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A primer on life in a state of emergency

Unsure what the state of emergency means? Here's what you need to know

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Usually reserved for floods and storms, Manitoba’s decision Friday to trigger its Emergency Measures Act goes beyond targeted public-health actions, giving the province almost unlimited power.

Why did Manitoba declare a state of emergency?

Premier Brian Pallister said Friday’s state of emergency allows the province to shut down businesses that allow more than 50 people to gather, in light of official advice to avoid spreading COVID-19 through mass gatherings.

"This is not something we take lightly," Pallister said.

“This is not something we take lightly." –Premier Brian Pallister

Can’t public-health officials do that anyway?

Jack Lindsay, emergency studies chairman at Brandon University, says the Emergency Measures Act is intended to be wide-reaching, while the Public Health Act is more focused on individuals and particular sites.

Province declares state of emergency

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On Thursday, the Health Links line received a record 2,400 calls, said Lanette Siragusa, chief nursing officer at Shared Health. The average wait time for service dropped by about an hour — to one hour and 15 minutes — from a couple of days earlier. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)
On Thursday, the Health Links line received a record 2,400 calls, said Lanette Siragusa, chief nursing officer at Shared Health. The average wait time for service dropped by about an hour — to one hour and 15 minutes — from a couple of days earlier. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

Posted: 20/03/2020 12:26 PM

The Manitoba government has declared a provincewide state of emergency to reduce the spread of COVID-19, giving legal force to social-distancing directives by provincial health authorities.

Effective 4 p.m. Friday, the province limited the size of indoor and outdoor public gatherings to no more than 50 people for a period of 30 days.

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Health officials can shut down individual restaurants for cleanliness. They can restrict someone’s movements in order to quarantine or decontaminate them, or even get their identification to track the spread of a disease.

Friday's declaration goes further, closing all gyms and prescribing limits on other businesses.

How has this been used?

The province last declared a state of emergency during October’s ice storm. It allowed Manitoba Hydro to access supplies and help from different jurisdictions. It could have also let Hydro workers enter private backyards and remove trees blocking electrical lines.

"We haven’t done this before in Manitoba, apart from allowing mutual-aid agreements," Pallister said Friday, adding it was the first time the Emergency Measures Act was used for a ministerial order.

Before last fall, the act was last used during the 2014 Assiniboine River flood.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Pallister stressed Friday he expects Manitobans will act in the public interest, and that his officials won’t need to curtail civil liberties.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Pallister stressed Friday he expects Manitobans will act in the public interest, and that his officials won’t need to curtail civil liberties.

How far can this go?

"It can go really far, which is of course why people are nervous about it," said Karen Busby, a University of Manitoba constitutional-law professor. "The language is very open-ended and it gives seemingly unlimited power."

The province can spend beyond its current budget, and can compel municipalities to do the same. It can prohibit Manitobans from travelling to different places or from being in groups.

It can relax qualifications for certain professions, such as nurses with outdated credentials or specialists from other provinces or American states.

“It can go really far, which is of course why people are nervous about it... The language is very open–ended and it gives seemingly unlimited power.” –Karen Busby, a University of Manitoba constitutional–law professor

The government could designate certain professions as a "critical service provider," which would give them certain privileges like child care or priority for protective equipment. That could include public-utility employees or even grocery-store staff, as some American states have recently done.

The province can also compel cities to take certain actions, and make them pay for it. Officials can seize private property and livestock, and enter homes without a warrant, as long as it’s in the interest of avoiding deaths or damage to the environment.

Citizens can be eligible for compensation but there are limits to their ability to challenges measures or seek greater compensation.

Police officers can detain people without charge in order to stop them from committing harm, such as intentionally trying to spread the virus.

People who breach an order restricting travel between cities could be jailed for a year and fined $10,000, a fine that rises to $50,000 for those who refuse an evacuation order.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

The state of emergency allows the province to spend beyond its current budget, and the province can compel municipalities to do the same. It can prohibit Manitobans from travelling to different places or from being in groups.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS The state of emergency allows the province to spend beyond its current budget, and the province can compel municipalities to do the same. It can prohibit Manitobans from travelling to different places or from being in groups.

Isn’t that drastic?

"It is the only way the government can legally suspend certain civil rights," Lindsay said, though he suspects Friday's news is as much about tools as it is about falling in line with other provinces.

"It’s also symbolic; it's showing the provincial government isn’t holding anything back."

Pallister stressed Friday he expects Manitobans will act in the public interest, and that his officials won’t need to curtail civil liberties.

"We do not intend to implement the full intent of the act, in its initial application," he said. "We respect the individual rights and freedoms of all of our citizens, and always will."

“We do not intend to implement the full intent of the act, in its initial application. We respect the individual rights and freedoms of all of our citizens, and always will.” –Premier Brian Pallister

What about other provinces?

Ontario was the first province to declare a state of emergency Tuesday, hours before federal officials said they were most concerned about spread in that province.

British Columbia and Alberta both did so hours later, having already declared a public-health emergency, which involved more precise powers. Those three provinces have been the hardest hit with cases — B.C. with 271, Ontario with 258 and Alberta with 146, as of Friday morning. By comparison, Manitoba has 17 cases. 

Cities like Calgary have taken similar moves to declare a state of emergency, to close recreational centres.

Saskatchewan and New Brunswick issued states of emergency Wednesday and Thursday, respectively, to limit all restaurants to take-out only and close public pools. The remaining provinces only have public-health orders in place.

All three territories have declared states of emergency despite having no COVID-19 cases, in order to limit flights from southern Canada and allow officials from afar to come help if needed.

The federal Liberals are consulting on using the federal Emergencies Act if they feel provinces aren’t stepping up to the plate. However, they’ve called this a last resort. Lindsay said Ottawa likely won’t invoke the act because it requires an inquiry at the end of the emergency on why the government invoked it, unlike Manitoba’s own legislation.

Download Manitoba's Emergency Measures Act

dylan.robertson@freepress.mb.ca

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