On Wednesday the Higgs government introduced Bill 49 to amend the Emergency Measures Act. The blowback was immediate and intense.
Social media lit up with criticism of the Bill’s expansion of the government’s power. Some of the proposed changes include giving the government the power to override public legislation, including municipal bylaws, and giving peace officers “the authority to stop people, request documentation and conduct investigations in support of enforcing an emergency order during a state of emergency.”
In the initial government media release, Public Safety minister Carl Urquhart stated these changes would improve the government’s ability to contain and prevent the spread of COVID-19, but the public and many public representatives were not buying it.
On Thursday, Liberal Party leader Kevin Vickers said his party will vote against Bill 49. The People’s Alliance said they may bring amendments and the Green Party said they will be tabling amendments. The NB Media Co-op spoke with David Coon, Green Party leader and MLA for Fredericton South about their proposed amendments.
Coon said he first saw Bill 49 when it was tabled in the Legislature although he knew it was coming, having been discussed at the all-party cabinet committee on COVID-19.
However “the way it’s written certainly represents significant overreach,” he said.
Coon’s amendments will be ready to table on Tuesday next week when the legislation comes back for debate. The Green Party is proposing two major changes: the expanded authority of “peace officers” will be restricted only to provincial border agents, with the powers used only used during their role on the border, “and likely also the powers narrowed.”
The second amendment to be proposed by the Green Party is that the ability to override legislation needs to have checks and balances in place.
When asked about about the government’s ability to extend its powers to override legislation without any reference to consultation with Indigenous nations, Coon responded:
“Consultation is a requirement in general for governments when there are things that might infringe on Indigenous rights or treaties. So that’s built into the institution of government. Whether they actually do it properly or not is another question. But it’s woven through what government does.”
Coon also believes that concerns about carding will be eliminated if the Green Party’s proposed amendments are accepted. Concerns include that Indigenous people and people of colour are disproportionately arrested or detained by police in these situations.
“That wouldn’t be possible in the amendments we would be introducing to this Bill, because the powers would not extend to any peace officer of any sort except border agents, operating at the border, carrying out their mandate to regulate entry into the province,” he said.
Coon added that a more general concern with the proposed legislation is how it could be used with a majority government. Currently the State of Emergency can only last 14 days before it ends, and then it needs to be renewed. Since the New Brunswick declared a State of Emergency on March 19, it has been renewed many times, he said.
That provision requiring renewal is in effect a “sunset clause” because the expanded powers are temporary. However “what they are proposing is that any order that would override existing legislation could put in place a date on which it would run out. My concern is that with a majority government, this is something cabinet does; that needs to be fixed. My other concern is to make sure that the legislation is focused on what it was actually intended to do.”
Susan O’Donnell is a member of the NB Media Co-op editorial board.