed by three different levels of government – municipal and provincial governments that are subservient to a national authority – there can be gaps in policies that can undermine our collective response to this crisis. As such, Canadians are particularly vulnerable to a breakdown of authority, giving way to crucial missteps and potentially devastating consequences.

The Emergencies Act

At his daily briefings outside Rideau Cottage, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is always asked whether his government intends to invoke the Emergencies Act to deal with the global pandemic that brought the world to a screeching halt.

“Nothing is off the table,” he says, because while Ottawa is providing necessary support, it prefers to leave matters to the provinces to do as they see best, with the goal of seeing policy responses incorporate local solutions.

However, there is no definitive power mechanism inherent in the Emergencies Act that only Ottawa can use. The provinces, who are on the front lines, already possess the range of powers that could be granted to the federal government via the Emergencies Act. Hence, the Act, if invoked by the federal government, could mandate a “top-down” rather than “bottom-up” approach from Ottawa, hindering the ability of provinces to respond to the unique circumstances each one faces. Enacting the Emergencies Act overlaps with and replicates powers that already exist at the provincial level.

Policy Responses:

1. Income Supplements

Addressing the need for workers’ income relief has fallen mainly to Ottawa. At first, the federal government announced the Emergency Care Benefit and the Emergency Support Benefit, but these two distinct benefits were convoluted, limited in scope, and were criticized as being overly bureaucratic and unclear for Canadians to navigate and access. After much opposition, predominantly from the New Democratic Party, the Liberals decided to amalgamate the two benefits into the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB). The CERB constitutes a $2000 monthly payment that is available to more Canadians than the initial proposal was. However, critics argued that Ottawa didn’t move fast enough as benefits are not expected to arrive until mid-April, which has prompted some provinces to provide their version of “emergency funds” in the meantime, with varying eligibility criteria.

2. Support for Businesses

For businesses, Ottawa’s approach has been somewhat of a “trial and error.” At first, PM Trudeau announced a 10% wage subsidy, which was decried by both industry and labour groups as far too insubstantial. The wage subsidy has been raised to 75% — on par with many other countries. This allows many businesses to keep employees on their payroll to avoid mass layoffs. Additionally, in partnership with its Crown corporations, the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC), and Export Development Canada (EDC), Ottawa has established an extensive suite of financial assistance programs. The Bank of Canada has also tweaked its monetary policy. This is only the beginning. We can expect more relief measures, as the crisis will get worse before it gets better. (For more, read the series briefing on pandemic recessions and economic projections here).

3. Rent & Utilities

Given that rental housing falls under provincial jurisdiction, most provinces have enacted moratoriums on evictions, and some have extended that to the non-payment of utilities. Others, such as Alberta, have frozen proposed rent increases and outlawed retroactive fees on late rent payments for the next three months. British Columbia has gone a step further by providing up to $500 a month in rent subsidies for low- to moderate-income tenants for three months. While laudable, the varying provincial responses risk fragmentation and gaps across the country where many tenants have been left in the dark due to insufficient measures. This variation in provincial responses has raised calls for a national rent freeze from Ottawa. While such a policy is unprecedented and may give an incentive to some renters to free ride, despite leaving landlords out to dry, it would deliver on the call for swift and comprehensive action by providing financial relief for Canadian renters.

Testing and Reporting of Cases:

The World Health Organization (WHO) has stated that testing is the best tool to fight a pandemic. Testing, in tandem with isolation and contact tracing, has been the backbone of government responses. At the time of writing, over 250,000 tests have been conducted in Canada, but not on an equal scale across the country. Ontario has reported a backlog of over 10,000 patients who are waiting on their results, and an analysis shows that the province may have missed a third or more of actual cases.

Further, at the time of writing, Alberta led the country with a testing rate of 831 per 100,000 population, while Ontario, the most populous Canadian province, lagged behind at around 210 per 100,000 population, signalling a serious concern that it will undoubtedly face a hospitalization surge as testing ramps up over the coming weeks. In Quebec, the government stopped distinguishing between probable and confirmed cases, which can partly explain the explosion of cases in la belle province. The differences in procedures, qualifications, and the availability of test kits within provinces provides insight into the nationwide testing disparities, while bolstering the argument for uniform standards in data practices, which can be coordinated through the Emergencies Act.

The Emergencies Act: Necessity or Power Grab?

All provinces have declared a state of emergency, bestowing them with sweeping powers to deal with the crisis in ways that Ottawa currently cannot. This falls in line with the “localized” approach that PM Trudeau favours, as different local strategies are being used across provinces. However, critics object that it gives way to a lack of coordination across the country. The varying provincial responses leave room for inadequate measures that, in addition to unnecessary loss of life, could cost us even more in terms of precious days lost in the fight against this pandemic. Supporters of Ottawa invoking the Emergencies Act argue that it would present a cohesive and consistent front in both communications and policies. It would also instill a sense of uniformity in our national response as policy should be based on evidence, and the evidence is the same, everywhere.

If invoked, the Act would allow Ottawa to override provincial jurisdiction to do several things:

Rationing of essential supplies and test kits

  • As personal protective equipment (PPE) supplies dwindle, Canada would be able to step in and redirect PPE from one area of the country to “hotspots” that need them. This would ensure the proper allocation of supplies and deal with the potential problem of hoarding. Further, this could be used to allocate ventilators and test kits to provinces based on their population needs.

Creation of specialized centres and effective utilization of critical personnel

  • In addition to increased rural and urban testing sites, Canada would be able to establish dedicated emergency hospitals and shelters and to coordinate the deployment of military personnel, medical professionals, and students. Further, the federal government would be able to enlist volunteers to aid the healthcare workforce all across the country.

Response coordination on contact tracing and limiting domestic travel

  • Considering the WHO’s urging to “isolate, test, treat and trace,” Canada could employ the Act to develop a coordinated response to tracking cases. This could involve obtaining data from telecommunications providers (as some countries have done), which would run into privacy concerns and would require legislation to be compliant with the Charter, but can be achieved using the Act.
  • Restrictions on domestic travel can be better coordinated by the federal government through management of inter-provincial borders, allowing authorities to prevent further spread of COVID-19 by infectious individuals.


We would do well to remember how essential provinces are to this crisis response, and that any decision to enact the Emergencies Act must be made with their input. If Ottawa was to declare a state of national emergency, Trudeau has indicated that he would not invoke the Act without consulting the provinces, because he cannot afford to alienate any of his crucial allies in the fight against COVID-19.

Ottawa must continue to work with the provinces to craft a response that is both collaborative and swift, but whether that includes invoking a federal state of emergency remains up to Trudeau, as the Prime Minister must delicately weigh the pros and cons before making his move.

Nonetheless, Trudeau must act quickly. As the well-being of Canadians continues to deteriorate, one thing remains clear: unprecedented circumstances demand unprecedented responses.

Omar Akeileh

Max Bell School MPP candidate





COVID-19 and Public Policy image of empty streets and airport

Policy Challenges During a Pandemic

Policy Challenges During a Pandemic is a series of webinars and briefing notes addressing policy aspects of the current public health crisis.


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