What is a state of emergency?

National Guard troops stand watch in Baltimore, Maryland April 28, 2015. REUTERS/Eric Thayer

The Baltimore riots that erupted this week following the death while in police custody of young black man Freddie Gray, are the latest example of a city declaring a state of emergency.

But what does that mean and what powers does such an action give to authorities to deal with the situation? Conversely, what individual rights are being overridden in the process?

In general, a state of emergency can be declared by any jurisdiction — federal, provincial, territorial, or municipal — due to severe disruptions caused by violent protests, armed conflict, terrorism, war, or natural disasters.

In Baltimore, emergency measures included a heightened security presence that involved calling in the United States National Guard and as many as 5,000 additional police officers. As well, the city issued a week-long curfew that essentially confines residents to their homes from the hours of 10 p.m. to 5 a.m., with exceptions for medical emergencies and people working the night shift.

In Canada, the Emergencies Act, which replaced the previous War Measures Act in 1988, allows the government to implement “special temporary measures to ensure safety and security during national emergencies and to amend other Acts in consequence thereof.”

In the past, this law has been triggered by significant threats posed by world wars and the domestic October Crisis of 1970, during which police were allowed to arrest and detain individuals without bail.

The act defines an emergency as an “urgent or critical situation of a temporary nature” that achieves one, or both, of the following criteria:

  • It 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.
  • It seriously threatens the ability of the Government of Canada to preserve the sovereignty, security and territorial integrity of Canada.

Recently, states of emergency have been imposed more often for natural disasters than anything else. This past winter, Saint John, N.B. invoked emergency measures, such as curfews, due to “heavy snow accumulation.” Two summers ago, Calgary declared a state of emergency in the aftermath of extreme flooding.

In both situations, the respective mayors called on the province to officially issue the decree. On the provincial level, the responsibility usually rests with the minister of municipal affairs.

Like most Canadian cities, Calgary has its own Municipal Emergency Plan bylaw that allows it to declare a state of emergency that can last a maximum of 14 days, or up to 90 days in the event of a pandemic. An example of a pandemic was the 2003 SARS outbreak in Toronto, during which 25,000 people were quarantined after the city declared a state of emergency.

These acts often shield municipalities from liability for anything done in the course of carrying out their duties during an emergency. This does not mean the government or its representatives can willfully commit crimes, but they are usually exempt from damages or injury to person or property arising from doing their jobs during a crisis.

While this is generally true, the RCMP was judged to have illegally seized guns from flood-stricken Alberta homes during a forced evacuation in 2013.

In 2007, the federal government passed the Emergency Management Act to help speed up and optimize a disaster response.

In addition to providing emergency funds, the act allows authorities to prohibit or restrict travel, order evacuations, enter any buildings without a warrant, and regulate the distribution of essential goods and services. However, in Canada, the federal government cannot get involved unless “the province requests assistance or there is an agreement with the province that requires or permits the assistance.”

Another interesting aspect of the EMA is it allows citizens to be conscripted to help, much like when people are drafted to serve in a war.

A state of emergency, however, doesn’t always have to be declared for police to be granted special powers. Most provinces and cities have legislation that permits law enforcement to bypass other laws or individual rights during times of crisis.

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