The governments of Ontario and Quebec announced a near-complete shutdown of their provinces’ economies in a bid to halt the spread of the novel coronavirus and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau warned he isn’t taking any tools off the table – including invoking the federal Emergencies Act – to stop Canadians from socializing in groups and infecting each other.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced plans on Monday for non-essential businesses to close across the province. Late Monday, Ontario released its list of essential workplaces that can remain open, which include supermarkets, gas stations, pharmacies, take-out and delivery restaurants, hardware stores, hotels, and liquor, beer and cannabis stores.
Urging all Ontarians to stay home, he said the order, issued under the province’s state-of-emergency powers, would come into effect Tuesday at 11:59 p.m. ET and last for 14 days – but could be extended if necessary.
“This is not the time for half measures,” Mr. Ford said. “This decision was not made lightly. And the gravity of this order does not escape me.”
Quebec Premier François Legault made a similar announcement on Monday, mandating that all non-essential businesses in Quebec were to close Tuesday night until April 13.
Only grocery stores, pharmacies, banks, media and a few other services will be allowed to stay open, Mr. Legault said. Companies that can operate with employees working remotely may also continue, he said.
“Quebec will hit pause for three weeks,” Mr. Legault said. “The faster we can limit contact between people, the faster we can limit the contagion and get back to normal life."
The directive also applies to construction companies and aluminum smelters as well as other major employers, the Premier said.
There could be exceptions. "We don’t want to create catastrophes, obviously,” the Premier said.
Mr. Trudeau, for his part, said it’s frustrating to see Canadians who still leave their homes to socialize in groups – activity he warned could endanger others, from the elderly to nurses and doctors. He vowed the federal government will do whatever is necessary to ensure people are no longer congregating in groups.
“We’ve all seen the pictures online of people who seem to think they’re invincible. Well, you’re not. Enough is enough. Go home and stay home,” the Prime Minister said.
“If you choose to ignore that advice; if you choose to get together with people or go to crowded places, you’re not just putting yourself at risk, but you’re putting others at risk too,” Mr. Trudeau told reporters at a press conference in front of his home at Rideau Cottage in Ottawa.
“And we’re going to make sure this happens, whether by educating people more on the risks or by enforcing the rules, if needed,” he said
Asked for details, Mr. Trudeau told reporters: “I can tell you we haven’t taken anything off the table, from the Emergencies Act to new measures or existing measures under the Quarantine Act.”
He said he would prefer Canadians comply without coercion. Ottawa also has powers under the Quarantine Act to force people into quarantine and levy steep punishments for breaking the order.
The Conseil du patronat du Québec, which represents dozens of major employers in Quebec such as Molson Coors and ArcelorMittal, warned of ruinous consequences from the government’s decision to shut non-essential businesses..
“Although the objective is the protection of citizens, which we support, this is a catastrophe for the economy,” the group’s president, Yves-Thomas Dorval, said. “You can’t forget that economic health is also precious and everything needs to be done to preserve that.”
Mr. Trudeau has so far been reluctant to call on the powerful Emergencies Act to force Canadians to avoid gathering in groups.
He discussed the matter with provincial premiers Monday evening. A federal source, who is being kept confidential because they were not authorized to speak publicly, described the conference call as productive and collegial and said there was a consensus that Ottawa didn’t have to invoke the Emergency Measures Act at this moment.
Jack Lindsay, chair of Applied Disaster and Emergency Studies at Brandon University in Manitoba, said he doesn’t see how invoking the Emergencies Act would deliver an advantage because declaring a public-welfare emergency would merely grant Ottawa powers that provinces already have.
He said he doesn’t see a situation today where one or more provinces are not taking necessary measures.
“Are you really gaining anything by making the declaration?”
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, however, told reporters he thinks pressure for such a move is coming largely from Canada’s three northern territories “because their governments frankly do not have the size or capacity to cope with a public-health crisis of this nature.”
The federal emergencies legislation, which is intended as a last resort, grants Ottawa powers to respond to emergencies of public welfare, public order, international emergencies or war.
A public-welfare emergency – the type of emergency that applies to pandemics – does not grant Ottawa the same authority that it would be granted if it declared a war emergency.
If Ottawa were to declare a national emergency and invoke the Emergencies Act for a matter of public welfare, it would be granted powers such as: regulating or prohibiting travel within Canada; requiring the evacuation of people from an area; or authorizing and making emergency payments.
Ottawa would also be restricted in its use of these public welfare emergency powers: it could not do anything that would unduly impair the ability of provinces to carry out their pandemic response and would have to consult with provinces.
“The legislation says if you exercise these powers nationally you have to do it in co-ordination with what the provinces are doing,” Prof. Lindsay says.
Neither Ontario’s Mr. Ford nor Mr. Legault on Monday said they felt a federal declaration of emergency was in order.
Mr. Kenney, who announced property-tax relief to help ease the impact of the pandemic, said he doesn’t see a need for Ottawa to invoke emergency powers. He added: “Our officials here on the ground know best how to respond to the public-health imperative” – better, he said, than “bureaucrats in Ottawa.”
Neither the Conservatives nor the NDP were calling on Ottawa to invoke the Emergencies Act Monday.
The B.C. government Monday announced it will spend $5-billion to provide financial assistance to individuals and business in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, offering cash to workers who lose their jobs, additional funds for essential services including health and housing, and tax relief for businesses trying to stay afloat.
With reports from Les Perreaux in Montreal, Robert Fife in Ottawa and Justine Hunter in Victoria