Canada adopted quarantine legislation in 1872, five years after Confederation. It was replaced by the current Quarantine Act, which was passed by the Parliament of Canada and received royal assent in 2005. The act gives sweeping powers to the federal health minister to prevent the introduction and spread of communicable diseases. These powers can include health screenings, the creation of quarantine facilities and mandatory isolation orders. The Quarantine Act was introduced in the wake of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) crisis of 2003. It was invoked in March 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
History of Quarantine
Quarantine has long been used to prevent the spread of communicable diseases. During the 14th century, European cities and governments used quarantine to control the spread of bubonic plague, known as the Black Death. For example, ships arriving in Venice were detained for a period of 40 days, or “quarantino,” the Italian word for a 40-day period. This was the origin of the term and practice of quarantine, the isolation of people and goods that may have been exposed to disease.
Canada adopted a Quarantine Act in 1872, five years after Confederation. The law remained unchanged for over a century before minor revisions were made in 1985 and 1996.
In the past, quarantine stations for arriving immigrants operated near Canada’s major ports, including William Head (Victoria, British Columbia), Grosse Île (Quebec City, Quebec), Partridge Island (Saint John, New Brunswick) and Lawlor’s Island (Halifax, Nova Scotia).
Quarantine Act, 2005
Today’s Quarantine Act was passed in 2005. It repealed and replaced the original quarantine legislation. Its purpose is to prevent the introduction and spread of communicable diseases. The act gives authority to the federal health minister to screen all travellers who are entering or exiting Canada, including the ability to establish quarantine stations and facilities. The minister has the power to fine or imprison those who refuse to comply.
The Quarantine Act also gives emergency powers to the federal government. The government can stop the importation of goods and/or prohibit any class of people from entering the country. Emergency orders are enforced by fines and the possibility of criminal prosecution. Those who wilfully or recklessly violate the act face fines of up to one million dollars and jail terms of up to three years.
Quarantine Act and COVID-19
While the current Quarantine Act is always active, it did not receive much public attention until the outbreak of a pandemic in 2019. The disease, a deadly pneumonia of unknown cause, was first identified in December 2019 in Wuhan, China. The World Health Organization declared the spread of the disease COVID-19 (caused by novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2) to be a pandemic on 11 March 2020.
Two weeks later, federal health minister Patty Hajdu invoked the Quarantine Act and ordered all those who were arriving in Canada to self-isolate for 14 days. Those who violated the order faced fines of $750,000 and six months in jail. The federal government indicated that spot checks would be conducted to ensure compliance. The emergency order provided an exception for those who were deemed to provide essential services if they had no symptoms. This included the continued flow of goods and services, such as truckers delivering food.
In April 2020, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, as well as local and provincial police forces, were given the power to ticket violators of the Quarantine Act, with fines ranging from $275 to $1,000. The police can also press criminal charges.