The War Measures Act was a federal statute adopted by Parliament in 1914, after the outbreak of the First World War. It gave broad powers to the Canadian government to maintain security and order during war or insurrection. It was used, controversially, during both world wars and also during the 1970 October Crisis in Quebec. It has since been replaced by the more limited Emergencies Act.

The World Wars and Korea

The War Measures Act gave sweeping emergency powers to the federal Cabinet, allowing it to govern by decree when it perceived the existence of "war, invasion or insurrection, real or apprehended." It was used to limit the freedom of Canadians in both world wars.

The Act was in force from 1914 to 1920 - the official date of the end of the First World War with Germany. During that time it was used to imprison Canadians of German, Ukrainian and Slavic descent. (See Internment.) It was next in force from 1939 to 1945, to imprison Japanese Canadians and confiscate their property during the Second World War. The internments of ethnic populations during both wars remained a contentious public issue until the 1980s, when compensation packages and formal apologies were made by Canada to many of those affected.

The War Measures Act was not used during the Korean War. However, from 1951 to 1954 certain more limited powers were granted to Cabinet under an offshoot of the legislation called the Emergency Powers Act.

October Crisis

The only use of the War Measures Act in a domestic crisis occurred in October and November 1970, when a state of "apprehended insurrection" was declared to exist in Quebec. Emergency regulations were proclaimed in response to two kidnappings by the terrorist group, Front de Liberation du Quebec. The FLQ kidnapped British trade commissioner James Cross, and kidnapped and murdered Quebec Labour Minister Pierre Laporte. As authorities grappled with the crisis, more than 450 people were detained under the powers of the Act; most were later released without the laying or hearing of charges.

The suspension of civil liberties in Quebec was politically controversial. When the crisis was over, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau pledged to refine and limit the application of the Act in internal crises, but by the time of the defeat of the final Trudeau government in 1984, the Act had not been modified.

Not until 1988 was the War Measures Act repealed and replaced by the Emergencies Act, which created more limited and specific powers for the government to deal with security emergencies.