Edmonton

Alberta legislature finishes spring sitting with all-night standoff over health and labour bills

It began with a controversial move to curtail protests, was knocked off course by a global pandemic and wrapped up with two all-nighters in a row.

MLAs passed 34 government bills this spring and summer

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney says Alberta's legislature sat twice as many days as most other provincial legislatures this spring and summer. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

It began with a controversial move to curtail protests, was knocked off course by a global pandemic and wrapped up with two all-nighters in a row.

The spring sitting of the Alberta legislature wrapped up on Wednesday morning after MLAs spent the night sparring over two wide-reaching bills.

Within a couple of hours, Premier Jason Kenney was standing proudly at a podium holding a stack of the 34 government bills the United Conservative Party-dominated legislature passed in the past five months.

"This is a bold, ambitious list of legislative achievements for any government at any time, and I am proud to lead a government that accomplished so much of this during a particularly tough time in Alberta's history."

Among the bills that attracted the most attention was the Critical Infrastructure Defence Act, which imposed large penalties for protesters who block "critical infrastructure" such as rail lines, highways, telecommunications towers and other sites. The bill was inspired by winter protests in solidarity with Indigenous-led demonstrations across Canada and has sparked a legal challenge from the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE).

Government also took cabinet out of the approval process for new oilsands projects, but gave it the power to set a time limit on decisions made by the Alberta Energy Regulator.

Legislation also helped victims of human trafficking and tried to foster "choice" in education by making it easier for groups to establish charter schools.

MLAs also passed several pieces of COVID-19 pandemic-related legislation, including changes to government powers during emergencies and temporarily banning residential and commercial evictions.

After the premier declared a state of public health emergency on March 17, the house sat sporadically until May, when the legislature returned with a limit of 50 people in the chamber at once. Ministers and MLAs took turns sitting in the house, and relaxed the seating plan to allow them to keep their distance from one another.

The sitting came to an animated end as Tuesday night stretched into Wednesday morning. The NDP pledged to put up a fight to Bill 30, which opens the door to more privately-run public health services and allows the government to sign alternative relationship plans directly with doctors. Health Minister Tyler Shandro added a last-minute amendment early Tuesday morning requiring doctors disclose their compensation by government.

The Opposition also frowned upon Bill 32, which puts new restrictions on union pickets and requires union members to opt into contributing union dues toward political activities. The bill also made changes to employment standards the Opposition says will take money out of workers' pockets.

While the Opposition promised "dozens and dozens" of amendments to the two omnibus bills, the government passed motions to limit time for debate this week.

Kenney said it's an approach his government only uses when the Opposition is filibustering to interfere with the government's agenda. 

A group of 27 labour organizations say Bill 32 is unconstitutional and are planning a legal challenge.

The Alberta Federation of Labour is co-ordinating that legal challenge. Federation president Gil McGowan said the spring sitting was "one of the most destructive" in the province's history.

He said anger and momentum is growing among people who disagree with, or are hurt by, the UCP government's policies. The premier should expect a wave of public protests come fall, he said.

"Premier, you have sown dangerous seeds, seeds that many Albertans don't want to see take root in our province," he said. "So get ready for an unprecedented harvest of protest. You are about to reap the whirlwind."

Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley said the UCP government refused to divert from its agenda when leaders should have spent more time and effort responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Alberta NDP )

NDP leader Rachel Notley also had a pessimistic take on the sitting, saying that it started with a "fairy tale" budget full of meaningless projections and ended with "a pattern of anti-democratic behaviour" with time limits on debate.

Insufficient action to grow jobs, a failure to diversify the economy and an accelerated cut to corporate taxes were among the government's missteps, Notley said.

"The measure of a leader is the degree to which they adjust to face the circumstances with which they are confronted," Notley said. "Instead, Jason Kenney is still wedded to an outdated, ideological plan that he conjured up before the election and now one that is now entirely out of touch with the demands of this province."

The legislature is next scheduled to sit on Aug. 27, when Finance Minister Travis Toews plans to present a first-quarter financial update for the 2020-21 budget year. The premier has previously said Alberta is likely to face a $20-billion deficit this year.

MLAs also approved one private members' bill this sitting: an act to create a strategic aviation advisory council.

About the Author

Janet French is a provincial affairs reporter with CBC Edmonton. She has also been a reporter at the Edmonton Journal and Saskatoon StarPhoenix. You can reach her at janet.french@cbc.ca

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