Premier Jason Kenney implored to seek military backup as Alberta health-care system crumbles

With Alberta’s health-care system “collapsing right in front of our eyes,” the leaders of four unions representing thousands of health-care workers are calling on Premier Jason Kenney to ask for help from the military and Red Cross.

'The tank is empty. The well is dry,' states letter from four union leaders

Dr. Ayesha Khory is pictured in the moments before intubating a COVID-19 patient in an Alberta intensive care unit. Unions representing health-care workers say support from the military and Red Cross is necessary. (Submitted by Alberta Health Services)

With Alberta's health-care system "collapsing right in front of our eyes," the leaders of four unions representing thousands of health-care workers are calling on Premier Jason Kenney to ask for help from the military and Red Cross.

"There are no more nurses in our province who can be deployed. There are no more paramedics. There are no more respiratory therapists. There are no more support staff," states the Sept. 18 letter to Kenney, which implores him to make a formal request for help from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

"The tank is empty. The well is dry."

Alberta on Friday reported its highest new daily case number since the first week of May, with 2,020 new cases of COVID-19 and 18 new deaths.  As of Thursday, there were 911 people in hospital with COVID-19, including 215 in intensive care beds. ICU capacity was at 86 per cent, but without surge beds the system would be operating at more than 155 per cent of its normal capacity.

With Alberta's COVID-19 cases rapidly rising, Kenney must ask the federal government to "immediately deploy the military, the Red Cross and all available medical staffing resources from other provinces to assist our province's overwhelmed hospitals," states the letter.

It is signed by the presidents of four unions representing health-care workers — United Nurses of Alberta (UNA), Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE), Health Sciences Association of Alberta (HSAA) and CUPE Alberta — as well by Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL).

Constitutional responsibility

The letter, copied to Trudeau and Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley, notes that under the Constitution, the Canadian government cannot intervene without a formal request coming from the province.

"They cannot act unless you ask them to act," it states. "So please, on behalf of our beleaguered members on the front-line of this crisis, and on behalf of all Albertans, we are officially asking you to request help from the federal government."

The letter notes that military units were deployed in April to support Ontario's long term-care facilities. Also in April, the Canadian Armed Forces sent dozens of service members to help out at COVID-19 testing centres in Nova Scotia.

In late 2020, internal Alberta government documents noted that the provincial government was exploring asking for military support to help staff field hospitals that could accommodate more than 750 people.

Beds but no staff

Between 18 and 20 severely ill Albertans — most of them unvaccinated — are being admitted to ICU every day, said Alberta Health Services president and CEO Dr. Verna Yiu. 

AHS has commandeered beds in operating rooms, recovery wards and observation spaces to create more ICU capacity and is prepared to transfer Albertans to Ontario for care if needed.

UNA president Heather Smith said opening up more beds is meaningless without trained staff to provide care to patients.

"Beds mean nothing without properly qualified staff," Smith said in a news release. "And there are simply no more experienced people to mobilize."

Combined, the four unions represent more than 100,000 health-care workers, stated the news release.

Red Cross volunteer Stephane Corbeil adjusts an opening in a tent at a mobile hospital in the Montreal suburb of LaSalle in April 2020. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

"Our paramedics are overstretched and exhausted. There are no more respiratory therapists," said HSAA president Mike Parker. "Everyone is either working or sick. There are no more rabbits to pull out of the hat. That's why we need our premier to swallow his pride and ask the rest of Canada for help." 

Kenney has apologized for moving too quickly with his spring decision to move from a pandemic to endemic approach to the virus, precipitating a lifting of health restrictions and prevention measures in his Open for Summer campaign.

"I think we should all call this wave of the pandemic the Kenney wave because he created it with his selfish and reckless 'Open for Summer' policies," said Rory Gill, president of CUPE Alberta. 

"In the coming weeks and months, we're going to make sure he's held accountable. But for now, Kenney needs to finally take responsibility for his failures and get more staff to the front lines to protect Albertans."

No request made so far

A spokesperson for Health Minister Tyler Shandro said on Sunday that Alberta has not put in a request to the federal government for military or Red Cross assistance.

"The military and Red Cross would have limited ability to provide clinical resources, so no requests have been made to them to date," said Steve Buick, Shandro's press secretary.

"If and when their assistance is needed, for example to provide equipment or logistical support such as patient transport, we'll support requests as appropriate."

When a request for assistance is filed, Public Safety Canada co-ordinates the federal response, which could include "help from the Red Cross, or the Canadian military, or having federal aid sent, or a combination of certain elements," said a statement from the Department of National Defence.

"[Canadian Armed Forces] members are highly trained and stand ready to offer assistance in support of civilian authorities during any crisis in Canada, when requested by the government."