Alberta MLAs bicker over legislature sittings during COVID-19 pandemic

The Easter weekend is giving Alberta MLAs a break in a battle that has raged all week about whether they should be in the legislature debating non-pandemic bills during the COVID-19 outbreak.

'The work of democracy does not end in a crisis,' Premier Jason Kenney says

Government and opposition MLAs have been squabbling about whether the Alberta legislature should be debating bills that aren't related to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Juris Graney/CBC)

The Easter weekend have given Alberta MLAs a break from a battle that has raged all week about whether they should be in the legislature debating non-essential bills during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tense exchanges erupted in the house this week between government MLAs, who say Albertans expect them to work, and NDP MLAs, who say being in the legislature, even while respecting physical distancing protocols, is dangerous to staff and the people they may encounter when they return to their constituencies. 

"I represent people, and they expect me to be here to do my job," Marie Renaud, the NDP MLA for St. Albert, said during debate on Wednesday. "They don't expect me to be here for a reason that isn't essential. They expect me to follow the rules just like every other Albertan, and that means doing everything we can to keep people safe."

The Alberta legislature is sitting from Tuesday to Thursday with the government intending to pass legislation related to the pandemic and its devastating effects on the economy. 

However, two of the three bills debated this week are not related to the pandemic: Bill 3, the Mobile Home Sites Tenancies Amendment Act, and Bill 8, the Protecting Survivors of Human Trafficking Act, which was introduced on Tuesday. A third bill proposes changes to how the province and municipalities manage local states of emergency. 

Government MLAs say both bills are important, particularly Bill 8, which would give victims the ability to sue human traffickers by the end of the year, and make it easier for them to obtain protection orders. 

Joseph Schow, the government's deputy caucus whip, suggested Renaud and her NDP colleagues should get to work and stop whining. 

"For the members opposite to bellyache about being in this chamber to do the job that they were duly elected to do is completely irresponsible," he said. 

London during the Blitz 

The debate rages on, and Alberta has become an outlier among Canadian provincial and territorial legislatures. 

With COVID-19 spreading across Canada, almost every provincial and territorial legislature had adjourned daily sittings by the third week of March.

Ontario has convened only twice to pass emergency legislation since adjourning daily sittings on March 12. Ontario MPPs are scheduled to meet again on Tuesday.

Alberta is holding regular sittings three days a week where MLAs are debating legislation morning, afternoon and evening. 

Alberta's chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, has deemed the legislature an essential service for the purposes of passing emergency legislation, as long as MLAs practise physical distancing and have hand sanitizer available.

On Thursday, Premier Jason Kenney rejected opposition complaints that the health of MLAs was being put at risk.

"People's health is not being put at risk," he said. "The legislature continues to operate under the guidance of the public health officer, who gave an exception for the legislature in terms of the limit on gatherings."

"The work of democracy does not end in a crisis. The British House of Commons met every day during the blitz of the Luftwaffe on London."

Many Albertans go to work every day

Kenney said more than one million Albertans, including grocery clerks and truck drivers, go to work each day to keep society functioning. 

"I don't think it's unreasonable for them to expect that their elected representatives will work too, on the people's business," he said. 

The government and opposition have agreed to have fewer than 50 MLAs and staff in the chamber at any given time. Cabinet ministers sit with at least one empty seat between them. Opposition MLAs have taken turns sitting on their side of the aisle. 

NDP Leader Rachel Notley said on Wednesday that those measures aren't enough, especially when the legislature is debating bills that can wait until after the pandemic. 

In British Columbia, MLAs have held committee meetings via video conferencing. Notley said the UCP side of the house rejected measures to meet remotely that were proposed by her caucus three weeks ago.

"I don't believe we are setting a good example for Albertans," she said. 

Notley said she thinks Kenney is using the pandemic as an excuse to push through parts of his agenda with little discussion, like the budget that was passed after only three hours of debate. 

She said some stakeholders were caught off guard when legislation was introduced last week, and she worries those individuals and groups won't have time to weigh in if the bills get fast-tracked through the house. 

The legislature wrapped for the week on Thursday with all three bills still in the committee of the whole stage of debate.