Opposition Leader Rachel Notley says the Alberta government should make a public apology after a United Conservative Party MLA made comments last week that imply some people in the province are refusing work because of the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB).
UCP MLA Shane Getson, who represents Lac Ste. Anne-Parkland, made the comments while speaking at a two-hour online town hall he held on Facebook on Sept. 24, where he said he had spoken to Alberta business owners who were struggling to find workers and believed CERB was the cause.
“They can’t hire people,” Getson said. “And I’m going, ‘Well why not?’
“Because (workers) make more on CERB. Eating Cheezies and watching cartoons, I guess.”
Notley tweeted a portion of town hall video with Getson’s comments on Tuesday.
“Premier Jason Kenney should offer a public apology,” she said in her tweet.
However, on Wednesday, Kenney defended Getson’s comments and said they were taken out of context.
“Obviously many, many people during the COVID recession do need income support, and the CERB has been there to provide that support for a lot of folks who have lost their jobs or lost working hours through no fault of their own.
“I think what the MLA was saying was that many businesses are reporting that, strangely, they are having a hard time hiring people. In the midst of 12 or 15 per cent unemployment.
“I’ve heard it from all across the province,” Kenney said. “That unfortunately, some people have not gone back to work because they have that income to fall back on. So it does appear to have created some kind of distortion in the labour market.”
Getson also said during the town hall that he has spoken to a friend in Vernon, B.C., who said there were drug addiction issues in that community and believed it was connected to CERB.
“People that were getting $700 a month are now getting $2,000 a month,” he said. “We’re concerned about the same thing here because now all of a sudden, you’ve got that population that has all this extra cash and now their addiction levels are going through the roof.
“And then what? The funny money runs out.”
In a statement to Global News on Tuesday night, Getson said he believes the NDP took his comments “out of context for political gain.”
“The context was that a local business owner had raised concerns about not being able to hire workers despite being able to operate,” the statement read.
“Clearly, the vast majority of recipients of government support truly need it. At the same time, some legitimate concerns have been raised about these programs that cannot be ignored.”
Getson cited the Canadian Federation of Independent Business saying CERB was the No. 1 reason cited by small businesses for their inability to recall workers as being partly why he made his comments.
The MLA also pointed to comments made by an official with Ottawa Inner City Health that there was concern that the quick-and-easy cash provided through CERB may be having deadly consequences for drug users.
“These are important issues that deserve our attention as they are happening everywhere,” his statement read. “I recently spoke about these issues at a town hall in my community. Unsurprisingly, the NDP is now attacking me instead of focusing on how we keep our people safe.
“It is important that we look at the evidence objectively. This will help protect our families and businesses in these difficult times.”
On Wednesday, the NDP held a news conference where it said the comments show Getson’s “true colours.”
“These comments were not missing context,” NDP labour critic Christina Grey said. “What they were, were showing Albertans what the UCP’s true colours really are and how they’re devoid of compassion for working Albertans.
“Albertans used the CERB money to keep a roof over their heads. For them and their family. They used this money to put food on the table and to survive the pandemic.”
At the same conference, Heather Sweet, who is the NDP’s addictions and mental health critic, said that Getson should realize the CERB likely kept many out of poverty.
“There isn’t a shred of compassion in Mr. Getson’s comments. And what’s more, he’s fundamentally missing the point. Some of the most severe pressures from mental health come from poverty and isolation.
“I’m horrified at the thought of what would have happened to those families if they didn’t have access to this emergency benefit… Emergency benefits help people keep their heads above water.”
Kenney said Wednesday that while he understands the need for support, he believes the CERB could have negative impacts on people with addiction.
“There’s no easy answers here — you’ve got to have the support for people during tough times,” he said. “Of course, the vast majority of people are using that support because they have no alternative, but at the same time we’ve got to make sure that we don’t end up discouraging people in the long run from getting back into the job market, and we need to make sure that this doesn’t have a negative impact on people coping with addictions.”
Watch below: Some Global News videos about CERB.
NDP MLA Irfan Sabir, who represents Calgary-McCall, said Tuesday he believes the comments were in bad taste and don’t reflect the reality of many Albertans.
“Tens of thousands of people are losing jobs because of the pandemic, because they have to isolate, and because somebody in their family has to isolate. Businesses are closing down because the government has asked them to do so,” he said.
“I think the premier and the MLA should apologize for these kind of appalling comments.”
Sabir also said he found it hypocritical that the UCP applied for the federal government’s wage subsidy and then accused Canadians on CERB of spending the money on Cheezies.
–With files from Global News’ Phil Heidenreich