An emergency House of Commons debate on the worsening COVID-19 situation in Alberta Wednesday evening saw the Liberal government voice their concern, but offer no new funding or solutions to deal with the problem.
The emergency debate was called by Edmonton New Democrat MP Heather McPherson to discuss how the federal government could help the province, which is seeing a higher rate of infection than any other jurisdiction in North America.
But Minister of Health Patty Hajdu and other Liberal cabinet members only pointed to existing federal response programs and the steady growth of the vaccine rollout to help the provincial response, while repeating calls for the public to follow current health restrictions.
Hajdu highlighted the deliveries of rapid tests and vaccines to Alberta, along with other assistance that has been provided there and to other provinces and territories.
That help hasn’t been enough to combat Alberta’s problems, McPherson said, accusing the government of playing politics while ignoring the province’s needs.
“The prime minister saw this coming, he has watched this happening in Alberta, and he has done nothing, because he would rather watch Alberta burn than help (Premier) Jason Kenney,” she said.
McPherson later clarified her comments amid Liberal outcry, but continued to accuse Justin Trudeau of “playing games.”
“We have not seen him, we have not seen leadership,” she said.
Conservative members also criticized McPherson after she blasted Kenney for “stumbling and bumbling” in his government’s response to the pandemic, which the NDP MP called an “unmitigated disaster.”
She said Kenney ignored the evidence of science and the pleas of doctors, downplayed the seriousness of COVID-19, “belittled” efforts to control the spread and, even as the crisis deepened, took only “half measures” to impose public health restrictions while blaming everyone but himself for the problem.
“Thanks to the bumbling, stumbling joke that our provincial government has become, we have the single, greatest health crisis that Alberta has ever seen,” McPherson said, her voice breaking at times with emotion.
Speaking with Corus Radio’s Shaye Ganam on Thursday, Kenney called McPherson’s comments “totally unproductive and totally predictable.”
“What we need to do is, is come together, not drive fear and division at this time,” he said. “We have a spike we’ve got to get under control. And if we do that, vaccines will take over. We’ll be able to move forward with our normal lives later this summer. Let’s just focus on that and get the job done.”
As the debate went on, Trudeau said he had spoken to Kenney on Wednesday and offered the federal government’s help in responding to the COVID-19 crisis. It was not clear what kind of help was offered.
Kenney didn’t specify what the prime minister offered, but did say he told Trudeau additional help isn’t needed at this time, pointing to the fact that the province’s ICU capacity could be as much as 425 beds if needed. On Wednesday, the province reported 146 Albertans were in the ICU with COVID-19.
Kenney did say he told Trudeau getting more vaccines to the region would help, but that more aren’t available.
Alberta is seeing 546 new cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 people, according to Health Canada data. The rate of infection is more than double that of Ontario, which has the second-highest rate, and is higher than every U.S. state.
The province added 2,271 new cases and three new deaths on Wednesday. Nearly 150 people are battling the disease in intensive care, while another 500 Albertans are in hospital.
On Tuesday, Kenney announced sweeping new restrictions in an attempt to combat the rising infections, including moving all schools online and cutting capacity for retail businesses and places of worship.
Conservative MPs — some of whom served with Kenney when he was in federal politics — pointed the blame squarely at the slow rollout of vaccines in the early months of the year and continued delays in some deliveries, as well as the continued lack of domestic manufacturing.
Yet some Conservatives also questioned the need for lockdowns altogether, with health critic Michelle Rempel Garner saying Albertans “cannot afford” stay-at-home measures.
“Lockdown is a luxury for a lot of people in my community,” said Rempel Garner, who represents the riding of Calgary Nose Hill.
“Gig economy workers, taxi drivers, people in the resource industry — that’s the Alberta economy. We do look different economically than other parts of the country, so measures are going to affect people differently.”
Those comments briefly led to debate between Liberals and Conservatives over whether the opposition believed that lockdowns are effective in limiting the spread of the virus.
Liberals criticized Conservative members, along with provinces like Alberta and Ontario, for not using vaccine delivery estimates as a roadmap for navigating the latest wave of the pandemic, arguing health measures should have been introduced sooner to make up for the delays.
“We can be very critical, and history can look back on the vaccine procurement and how that went,” Kingston and the Islands MP Mark Gerretsen said.
“But what we can’t be critical about, Mr. Speaker, is that provinces knew what the timeline was going to be.”
Gerretsen singled out Ontario for “hoping that maybe miraculously things would go way better than” the official vaccine delivery schedule instead of adopting stricter health measures amid its own crushing third wave.
During Ontario’s own crisis last month, members of the Canadian Red Cross were dispatched to help assist health care workers, some of whom were flown in from other provinces to help.
That assistance was provided after Ontario Premier Doug Ford requested help from across the country, a move Kenney is not believed to have made yet.
Kevin Lamoureux, parliamentary secretary to government House leader Pablo Rodriguez, said the federal government is in “constant communication” with Alberta and will continue to support its efforts to fight the outbreak.
“I believe Alberta will pull through because of the people, because of the health care professionals, because of people coming together,” he said.
–With files from the Canadian Press