One day after Alberta returned to Step 1 of the plan for relaunching the economy due to a spike in COVID-19 cases, 17 United Conservative Party MLAs are publicly slamming the move.
“We believe that yesterday’s announcement to move our province backwards, effectively abandoning the plan that Albertans had worked diligently over the past months to follow, is the wrong decision,” said a letter released Wednesday.
The letter is mainly signed by UCP backbenchers, although house speaker Nathan Cooper and former minister Tracy Allard, who lost her position in cabinet after vacationing in Hawaii over Christmas, are also on the list. That scandal also saw the resignation of MLA Jason Stephan — who signed the letter — from the treasury board.
The letter was initially signed by 15 people, but MLA Garth Rowswell added his name later on Wednesday. West Yellowhead’s Martin Long also released a statement decrying the government’s measures on Wednesday evening.
The MLAs, who represent Albertans in mainly rural areas across the province, said their constituents want them to defend their “livelihoods and freedoms.”
“For months, we have raised these concerns at the highest levels of government and unfortunately, the approach of the government has remained the same.”
The letter calls for the province to move ahead with reopening, but does not acknowledge the recent rise in COVID-19 case or the variants, which were not as much of a public concern when the four-part Path Forward plan for relaunching the economy was created.
“After 13 painstaking months of COVID-19 public health restrictions, we do not support the additional restrictions imposed on Albertans yesterday, and we will continue to advocate for a transparent path forward that provides certainty to Alberta families, communities and businesses.”
Cypress-Medicine Hat MLA Drew Barnes is one of the 17 and said the effects of lockdowns on mental, physical, spiritual and economic health are “just as bad as the COVID crisis.”
“Too many of my friends and constituents that are involved in free enterprise or private business have either lost everything or taken on so much debt that the future is not bright,” Barnes told Global News.
This isn’t the first time MLAs have spoken out against the measures aimed at protecting lives.
Two members of caucus joined a national coalition pushing against lockdowns — Angela Pitt and Drew Barnes, both of whom were among the 15 to sign Wednesday’s letter.
Last week, both said they had ended their involvement in the group after the founder compared measures to slow the spread of COVID-19 to Nazi Germany.
Premier Jason Kenney acknowledged decisions to shut down indoor dining, curb indoor fitness and reduce retail capacity will meet resistance, even within his own United Conservative Party and caucus.
“I know some Albertans will disagree with the government’s decision today, and that includes undoubtedly some people in my own caucus and party. I fully expect to hear some of those opinions publicly in the coming days,” Kenney said while announcing the step backwards on Tuesday, adding he welcomes a wide-ranging debate on how best to rise to the challenge of this pandemic.
“I just ask that the debate be informed by facts.”
Opposition NDP health critic David Shepherd slammed the letter, saying it’s not appropriate for any elected official to advocate for steps that would endanger the health and safety of others.
“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 this is an incredibly disturbing thing to see. And that Premier Kenney has chosen to say, ‘Well, this is just free speech, it’s just a matter of opinion.’
“This is not a matter of opinion. This is the very lives and livelihoods of hundreds of Albertans.”
Shepherd said Kenney’s apparent acceptance of his party member’s opposition to public health measures shows a lack of leadership.
“(Kenney) needs to put aside all of his dog whistling to extreme right and conspiracy theories that we’ve seen from him over this last year, and he needs to make it clear that that will not be allowed in his caucus – those MLAs need to be removed.”
Kenney said Alberta is on track to have 2,000 new infections a day and 1,000 people in hospital with COVID-19 by the end of April.
The province is now seeing a third wave of COVID-19, driven by variants, he said.
Kenney said he isn’t surprised by the diversity of views on how to handle the pandemic, as we live in a society with a polarization of opinions.
“On the one hand, we have some people who want what are called ‘hard lockdowns’ and have wanted those in a long-term basis, others who believe that the threat is massively exaggerated and we should have fewer, no restrictions. But Alberta’s approach has been to find a sensible, safe middle ground — a common ground that can unite most Albertans.”
Kenney reiterated the province’s goal from day one has been to control spread to prevent the health-care system from being overwhelmed, avoid large scale preventable deaths while minimizing the damage to the economy.
“Few decisions in this pandemic are easy decisions. Decisions can and do often have adverse effects. There’s no sugar-coating that.”
Kenney said as much as he’d like to stick to the plan, the government cannot ignore the science.
The Easter long weekend saw an average of about 1,000 new COVID-19 cases per day in the province. There were 931 new infections reported on Tuesday.
About 43 per cent of Alberta’s 10,000 active cases were the more contagious and potentially more dangerous variants.
There were 328 people in hospital with the illness, including 76 in intensive care. The death toll in the province also surpassed 2,000 on Tuesday.
“We cannot dismiss the medical advice and we cannot ignore the numbers.
“As premier, I cannot in good conscience ignore the evidence and opt for a policy that could result in hundreds of preventable deaths.”
Barnes is asking for the premier and COVID cabinet committee to “Listen clearly to what 16 of us that represent an average of 40 or 45,000 people each are saying.”
Kenney said he understands people are tired more than a year into the pandemic, but we need to persevere through the next few months of getting people vaccinated.
The letter was signed by the following MLAs:
- 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
- Nathan Cooper, Olds-Didsbury-Three Hills
- Nate Horner, Drumheller-Stettler
- Glenn van Dijken, Athabasca-Barrhead-Westlock
- Ron Orr, Lacombe-Ponoka
- Dave Hanson, Bonnyville-Cold Lake-St. Paul
- RJ Sigurdson, Highwood
- Mark Smith, Drayton Valley-Devon
- Garth Rowswell, Vermilion-Lloydminster-Wainwright
— With files from Lauren Krugel and Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press