EDMONTON — Alberta’s rural-urban divide has become a deeper problem for Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, as the province enters the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Earlier this week, Kenney announced another round of restrictions, saying it was his job to “make tough choices,” and taking the province back to strict rules that were in place in February during the second wave, when cases had grown rapidly and there were concerns the hospital system would be overrun.
“The only responsible choice to save lives and to protect our health-care system is to take immediate action,” Kenney said on Tuesday.
The premier also hinted some Albertans — and some in his caucus — weren’t going to be happy about it.
“I fully expect to hear some of those opinions publicly, in the coming days, and I welcome that,” Kenney said. “I just ask that the debate be informed by facts.”
By Wednesday night, it was clear just how many politicians felt that way: Seventeen out of 63 United Conservative Party caucus members — fully one-quarter — signed a letter addressed to Kenney, saying they disagreed with returning to more stringent restrictions.
For months there has been a handful of disgruntled UCP MLAs who’ve opposed further restrictions, or in some cases, advocated for an approach that treats parts of the province differently.
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Most of the signatories of the letter are from rural areas or small towns, with a few representing big city suburbs, such as Airdrie.
Nathan Cooper, for example, who is the UCP Speaker and represents the riding of Olds-Didsbury, north of Calgary, wrote in a Facebook post that he has “publicly and privately advocated for a regional approach to COVID-19 restrictions.” If the majority of cases are in Edmonton and Calgary, the argument goes, it’s not fair to treat other parts of the province the same way.
“I think it’s the biggest factor, is this rural-urban split,” said Duane Bratt, a political scientist at Mount Royal University, referring to the motivations behind the open letter.
Alberta’s current breakdown of COVID cases has 5,408 active cases in the Calgary zone, 2,640 in the Edmonton zone, 934 in central Alberta, 1,522 in the north, and 865 in the south.
But the raw numbers don’t tell a complete story. Athabasca County, population 13,000, two hours northeast of Edmonton, has just 260 active cases, but that’s also the highest rate per capita in the province. Calgary-Centre, population 67,000, has 275 COVID-19 cases.
Businesses resisting COVID-19 measures have come from both rural and urban areas, but, as in the case of the Whistle Stop Café in Mirror, Alta., which prominently stayed open during the restrictions earlier in the year, they’ve skewed small town and rural.
On Thursday, at an unrelated press conference, Kenney was asked once again if the province is considering a more regional approach to restrictions. He said it has been discussed, and would continue to be an option.
“But, quite frankly, right now, this surge is happening pretty much everywhere,” Kenney said.
The tension between rural conservatives and urban conservatives is hardly a new one in Alberta.
“The rural dominance is what brought the UCP into power; it’s what kept the PCs in power for decades, but they feel that they’re left out of the power structure,” said Bratt.
The intersection of political persuasion and geography on lockdown views has been evident in polling throughout the pandemic. ThinkHQ polling from November 2020, as newer restrictions were coming in to address the second wave, showed that just nine per cent of Albertans in Edmonton and Calgary felt the restrictions went too far. In north, central and southern Alberta, about 20 per cent felt they went too far.
The Opposition New Democrats have seized upon Kenney’s latest political crisis, saying the UCP isn’t taking the pandemic seriously.
That there are malcontents regarding COVID-19 policy isn’t surprising, that politicians relay those concerns to the premier isn’t, either. But what is unusual in this case, is the public nature of the dissent.
Kenney, for his part, said the party will tolerate this dissent, though any member who advocates for disobedience will get the boot.
“There’s no point of pretending that there isn’t a range of passionately held views in our society,” Kenney said.
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