Edmonton·Updated

Sixteen government MLAs speak out against latest Alberta public health restrictions

A group of United Conservative Party MLAs are speaking out against their own government’s move to impose more stringent public health restrictions in the face of spiking COVID-19 cases.

MLAs say the new measures are a step backward

Alberta Legislature Speaker Nathan Cooper, the UCP MLA for Olds-Didsbury-Three Hills, and deputy speaker Angela Pitt, the UCP MLA for Airdrie-East, are among 15 government MLAs who say they disagree with the province imposing more public health restrictions. (From left: Scott Dippel/CBC, Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

Sixteen United Conservative Party MLAs are speaking out against their own government's move to impose more stringent public-health restrictions in the face of spiking COVID-19 cases.

A seventeenth UCP MLA also issued a statement on Facebook Wednesday night, saying it is time for the government to rethink its approach to COVID-19.

The MLAs who signed the letter, including Speaker Nathan Cooper, deputy speaker Angela Pitt and former municipal affairs minister Tracy Allard, published the note Wednesday saying the government's move to close restaurants to indoor dining, shutter libraries and cancel most gym and fitness activities is the "wrong decision" that takes the province backward.

"We have heard from our constituents and they want us to defend their livelihoods and freedoms as Albertans," the letter said. "For months, we have raised these concerns at the highest levels of government and unfortunately, the approach of the government has remained the same."

A spokesperson for the UCP caucus confirmed the letter is authentic.

The MLAs called on government to hear the pleas of their constituents and say they will keep pushing for a transparent way forward that provides Albertans more certainty.

In an interview Wednesday evening, signatory Miranda Rosin, who represents Banff-Kananaskis, said she and her colleagues have received thousands of emails, hundreds of phone calls and had countless conversations with citizens and business owners who oppose public health restrictions.

"Every single one of us believes in the threat of COVID-19 and wants to take the public health threat seriously," Rosin said. "We just need to also balance that with the livelihoods, and the financial and economic and mental well being of Albertans."

They're not calling for an immediate lift of restrictions, but for government to choose a set of benchmarks for imposing and lifting restrictions, and stick to those benchmarks, she said.

She said their efforts would be better spent lobbying the federal government for a speedier supply of vaccines.

Some MLAs want regional restrictions

Drumheller-Stettler MLA Nate Horner posted a video on Facebook explaining his perspective. In it, Horner said he has argued the government should return to a regional approach to public health restrictions, as it had taken prior to November, before the second wave of cases hit.

"One thing that we've learned is that COVID responds and reacts very differently in different parts of the province, and I think that the restrictions to handle COVID need to reflect that reality."

Vermilion-Lloydminster-Wainwright MLA Garth Rowswell added his signature to the letter late Wednesday afternoon, saying in a Facebook post that other jurisdictions with less restrictive public-health measures have fared just as well in the pandemic. He does not believe evidence supports the government's actions.

West Yellowhead MLA Martin Long posted a statement online Wednesday evening saying it's no longer acceptable for his constituents to wait days or weeks for the government to lift restrictions.

"I lived on the coast for almost 30 years of my life — I know as well as anyone that waves just keep rolling," his statement said. "We can't keep making these decisions, that exacerbate uncertainties, every time there is a ripple or a 'wave.' "

On Wednesday, Alberta Health reported 1,351 new cases of COVID-19 in the province, which was the highest new daily tally since the last day of 2020. There are 333 people in hospitals with the illness, 79 in intensive-care beds. 

Some of the dissenting MLAs represent the parts of Alberta with the highest per capita case counts of COVID-19, including the City of Grande Prairie, Athabasca County and Ponoka County.

On Tuesday, Premier Jason Kenney said variants of concern of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 were on their way to becoming dominant in Alberta. The variants are more easily spread between people, and early evidence has shown they can make younger people much sicker than the strain responsible for Alberta's first two waves.

