Albertans got more federal COVID support per capita than people in any other province, report says

Albertans received more COVID-19 financial support from the federal government than people in any other province — and the provincial government has also left the most federal money unused, according to a new report.

Albertans received $12,350 per capita compared to second highest, Ontarians, at $9,940

A sidewalk closed sign is next to an ad hoc patio space in Calgary in 2020. The food service and hospitality industry was particularly hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. (Helen Pike/CBC)

Albertans received more COVID-19 financial support from the federal government than people in any other province — and the provincial government has also left the most federal money unused, according to a new report.

The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, an independent think-tank, did an analysis of federal and provincial pandemic spending.

Albertans also received the highest level of COVID-19 support in total of people in any province, averaging $12,350 per person — and 92 per cent of those costs fell to the federal government with eight per cent coming from provincial coffers, the report found.

They lead the country with the highest federal government funding per person, averaging $11,410 per person, compared to Ontario, the second highest, at $9,940, the report finds.

The report attributes Alberta's high numbers to $1 billion from the federal oil and gas well closure program and substantial uptake of business support programs.

Albertans drew the most support per capita for business from the federal government, including through the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS) ($17.5 billion) and the Canada Emergency Business Account (CEBA) loan forgiveness program ($1.9 billion).

Support to individuals was the second biggest category in the province, through programs like the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), at $8.8 billion, the Canada Recovery Benefit (CRB), at $3.5 billion, and enhancements to employment insurance benefits, at $1.3 billion.

The biggest business support programs through the provincial government, the report found, were relaunch grants for small- and medium-sized businesses, at $575 million, and $323 million for investments in carbon capture, utilization and storage.

The report also found Alberta has the largest amount of unallocated COVID-19 funds, worth $1.8 billion. That's an increase of more than a billion dollars from the $750 million left untapped as of January.

"In terms of budget transparency, it's difficult to tell whether the expenditures of that fund will be positive or negative, which categories that would go to, and so on," said David Macdonald, a senior economist with the centre. 

"In a worst-case scenario, that might not be spent at all [on COVID response]. It's just a notional figure in the budget. And if it isn't spent, all of that unallocated funding would simply go to reduce the deficit."

Trevor Tombe, an economist at the University of Calgary, told CBC News in an email the centre's numbers seemed reasonable.

The report is an update to an initial release from January.

August's version found the federal government is picking up most of the cost for COVID measures across the country, at $620 billion — an average of 86 per cent of spending, while provinces put up 14 per cent.

Several provinces disputed some of the findings of the first report.

"Support for Alberta's COVID-19 response and recovery plan totalled $5.1 billion, plus $460 million in capital investments," Premier Jason Kenney's office wrote in a statement.  

"Alberta's government deferred billions of dollars in fees and taxes to help Albertans keep more of their own money, including $2.5 billion in utility bills, education property tax, student loans, and government fee deferrals. We helped small businesses cope with COVID-19 by providing a total of over $700 million in grants."

Provinces have slowly shouldered more of those costs since January, compared to the first year of the pandemic.

But Alberta has contributed some of the lowest funding — just 1.2 per cent of its GDP, according to the report.

That's three times lower than provinces like B.C. and Quebec.

"The business support that came from provincial dollars was the biggest in Alberta compared to all the other provinces," Macdonald said. 

"However, the province spent essentially none of its own money on individual supports or health-care expenditures due to COVID-19."

Alberta's biggest change from the initial CCPA report in January was that the province took advantage of the essential worker wage program and moved very close to matching the federal funding provided to municipalities.


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