Mayor Cathy Heron expressed confusion Tuesday morning over statements from the premier suggesting the province could prevent municipalities from implementing local COVID-19 health measures.
In a Feb. 3 Facebook Live video, Premier Jason Kenney was asked whether he would take action to stop municipalities from implementing their own mask mandates or other health restrictions. In response, Kenney said municipal politicians selecting their own local health policies “would be a matter of great concern.”
“Right now, based on the current powers of the Municipal Government Act, the legal advice we have is that municipalities do have that authority — they have very wide-ranging … generic bylaw authority under the Municipal Government Act,” Kenney said. “We wouldn’t be able to amend the Municipal Government Act in any event until the legislature resumes.”
The Alberta legislature is scheduled to return at the end of February.
Heron said she believes she “could speak for every elected official at the local level” in saying the statement was confusing.
“Kenney quite often talks about respect for his level of government from the federal side,” Heron said. “He’s always saying that the provinces should have autonomy, and they should be able to make decisions. Well, it goes both ways, and you need to give that respect to the local level.”
Heron said she has since spoken to Municipal Affairs Minister Ric McIver, who has led her to believe that Kenney will not follow through with the statements.
“It was just a question that somebody posed,” Heron said. “It was hypothetical — the premier had to respond to it, and that was his knee-jerk reaction.”
Speaking Tuesday before Kenney’s health announcement at 5 p.m. (which occurred after The Gazette's press deadline), Heron said St. Albert city council is “putting trust” in the provincial government.
“We’re hoping they will follow the science and that they aren’t playing politics with what’s going on in the world right now,” Heron said.
Heron said she received several emails over the weekend assuming St. Albert city council had already made a decision to keep the mask bylaw and the province’s vaccine passport system, the restriction exemption program.
“I don’t know where that’s coming from,” Heron said, saying that it’s important for residents to understand council hasn’t had that conversation, and that any decision will be public.
She said that for the most part, St. Albert has allowed the province to take the lead, one exception to that approach being the introduction of the mask bylaw in August of 2020.
“We just felt that the province was moving much too slow,” Heron said. “And the province eventually followed suit.”
Regional approaches are not ideal, Heron said, because they create confusion.
“When you have confusion, you don’t have compliance with bylaws,” she said. “I think what’s really important for St. Albert residents to understand is that’s still our primary perspective — follow the province’s lead.”
On Friday, Heron released a statement speaking out against Kenney's Facebook live comments in her capacity as president of Alberta Municipalities, an association that represents the province's urban centres. She said Alberta Municipalities found the remarks "puzzling and troubling," noting the topic of amending the MGA to restrict local governments' ability has never been discussed in any meeting between Alberta Municipalities and the province.
"We do not expect to discuss it in the future," Heron said in the statement. "Alberta Municipalities believes that local governments need autonomy when responding to this pandemic and its effects on residents."
Previously in the pandemic, the provincial government allowed municipal governments to introduce public-health bylaws and other measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19, Heron said.
"The restrictive approach Premier Kenney is now considering is completely at odds with his government’s earlier direction," Heron said in the statement.
Speaking to The Gazette, Heron said she believes St. Albert residents might have seen Alberta Municipalities' statement and thought St. Albert had already formulated plans for when the province lifts restrictions, leading them to email her over the weekend.
"I spoke against [Kenney's comments] not because we want to bring in a mask bylaw here in St. Albert," Heron said. "I spoke against it because I don't ever want the province limiting our authority."