Kenney said projections forecast more than 2,000 new daily COVID-19 cases within weeks, and the province's hospitals overflowing with patients by the end of May.

The premier said he expected people, including members of his caucus and party, to disagree with his decision to return to tighter public-health measures. He said listening to science and protecting public health had to take precedence.

"I've always welcomed a wide-ranging debate on how best to rise to the challenge of this pandemic," Kenney said Tuesday. "I just ask that the debate be informed by facts."

Watch | Notley, Kenney spar in legislature

Kenney and Notley spar in legislature

CBC News Edmonton

28 days ago
1:14
Premier Jason Kenney and Opposition Leader Rachel Notley sparred in the legislature Wednesday over how Alberta is handling COVID-19 restrictions. The spat came as members of the UCP publicly spoke out against the imposition of additional restrictions. 1:14

Dr. Tehseen Ladha, an Edmonton pediatrician with public health expertise, said the MLAs' dissent is "dangerous," as it undermines citizens' faith in government decisions. She's seeing patients and families that don't understand the danger variants of concern pose to people's health. Alberta's third wave has the potential to be the most deadly, she said.

" This is really an attempt to appeal to the UCP's supporters," she said. "The premier, as well, by not sanctioning his members, is appealing to his supporters by sending conflicting messages that on the one hand, he is implementing measures, but on the other hand, he may not himself agree with these measures."

At the legislature Wednesday, NDP health critic David Shepherd called for Kenney to expel any MLAs from caucus who seek to undermine public health messages. He said the premier must send a message that casting doubt on medical advice is unacceptable.

"For these MLAs to suggest that this is the time to put their political fortunes ahead of the health and protection of Albertans, I think is an incredibly discouraging thing to see," Shepherd told reporters. "And that Premier Kenney has chosen to say this is just free speech, this is a matter of opinion — this is not free speech. This is the very lives and livelihoods of hundreds of Albertans."

NDP Leader Rachel Notley said the UCP backbenchers' messages sow mistrust among mainly rural residents and could potentially lead to the pandemic lasting longer.

"Albertans deserve a government that respects science, that respects the law, that supports public health," Notley said in the legislature. "Instead, they've been fighting amongst themselves and they haven't been doing the work that Albertans expect."

Under questioning by the Opposition, Kenney said none of his caucus members are telling the public to violate public health orders or break the law.

"There are members in the government caucus who have different views on the best way to address the pandemic in policy," Kenney said. "If elected representatives cannot speak their minds in matters of policy, then what are they elected to do?"

Lori Williams, an associate professor of policy studies at Mount Royal University, said the dissent is another symptom of division within the UCP caucus over Kenney's leadership.

"Once the pandemic is under control, he's hoping that internal division will disappear and he won't have to deal with these dissidents any longer," Williams said. "But I think some of the missteps that he's made during this pandemic, some of the economic record that he's got, some of the fights that he's picked with people who could have worked with Alberta who could have helped with a number of things, those are going to make his political future more difficult."

The MLAs who signed the letter are:

  • Michaela Glasgo, Brooks-Medicine Hat
  • Miranda Rosin, Banff-Kananaskis
  • Todd Loewen, Central Peace-Notley
  • Angela Pitt, Airdrie-East
  • Drew Barnes, Cypress-Medicine Hat
  • Jason Stephan, Red Deer-South
  • Tracy Allard, Grande Prairie
  • Roger Reid, Livingstone-Macleod
  • Nate Horner, Drumheller-Stettler
  • Nathan Cooper, Olds-Didsbury-Three Hills
  • Glenn van Dijken, Athabasca-Barrhead-Westlock
  • Ron Orr, Lacombe-Ponoka
  • Dave Hanson, Bonnyville-Cold Lake-St. Paul
  • R.J. Sigurdson, Highwood
  • Mark Smith, Drayton Valley-Devon
  • Garth Rowswell, Vermilion-Lloydminster-Wainwright

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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

With files from Raffy Boudjikanian and Vincent Bonay

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