Alberta bill removes mandatory vaccinations, repeals Bill 10 powers

Mandatory vaccinations and other measures currently enshrined in the Public Health Act to manage health emergencies would be dropped under proposed legislation tabled in the Alberta legislature.

Bill 66 repeals 2020 law that faced constitutional challenge

The Alberta government is removing a requirement for mandatory vaccinations in the Public Health Act. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

Mandatory vaccinations and other measures currently enshrined in the Public Health Act to manage health emergencies would be dropped under new legislation tabled in the Alberta legislature on Monday. 

Bill 66, the Public Health Amendment Act, repeals powers the government gave itself through legislation passed in April 2020. 

The measures in Bill 10, the Public Health Emergency Powers Amendment Act, allowed ministers to unilaterally amend legislation by ministerial order. The measure was meant to keep public services operating but was widely criticized for being unconstitutional by giving the government too much power. 

Health Minister Tyler Shandro said Bill 10 was drafted in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic to address fears the legislature would not be able to meet. 

However, MLAs managed to adapt and kept meeting safely, he said. 

"The legislature has continued to successfully debate and the government has passed critical legislation to support lives and support livelihoods through this extraordinary time," Shandro said. 

The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms filed a constitutional challenge shortly after Bill 10 was passed into law. .

Last October, Shandro announced the government would repeal the legislation. Last month, an Alberta Court of Queen's Bench judge dismissed the court action for that reason.

Edmonton-City Centre MLA David Shepherd, the NDP Opposition critic for health, said the changes proposed in Bill 66 have more to do with blowback over Bill 10 than with improving public health. 

"It's mostly about cleaning up the political messes for Jason Kenney and the UCP," he said. 

Shepherd said the NDP proposed amendments to limit the government's powers when Bill 10 was first debated, but they were voted down by the UCP majority in the legislature.

He said Kenney chose to strike a special committee of MLAs to examine the Public Health Act rather than admitting he made a mistake. 

Vaccination a 'personal choice'

Other measures included in Bill 66 includes a provision to immediately tell someone who is being detained for public health reasons where they are going and lists criteria that must be met before they can be examined or given medical treatment. 

The bill defines the qualifications for a chief medical officer of health and mandates the Public Health Act is reviewed every decade. It also removes a provision for conscripting Albertans to help during a public health crisis. 

Lorian Hardcastle, an associate professor who specializes in health law at the University of Calgary, said the power to unilaterally amend legislation goes back to 2002, when the government implemented changes in the period after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 amid concerns the legislature would be unable to meet during a crisis. 

"This was a power that was unique to Alberta," she said. "No other province allowed the minister of health to amend other statutes during a public health emergency."

Alberta's public health act is more than 100 years old. 

Last June, the government appointed a special committee of MLAs to review the act and suggest updates. 

The committee's report, tabled in October 2020, said MLAs received 41 public submissions against mandatory immunizations during a pandemic.

People who made submissions argued vaccinations should be a personal choice and mandating them is an overreach of government power. 

Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta's chief medical officer of health, told the committee last summer that the power to mandate immunizations has never been used, so she had no issue with the government taking it out of the legislation.