'Incredibly frustrating': Calgary mayor wants courts to uphold COVID-19 measures

The mayor of Alberta's largest city says he's frustrated to hear that tickets given to people for breaching COVID-19 public health orders are being thrown out in the courts.

'I'm calling on the court system to take this as seriously as the police do,' Nenshi said at council meeting

At a Calgary city council meeting, Mayor Naheed Nenshi said people need to understand the rules for gatherings, mask wearing and other measures aren't just guidelines. (Mike Symington/CBC)

The mayor of Alberta's largest city says he's frustrated to hear tickets given to people for breaching COVID-19 public health orders are being thrown out in the courts.

"I think it's handcuffing the police and their work and we need to do much, much better," Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi said Monday, calling the situation "incredibly frustrating."

"I'm calling on the court system to take this as seriously as the police do."

Large groups have regularly been gathering in Calgary public spaces without masks and in violation of group limits in protest of health measures — just as they have in some other Alberta communities. On the weekend, for example, hundreds of maskless people attended a rodeo near Bowden, about 30 kilometres south of Red Deer, held to protest COVID-19 restrictions.

Nenshi said people must understand the rules aren't just guidelines.

He acknowledged Premier Jason Kenney has in recent days given conflicting messages on the restrictions.

Kenney said last week that any new laws weren't necessary, but days later instituted new regulations in so-called COVID-19 hot spots, calling them critical to bending the curve.

"Even though the premier sometimes doesn't sound firm on this, this is actually the law," Nenshi said.

"And it's important that everyone follow the law because we live in a democratic society."

'No More Lockdowns' rodeo prompts accountability questions

Nenshi made his comments during a city council meeting that included a presentation by Calgary Police Commission chairwoman Bonita Croft.

"(Police) are putting significant resources into managing these protests, attending these events and doing their best to enforce the health orders," she said.

"And the response is to continue to violate them. And the accountability in terms of convictions and fines have not been at a level that seems to be working to change the course of all that."

However, Calgary police chief Mark Neufeld told committee members that public protests are not prohibited by the province's restrictions on outdoor gatherings. And he said the province has asked the police to not clog the courts by writing too many tickets.

"One of the challenges that we've had along the way of course is that the courts are experiencing significant capacity issues that existed pre-COVID," he said.

"Our partners at the province have asked us not to fill the courts with $100 mask bylaw tickets and to be more strategic in the enforcement. So we've done that and it may be reflected in the numbers."

According to the province, from March 1, 2020 to March 31, 2021 there have been 576 tickets filed in provincial court under the Public Health Act. Of those, 38 per cent are still before the court, 12 per cent resulted in conviction or were paid before reaching court, and 10 per cent were quashed or otherwise resolved.

Kenney angered by rodeo

Kenney told a news conference on Monday that he was angered to see that a large group of people gathered over the weekend at a rodeo event in Bowden, Alta., in flagrant violation of the restrictions in place.

He had also tweeted his disappointment with their actions, but has stressed repeatedly he is following the separation of powers, and that politicians should not direct police on charges.

Opposition NDP Leader Rachel Notley agreed such a legal firewall should be respected but said there is more Kenney's government can do to set a tone that the rule of law must be followed and enforced.

She urged Solicitor General Kaycee Madu to issue a guideline to police services to consistently and vigorously enforce public health rules.

"It is within the scope of authority of the solicitor general to issue this kind of guideline," said Notley.

"The complaints that somehow they (the government) have nothing to do with it aren't true. They just need to be consistent and public and transparent."'

Maskless rodeo 'felt like a gut punch,' says emergency doctor

Two front-line emergency room doctors criticized the response to the Bowden rodeo, noting it had been advertised in advance, but authorities still did nothing to stop it.

"It felt like a gut punch. There were thousands of people shoulder to shoulder, with no masks on, pretending like everything's OK," said Dr. Shazma Mithani, an emergency physician in Edmonton.

"They came from all different parts of the province. It's going to have a broad, sweeping effect across the province potentially."

Calgary emergency department doctor Joe Vipond added: "This (lack of enforcement) was allowed to happen at the highest levels. Why else would our enforcement officials, the RCMP, have not tried to prevent this grotesque flouting of our public health rules."

Alberta Health Services and the RCMP did not immediately respond to requests for comment Monday about any potential enforcement arising from the anti-lockdown rodeo.

Later on Monday afternoon, the Alberta government put out a joint statement with Hinshaw and the Canadian Professional Rodeo Association (CPRA) condemning the rodeo violations.

"Like so many Albertans, I was angered by the rodeo held this weekend near Bowden, in violation of the public health restrictions in place," Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro wrote in the release.

"Since Day 1, we have worked with the CPRA and many other partners to implement protocols and help safely resume the sport, when and where possible. We are proud to work with them, local MLAs and all other stakeholders who work diligently to find ways to protect the health of everyone involved and stop the spread of COVID-19."

Alberta has close to 23,000 active COVID-19 cases, its highest total since the pandemic began, and has the highest rate of infection in Canada. As of Sunday, Alberta had a seven-day rate of 296 cases per 100,000 people, with Ontario the next highest at 170.

There were 648 people in hospital, including 155 in intensive care — the highest number in ICU since the pandemic began. Physicians were briefed last week on the triage protocol should it get to the point the system becomes so overwhelmed doctors must decide who gets care and who doesn't.

Kenney's United Conservative government has suspended the legislature sitting for at least the next two weeks to keep politicians and staff safe from COVID-19.

Notley has criticized Kenney for doing so while simultaneously forcing schoolchildren and teachers to work in class and putting retail and restaurant workers at risk on the front lines.

With files from Audrey Neveu/Radio-Canada