Sprawlcast: The freest province in Canada

As COVID-19 cases surge, Kenney doubles down.

Support in-depth Calgary journalism.

Sign Me Up!

We connect Calgarians with their city through in-depth, curiosity-driven journalism—but we need your help! We rely on our readers and listeners to fund our work by pitching in a few dollars a month. Join us by becoming a Sprawl member today!

Sprawlcast is a collaboration between CJSW 90.9 FM and The Sprawl. It's a show for curious Albertans who want more than the daily news grind. A transcript of this episode is below.

MINISTER TYLER SHANDRO (NOV. 12): As Minister of Health, I want to assure Albertans that we are taking this increase in cases very seriously.

COUNCILLOR JYOTI GONDEK: Sometimes it's okay to admit that you were wrong.

DR. CHRISTINE GIBSON: We can see the tsunami coming; we can see it building; and we're sounding the alarm to the community, and we just feel like we're being ignored.

JEREMY KLASZUS (HOST): The situation in Alberta is dire right now. Our COVID-19 numbers are higher than they've ever been. And as Premier Jason Kenney contends with the pandemic, he's sticking with an approach that's familiar to him.

PREMIER JASON KENNEY: We can continue to lead the way as the freest province in the country if we all do it together.

KLASZUS: That was Kenney speaking on November 6 when the province introduced some new voluntary health measures in response to the sharp rise in COVID numbers.

KENNEY: This is a, uh, strong request that Albertans in Edmonton and Calgary stop holding social gatherings at their homes, that they just keep to their core family group at home, period.

We're not going to be sending out police to monitor this. As much as what we've done, this is appealing to people to exercise personal and collective responsibility so that we can avoid having to use more stringent measures.

We’re sounding the alarm to the community, and we just feel like we’re being ignored.

Dr. Christine Gibson,


KLASZUS: This has been Kenney's refrain from almost the beginning: personal responsibility. And he's not the only political leader who has been saying this. It's also been a popular refrain in the U.S., in states like North and South Dakota, where Republican governors have taken the same tack.

GOV. KRISTI NOEM: What I love about South Dakota is that they all get personal responsibility. They know that they are personally responsible for their own health, for their family and their communities. And they're really getting on board with making sure that we're doing the right things here in South Dakota, and that just makes me incredibly proud of our state.

KLASZUS: That was South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem speaking to FOX News in March. You heard her say she was proud of South Dakotans. Premier Kenney has also said this about Albertans. Here's Kenney speaking in the Legislature in late April, just over a month after Alberta declared a state of public emergency.

KENNEY (APRIL 27): The limited spread here, with lighter restrictions, is evidence, fundamentally, of one important thing: that Albertans did this voluntarily, through their personal responsibility.

They did not need, in every aspect of their social and economic lives, to be micromanaged by government. They did this by listening to the advice of our chief medical officer, by employing good old-fashioned Alberta common sense, by caring for the vulnerable. And I think that is remarkable and commendable.

We’re not going to turn Alberta into a police state, and ultimately, we have to rely on people exercising personal responsibility.

Jason Kenney,

Alberta Premier

KLASZUS: Fast forward seven months and the situation looks very different. Places where leaders were relying on personal responsibility now have some of the highest COVID numbers anywhere. North and South Dakota are two of the hardest hit states in the U.S.

It's so bad in North Dakota that they're flying in military nurses to help. But earlier this month, North Dakota actually went even further than Alberta and issued a statewide mask mandate after resisting it for months. Alberta hasn't done that. We're the only province that hasn't. And North Dakota is a place where it's normal for the very reality of the virus to be called into doubt.

GOV. DOUG BURGUM: If you're not a believer in COVID—we know that there are some people in North Dakota that think that too much emphasis has been put on this. Hopefully you’ll understand that other things actually are real. Heart disease is real, diabetes is real, cancer is real, stroke is real.

KLASZUS: That was North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum on November 9 pleading with North Dakotans because hospitals are being overrun.

BURGUM: You know that there's one thing that's very real, and that's that 100% of our capacity is now being used—80% by non-COVID, 20% by people either due to or with COVID.

KLASZUS: Now, in Alberta Kenney has never questioned or suggested that COVID-19 isn't real. But his approach of pleading for personal responsibility is not working. And you can see it when you look at the charts showing a steep rise in COVID cases in October and November. Here's Alberta chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw.

DR. DEENA HINSHAW: Almost a quarter of all our COVID-19 deaths have happened since November 1st. If we do not change our trajectory, the implications are grim.

