Past wars, floods and illnesses have caused states of emergency in Manitoba, but the state of emergency caused by the COVID-19 pandemic appears to be the first on record to impact all Manitobans.
According to several historians contacted by CBC News and the Manitoba Legislative Library — the provincial institution that preserves public materials, including events in the Legislative Assembly — local experts don’t know of a time when a province-wide state of emergency was declared by the Manitoba government.
“For most of us baby boomers, we don’t remember seeing this relating to health in the past,” said Christopher Adams, political scientist based at St. Paul’s College at the University of Manitoba.
Adams noted that Manitobans are more used to states of emergency during events like floods or forest fires, but states of emergency caused by natural disasters are often declared by municipalities.
This was the case during the flood of 1950 that forced 107,000 Winnipeggers from their homes, damaged 5,000 buildings and took one person’s life, according to the Canadian Disaster Database.
Despite pleas made to the province to declare a state of emergency and ask for federal aid, only local states of emergency were declared.
The flood of 1997, however, saw the province declare a state of emergency for southern Manitoba and forced over 20,000 people to evacuate their homes.
The province also stepped in last October when a massive snowstorm hit southern Manitoba.
The current pandemic is often compared to that of the Spanish flu, which killed an estimated 50 to 100 million people worldwide from 1918-1920. But Esyllt Jones, a historian at the University of Manitoba who focuses on health and diseases, found no record of a state of emergency at that time.
“I don’t recall state of emergency legislation, which is probably why you aren’t finding anything about it,” said Jones in an email.
“The province had very wide public health powers, which it delegated to municipalities. The City of Winnipeg, for example, issued closures, but my understanding is that this was under the Public Health Act.”
States of emergency sparked by war are federal jurisdiction.
Originally established to develop emergency procedures in case of nuclear attack during the Cold War, the Emergency Measures Organization is the provincial body responsible for developing the COVID-19 response for each provincial department.
The EMO was born through Manitoba’s Emergency Measures Act, which was passed in April 1951. The legislation allows the province to declare a state of emergency, and gives the government more control in order to protect the public.
“I think people are pretty accepting of it. But it does mean that we suspend, in some ways, the rights of citizens to prevent their state or government from interfering with their lives,” said Adams.
Under the act, the province has a dozen broad powers, including access to private property without a warrant, controlling travel and procuring essential goods and resources.
The province is also allowed to develop a business continuity plan that determines who is a critical service provider. This would also include creating a reopening strategy similar to the one that has been in effect since May.
Given that people’s rights are somewhat suspended during a state of emergency, there is always the concern that the government could abuse its power, Adams said, though he does not believe that is happening here.
He cited arrests made after the October Crisis of 1970 as an example.
The Front de libération du Québec (FLQ) kidnapped the deputy premier and a British diplomat. The federal War Measures Act was instituted in response and police arrested nearly 500 alleged FLQ members and sympathizers, including a future minister, a union head and a journalist.
Manitobans have been under state of emergency for three months since the provincial government declared it on March 20. Unless renewed, the state of emergency will expire July 15.
Jack Lindsay, associate professor at Brandon University’s department of applied disaster and emergency studies, expects there will be a fourth 30-day extension, but warns that may bring more unrest from the public.
“When there’s a relatively sudden, unknown event, people band together and put sort of the common good first,” Lindsay explained.
“But now … there’s a sense people are getting tired of the conditions, and they’re starting to have other pressures, other opinions. So as time drags out, that sense of common goal starts to fade as other priorities start coming back.”
Part of the issue, Lindsay says, is that Manitoba was relatively proactive in its public health response to COVID-19, so many people may view the measures taken as having been unnecessary.
“All the work that we’ve done — self-isolating and the cost to the economy — was what was necessary, and if we hadn’t done that, we would be in the same position that some other countries are in,” said Lindsay, citing Brazil and Italy.
“If — when — we start to see a second wave [of the pandemic], it’ll be more difficult,” he said. “There won’t be that same consensus that we need to take the same harsh public health measures.”
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