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COVID restrictions would've been more stringent if not for rural cabinet voices, Toews says

United Conservative Party leadership candidate Travis Toews says his presence at the cabinet table lessened the intensity of COVID-19 restrictions in Alberta.

Cabinet meetings on pandemic were 'hardest hours of my life,' says former finance minister

Former Alberta finance minister Travis Toews in the Alberta Legislature on Feb. 25, 2021. Toews says his presence in cabinet lessened the intensity of provincial COVID-19 restrictions. (Government of Alberta)

United Conservative Party leadership candidate Travis Toews says his presence at the cabinet table lessened the intensity of COVID-19 restrictions in Alberta. 

Toews, who was Alberta's finance minister from 2019 until he stepped down to run for leader, insists input from him and a handful of ministers led to less stringent public health measures during earlier waves of the pandemic. 

"The fact that there were a couple of rural cabinet ministers around that table no doubt made a difference in terms of outcomes," he told CBC News. 

Toews said he considered resigning his position and that those COVID cabinet meetings were "the hardest hours of my life." 

Ultimately, he said he decided Albertans and his constituents in Grande Prairie-Wapiti were better served with him in cabinet. 

Alberta's government has been heavily criticized for policy decisions around the virus, including its "open for summer" plan that many health experts say contributed to more serious outcomes for patients and the health-care system

Appealing to UCP members

The province has experienced intense polarization over COVID since the spring of 2020 — both regarding measures to control it and vaccination against it.

The government's COVID decisions have featured prominently in the UCP leadership race thus far, with large portions of debates and candidate forums devoted to discussing the province's response to the virus and what each candidate would have done differently. 

"You're hearing someone who was part of that COVID committee implying that it was political considerations that were being made," said Duane Bratt, a political scientist at Mount Royal University.

Bratt added that Toews is playing to the anticipated 100,000 UCP members who will be eligible to vote in this leadership election. 

"He's fighting against [candidates] who are very anti-COVID restrictions. But in the wider population of Albertans, there was deep suspicion that the Kenney government did not go far enough, that they instituted restrictions too late, they removed them too quickly."

Danielle Smith is leading the United Conservative Party leadership race, with Toews following in second or third, according to some polls. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Alberta has recently seen a seventh wave of COVID, with the seven-day PCR test-positivity rate average around 23 per cent. However, the province is doing only a limited number of tests. Wastewater data indicates the trend is starting to dip again. 

Despite his resistance to some of the COVID public health proposals, Toews stood by the results that came out of cabinet. 

"Regardless of the personal views you've held and the positions you've taken during the debate, when you emerge, you support the outcome," he said. "It's the principle of basic board governance."

Floundering support

There are seven candidates in the race to replace outgoing Premier Jason Kenney when UCP members elect their new leader in October. 

The race has so far been led by Danielle Smith, former leader of the Wildrose Party. Polls done by external firms and internally by the campaigns suggest Toews is settled in second or third place.

Two MLAs who originally endorsed Toews have recently swapped their support to Smith's campaign

"It surprises me, quite frankly," Toews said. "[To] in a sense go back on that decision is, I think, quite significant."

Toews has the most endorsements from sitting MLAs, about two dozen, which he says indicates his ability to unify the party after a fractious few years.

Bratt has a different analysis on Toews's status in the race as some MLAs switch support to a different candidate. 

"He is floundering," Bratt said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Elise von Scheel is a provincial affairs reporter with CBC Calgary and the producer of the West of Centre podcast. You can get in touch with her at elise.von.scheel@cbc.ca.

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