COVID-19 cases in Alberta by day and case status from March 9 to November 19, 2020. Source: Government of Alberta

KLASZUS: But even as the Alberta government reports staggering numbers on a daily basis, Kenney has refused to change course in any substantive way. This is Julia Wong of Global News putting a question to Premier Kenney on November 6.

JULIA WONG (GLOBAL NEWS): Cases have been going up the last few months. Personal responsibility and tough talk really don't seem to have worked. Why not impose a lockdown like the U.K., Germany, and France and stamp the virus out? Now, we've been told that there needs to be a balance, but the virus is spreading in workplaces too.

KENNEY: Well, what you describe as a lockdown, first of all, constitutes a massive invasion of the exercise of people's fundamental rights and a massive impact on not only their personal liberties, but their ability to put food on the table, to sustain themselves financially, that has huge downstream effects.

KLASZUS: The province did introduce what Kenney calls "modest restrictions" on November 12, introducing a curfew on liquor sales in bars and restaurants, and forbidding a few activities like team sports and theatre performances.

But that weekend, Alberta recorded its highest ever COVID case count with over 1,000 daily cases. And Premier Kenney went on the Roy Green Show on 770 CHQR to talk about the province's approach.

ROY GREEN: Would you explain to us, please, what it is you've changed what you're doing in Alberta as far as COVID is concerned and what the thinking behind it is?

KENNEY: First some context, Roy. Throughout the COVID period, Alberta has had the least strict public health measures, because we've really put a lot of emphasis on education and personal responsibility. Alberta really has a culture of what I call "responsible freedom."

KLASZUS: Once again, Kenney made it clear that he was okay to let things ride for now.

If we do not change our trajectory, the implications are grim.

Dr. Deena Hinshaw,

Alberta CMOH

KENNEY: We're not going to turn Alberta into a police state, and ultimately, we have to rely on people exercising personal responsibility.

KLASZUS: The next day—Monday, November 16—Alberta reported its deadliest day so far, with 20 COVID deaths. Here's Globe and Mail health journalist André Picard speaking to CBC's Frontburner podcast.

ANDRÉ PICARD: The problem with Alberta's messaging is it's like, well, we just want you to do what's right. But you have to tell people what's right.

This is an unprecedented pandemic. People don't know exactly what they can do to help.

So the problem I have with Mr. Kenney is I think what he's doing is a copout. He's just saying, "Oh, be responsible." But if you're a leader, you have to tell them what responsible is, and you have to model it.

'The stakes are so very high'

KLASZUS: Hinshaw, Kenney and Health Minister Tyler Shandro have all stuck with their plan of pleading with Albertans to take the virus seriously, rather than requiring it.

SHANDRO: As the premier said, COVID-19 is challenging us. But no province is better at rising to a challenge. Alberta has one of the finest health systems in the world. We're taking every possible step to protect each other from COVID-19, and ensure that the system will be there for everyone who needs it.

KLASZUS: This is not true, of course. Shandro, Kenney and Hinshaw are not taking every possible step to protect Albertans from COVID-19. And that's an intentional choice.

HINSHAW: We are all so tired right now, and the stakes are so very high. The real human cost of unemployment, bankrupt businesses and isolation are costs of social restrictions that we would all like to avoid.

The real human costs of increased deaths, strain on the health system, exhausted health care workers, and delayed access to care for things other than COVID are also costs that none of us want to pay.

KLASZUS: Kenney has said stronger restrictions are coming if Albertans don't take this seriously. But in the past, the UCP has characterized stronger restrictions as a quote-unquote "NDP shutdown."

Here's UCP MLA Todd Loewen speaking in the legislature on October 27.

The problem I have with Mr. Kenney is I think what he’s doing is a copout.

André Picard,

Health journalist, Globe and Mail

TODD LOEWEN: Given that Dr. Hinshaw already announced additional data-driven measures to limit the spread of COVID, it sounds like the NDP are indeed calling for more restrictions and closures for Alberta small businesses.

To the Minister of Jobs, Economy and Innovation, can you tell us just how damaging an NDP shutdown would be for Alberta small businesses?

MINISTER DOUG SCHWEITZER: Mr. Speaker, it would be devastating, Mr. Speaker. Just plain and simple, it would be devastating to follow the NDP plan on this.

KLASZUS: That same day, Shandro defended the Alberta government's botched COVID-19 app—which has since been shown to have only tracked 19 cases since it launched in May. Here's NDP opposition health critic David Shepherd.

DAVID SHEPHERD: Thank you to the minister, Mr. Speaker, for pointing out that indeed the government has an app, and it's told us that more than 200,000 Albertans have downloaded it. But the fact is that it didn't work. This government rushed it out, and they introduced a $625,000 failure.

