The 16 Alberta MLAs who argued against tighter COVID-19 restrictions in an open letter recently have sparked debate and frustration in some of the communities they represent.
They said their constituents have told them the restrictions the province has imposed to contain the spread of the coronavirus have gone on for too long and have caused too much hardship.
“We have heard from our constituents, and they want us to defend their livelihoods and freedoms as Albertans,” the letter read in part.
It’s been two weeks since the United Conservative Party backbenchers, who represent dozens of small towns, mountain resorts and farming communities across Alberta, signed the letter against their own government’s decision earlier this month to return to Step 1 of Alberta’s public health orders. Step 1 includes, among other measures, an end to indoor service at restaurants, bars and cafés and limited customer capacity in stores.
Since then, the mayors of two communities have spoken out, raising questions about whom the MLAs are listening to: Is it the proverbial squeaky wheel they’re hearing from — a vocal minority representing a small group — or the broader views of the communities they represent?
The letter came out as the number of COVID-19 cases in the province surged to levels not seen in months — highlighting the rift between those who argue Albertans need to follow public health orders for a bit longer and those who say it’s time to get back to living without restrictions.
Cases rising at a rate of 1,000 a day
Since the letter came out, the province has had at least 1,000 new cases of COVID-19 every day.
The mayors of Banff and Canmore — two communities in MLA Miranda Rosin’s riding of Banff-Kananaskis — fired off their own letters claiming they were not consulted before their region’s representative signed the letter. Both communities have seen an uptick in active cases and want tighter controls.
“I was disappointed that the MLA didn’t at least reach out to myself as the mayor of Canmore to get a sense of what’s going on here,” said John Borrowman.
Banff Mayor Karen Sorensen said she was also not approached.
“I don’t know who she spoke to in Banff, in the constituency, but she makes reference to speaking to her constituency, and we did not have that conversation,” she said.
Canmore resident Jeff Campney called the MLA’s action “untoward.”
“I would say the message for her is, don’t make statements and don’t speak on my behalf because you can’t speak for me unless you ask me my opinion.”
Banff currently has 136 active cases, or 1,011 per 100,000 people — the second highest per capita rate in the province. Canmore has 79 active cases, or 477 per 100,000 people.
A spokesperson for Rosin said she is not available for an interview.
CBC News reached out to a number of municipalities represented by the 16 MLA’s — only a few responded.
“The city of Airdrie is following the guidelines set forth by the province and will continue to do so,” said Peter Brown, the mayor of Airdrie.
The mayor of Didsbury, which is represented by Speaker Nathan Cooper, says the issue wasn’t discussed by council because Cooper apologized for signing the letter and said he “crossed the line.”
The mayor of nearby Olds says the town has followed public health guidelines — and will continue to work with Cooper to move “forward in a positive fashion to seeing COVID-19 being contained and seeing our economy rebound and grow.”
Heated debate among residents
The issue of whether people were consulted by the 16 MLA’s wasn’t the main point of contention at Airdrie’s Nose Creek Park.
A spirited debate started after the CBC asked people about the letter and whether they support their MLA, Angela Pitt, who is also Alberta’s deputy Speaker.
Glenis Sheeler, who says she’s never worn a face mask or used hand sanitizer during the pandemic and doesn’t know of anyone who’s contracted COVID-19, says she has “much respect” for Pitt.
“We’ve had enough; the country’s had enough. It’s time to stop the silliness, and it’s time to get back to living,” Sheeler said.
John Martz, who was within earshot, jumped into the discussion.
Martz, who said he has cancer and a weakened immune system, said it’s important for everyone to follow public health measures.
“If you’re going to take that risk of getting it, that’s your choice, but I’m looking at it from my position as being immunocompromised, and all it takes is somebody’s ignorance to make me sick to the point where I may not recover,” he said.
Sheeler said she doesn’t believe the information from the province’s chief medical officer of health and wants to see proof the health restrictions work. She says more attention should be placed on the toll the pandemic is taking on mental health, including risks of suicide.
Whom should MLAs represent?
The 16 MLAs said they signed the letter after hearing from their constituents, but some of their critics say they need to be clearer about whom they consulted and how representative those voices are.
Garth Rowswell, the MLA for Vermilion-Lloydminster-Wainwright, told CBC in an email that the majority of the “correspondence and communication” he received “was overwhelmingly from those frustrated with the lockdowns and by no apparent end to it.”
Duane Bratt, a political science professor at Mount Royal University in Calgary, says the debate over the letter raises questions about the role of an MLA and to what degree they should represent all of their constituents, including government officials with whom some residents might not agree.
“If you’re going to claim you’re representing the riding, and you’ve got important groups in the riding saying, ‘Actually, you’re not representing us, and you didn’t even consult us.’ That’s something different,” said Bratt.
Jared Wesley, a political scientist at the University of Alberta, says research shows that if elected officials receive 10 calls on one side of an issue, they can assume about 100 times that number share the same position.
“So this could very well be the case where MLAs seem to be reflecting back the noisiest of their citizens, which is not anything new in Canadian politics.”
He says there’s a message to Albertans: start asking more questions of candidates for public office before they get to the legislature.
“Who do these folks feel like they represent? Do they represent people like me? Do they represent the broader community? What type of approach will they take to that representation when they get to Edmonton and sit in the legislature?”
Cypress-Medicine Hat MLA says he has strong support
Drew Barnes, the MLA for Cypress-Medicine Hat, is the only one from the group of 16 who agreed to an interview. He says the support he’s received since the letter came has been overwhelmingly positive.
“We’re dealing with so many other crisis situations in addition to COVID, from mental health to physical health to economic and spiritual health. And people are grateful that I spoke up for that.”
Barnes says it hasn’t been a one-sided conversation.
“I’ve listened to everyone.”
He says the MLAs’ goal is to protect medically vulnerable people, ramp up vaccinations and be safe while loosening restrictions to help people who are struggling financially and emotionally.
Bryan Labby is an enterprise reporter with CBC Calgary. If you have a good story idea or tip, you can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @CBCBryan.