Edmonton

Politicians, experts speak out against premier's suggested restriction on municipal COVID rules

Politicians and professors are challenging Alberta Premier Jason Kenney’s idea to restrict towns and cities from enacting their own mask and proof of vaccination bylaws.  

'It's a remarkably heavy-handed maneuver from the province,' law professor says

Premier Jason Kenney is looking at amending the Municipal Government Act to restrict municipalities from enacting their own health bylaws. (Cort Sloan/CBC)

Politicians and professors are pushing back against Alberta Premier Jason Kenney's suggestion that the provincial government could restrict towns and cities from enacting their own mask and proof-of-vaccination bylaws. 

Kenney could introduce amendments to the Municipal Government Act at the upcoming legislative assembly session, which starts Feb. 24, he said during a Facebook live event Thursday, to prevent municipalities from having their own COVID-19 restrictions. 

Eric Adams, University of Alberta law professor, said it's a strange move from a government that has encouraged municipalities to take their own course in the past. 

"It's a remarkably heavy-handed manoeuvre from the province, one that has sometimes touted the benefits of a local governance," Adams said.

"That's deeply puzzling and I think we should be alarmed by even the suggestion that the province is considering doing so." 

Adams said while one municipality may be dealing with a rise of COVID-19 cases, another may not, and each should have the ability to choose a course of action. 

Cities like Edmonton and Calgary created their own face-covering bylaws in the summer of 2020 before the province introduced its own mask mandate. 

At a virtual conference with premiers Friday, Kenney said as the province is set to lift its COVID-19 restrictions municipalities should follow suit. 

"Provinces are clearly in the best position to make difficult decisions about how to manage COVID-19," Kenney said at the conference. "And I really don't think that is something municipal governments are responsible for or necessarily equipped to do."

Alberta Municipalities, the new name for the former Alberta Urban Municipalities Association, issued a statement Friday, calling Kenney's statement 'puzzling and troubling."

Cathy Heron, president Alberta Municipalities and mayor of St. Albert, said municipalities need autonomy when responding to this pandemic and its effects on residents. 

"The restrictive approach Premier Kenney is now considering is completely at odds with his government's earlier direction," Heron wrote. 

Heron said the province has never discussed the idea of amending the MGA to restrict local governments' ability to create public health bylaws, "and we do not expect to discuss it in the future."

Legal challenges

Adams suggested the provincial government could face legal action if they follow through with amending the MGA.

The province has the constitutional authority to give and take away powers from municipalities, Adams noted, but if the change is potentially compromising residents' safety and health, that could be considered a violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, he said. 

Associate professor of policy studies at Mount Royal University Lori Williams said municipalities have the right to make bylaws for the well-being of residents, as they have mask mandates or proof of vaccination programs.

"Both businesses and individuals living in some cities or municipalities support these restrictions as protecting their health and the health-care system as well as their businesses," Williams said in an interview Friday. 

She also suggested municipalities could form a united front against Kenney and that he could also face legal challenges.

"Any action that he takes that looks like he's not supporting cities and businesses in their ability to manage this pandemic effectively is going to backfire on him," Williams said. 

On Friday, Edmonton Mayor Amarjeet Sohi said the city intends to keep its own face-covering bylaw, and is exploring options to implement a potential proof of vaccination program. 

"I know that Premier Kenney appreciates each jurisdiction's autonomy and each order of governments' ability to make their own decisions," Sohi said in a statement. "I believe that his government will not restrict our ability to take actions to keep our fellow Edmontonians safe."

@natashariebe

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