Now, other provinces are reporting that the federal app, which was thoughtfully deployed, actually works. To the minister: your app was a failure, as many of your actions have been, unfortunately, on COVID-19.

So can you explain to me here and now why you won't rectify your mistake and bring in the actual functional federal tracing app?

The UCP has characterized stronger measures as a quote-unquote NDP shutdown.”

THE SPEAKER: The hon. Minister of Health.

SHANDRO: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Our app actually did help our contact tracers be able to do their work quicker and more fast. It's unfortunate to see the honourable Pizzagate member continue with his conspiracy theories.

It's unfortunate that he continues to cheer against Alberta and our pandemic response, Mr. Speaker. But look, as I said, we are in discussions with the federal government, and we'll continue those discussions and see how their app can be used here in Alberta.

Albertans are dissatisfied with Kenney

KLASZUS: In the meantime, frustration in Alberta is building. A recent Leger poll showed Albertans as being the most unhappy of all Canadians with their provincial government's response to the pandemic—with 59% of respondents dissatisfied with Kenney.

This dissatisfaction extends into city halls and Alberta businesses too. One Calgary city councillor is calling out the province for sitting on its hands and expecting other levels of government to make the tough decisions. And some restaurants have gone ahead and shut down their dining rooms voluntarily in the absence of action from the Kenney government.

We're going to hear from a couple of those folks in a bit—but first, let's hear from someone who is on the front lines of all this.

On November 12, more than 430 physicians and three health care unions sent a letter to Kenney, Shandro and Hinshaw. And in that letter they called for "strong and decisive mandatory measures."

This has sometimes been referred to as a "circuit breaker"—and basically the idea is you introduce some restrictions for a certain period of time to stop exponential increases.

It’s unfortunate to see the honourable Pizzagate member continue with his conspiracy theories.

Tyler Shandro,

Alberta Minister of Health

KLASZUS: Here's what they ask for: a suspension of group indoor activities, like casinos and religious services. Make it mandatory that everyone who can work from home does so. And limit contacts to those who are in your household or support bubble.

Now, the group also acknowledges the societal damage that extremely restrictive measures can cause. And with this in mind they say the province should aim to keep schools open.

Dr. Christine Gibson is a Calgary physician and one the lead signatories of this letter. She's the co-founder of a group called Masks4Canada. And she made time in between appointments with patients to speak with me about what she and other doctors are hoping for. I began by asking what led to this letter.

'We felt that we needed to voice our opinion'

DR. CHRISTINE GIBSON: Well, I think those of us who are physicians and clinicians on the Masks4Canada advocacy group—we noticed a very sharp increase of cases that were exponentially rising. And we understand from a public health perspective that we aren't doing sufficient measures to mitigate the sharp increase.

And so we felt that we needed to voice our opinion about the kinds of measures that we thought would start helping us flatten the curve again. Because we have done it once before and we know we can be successful.

We don't even think it necessarily would take as much interventions as that initial lockdown, but if we don't bend the curve substantially soon, we are seeing a lockdown in the immediate future.

KLASZUS: And these restrictions, like you said, they're not as intense as the ones that we had before... the restrictions you're suggesting, but the province has still been resistant to that. What do you make of that? Because they've been quite clear that they don't want to introduce any sort of severe restriction; they don't want to infringe on people's freedom; they don't want to harm the economy...

I don’t think people understand that it’s not a dichotomy between the economy versus bending the curve.

Dr. Christine Gibson,


GIBSON: Well, being on a ventilator is very freedom inhibiting. So I don't think people understand that it's not a dichotomy between the economy versus bending the curve.

I think that there can be a way to find the sweet spot between not letting the pandemic get riproaring out of hand and then allowing there to be some interventions that don't completely collapse the economy. And so what we're recommending is finding that sweet spot.

So we don't think that the measures that have been suggested and recommended and kind of voluntarily expected of citizens are working. We don't think people are actually doing them. And we also don't think that they're going to be sufficient to make a real impact on the direction that the pandemic is going.

And so that would inevitably collapse the economy—when the health system collapses, which we're already seeing in Edmonton and certainly we're seeing in places like Manitoba and south of the border in many communities.

We know we're heading in that direction, and we're just basically trying to put in some measures that would be reasonable for society to agree to.

So something like closing the casinos, closing movie theatres, having restaurants go back from being full-service dine-in to takeout... those kinds of measures, we don't think would collapse the economy, but would certainly be the kinds of restrictions that would be easy to implement and would be reasonable.

That would inevitably collapse the economy — when the health system collapses.

Dr. Christine Gibson,


GIBSON: It makes no sense that a bar would close at 10, because does the virus turn into a pumpkin?

I mean, it doesn't make sense why that would be something that would be expected to bend the curve at all, and we just think we need a lot more substantial measures that would be fact based, that would be learning from other jurisdictions that have managed to bend the curve, and that would find that sweet spot between this false dichotomy that's been presented to us by government.

KLASZUS: Yeah, because, as you say, the economy... the threat is that it could suffer quite a lot worse in the future if nothing is done, right? In addition to the human suffering.

GIBSON: We've been really fortunate. Masks4Canada Alberta actually has an economist as well as an aerosol engineer working with us, so we're not just a team of physicians. We definitely take a holistic perspective into account.

And so we're not saying that we want to collapse the economy or collapse mental health. I mean, I work in mental health and addictions. We've seen the stark rise in opioid deaths. So that's definitely on my radar too, and it's not that I'm wanting to exacerbate that or make it so that the people who are vulnerable and placed at risk and working in grocery stores, or Uber drivers, are the ones who are bearing the brunt of other people's choices.

We’re the frontlines facing a tsunami and we can see the tsunami coming.

Dr. Christine Gibson,


GIBSON: I think... if we're looking at it from a holistic perspective and a preventative aspect, there's a lot we can do that would still protect the vulnerable, that would still allow for economic activity to continue, but if we let the health system collapse, everything adjacent collapses. It's like a domino.

And if you don't have enough physicians to man the front because we're all sick or on isolation, then we can't look after any other illnesses, and then... that's a lot of dominoes that start to fall.

And if you get a lot of people who are ill in society, then the economy collapses because of that too. We start to run out of things again… It could be a real nightmare. And we're seeing that in other places already, and we're just really wanting to avoid what right now is going to be our reality. There haven't been sufficient maneuvers and restrictions—like, formal restrictions—placed that would bend the curve to any degree, so we are facing this.

And it's like we're the frontlines facing a tsunami and we can see the tsunami coming. We can see it building, and we're sounding the alarm to the community, and we just feel like we're being ignored.

We are the first people that are going to get hit by this wave, in terms of our work, in terms of our patients and our communities, and it's just really... It's like a devastating moral injury to be shouting about this wave that's coming, and to have it just go into the void.

Province didn't act, but some businesses are

KLASZUS: That letter from Gibson and other doctors didn't prompt any immediate action from the province. Another group of more than 70 doctors had sent a similar letter to Premier Kenney a few days prior. But others did see these letters and take action. I spoke with Katy Ingraham, who co-owns Fleisch Delikatessen and Cartago in Edmonton—which are now closed to in-person dining.

That letter from Gibson and other doctors didn’t prompt any immediate action from the province.

KATY INGRAHAM: And so last week, early last week, when we saw the letter from the 70 frontline health-care workers, physicians, calling for a circuit breaker lockdown and the government largely ignoring that—in consultation with our team, and both my business partner and I, just decided that this is what is best for us, specifically in our community or our team, and will hopefully send a broader message that is something that healthcare is looking for and a call that we should all pay attention to.

KLASZUS: Now, restaurants are obviously split on this. Some are understandably opposed to more restrictions. Based on its data, the province doesn't believe restaurants are a significant source of spread.

But we don't have a clear picture of just what is contributing to the spread of COVID in this recent surge. Right now, more than 80% of active cases in Alberta are from "unknown sources" of transmission. And Alberta's contact tracing system has been overwhelmed by the increase. Ingraham says restaurant owners are being put in a tough situation.

INGRAHAM: That is something that's very heartbreaking, and a lot of difficult decisions that individual business owners are having to make in the absence of any action from the province. And what I mean by that is that the province allowed contact tracing to collapse.

So if as an industry we had conclusive data for all, or a large percentage of the case transmission, we could confidently say as an industry that we have the data to support that we're doing everything right.

The province has actually pitted small business, hospitality business, against health care.

Katy Ingraham,

Restaurant owner

INGRAHAM: And I truly believe that we are, I think—at least in Edmonton, for sure. The hospitality groups have taken this very seriously. There's a few exceptions and outliers out there, for sure, which there could've been better policing of that from the government.

But the government has already failed this industry by allowing contact tracing to collapse and not having the data to support keeping us open and instilling that consumer confidence that we aren't the problem.

And I think what the problem is now is that we're past that point. What the frontlines are saying is that we're mere days, weeks, away from a total collapse of the healthcare system.

And so, regardless of this, if businesses are going to be forced to close and hospitality businesses are going to be forced to lay off people, the sad reality of that is that the province has actually pitted small business, hospitality business, against health care. And that's not a situation that anyone wants to be in, and it's not a position that we as business owners should be put in.

'The province is waiting for us to do their job'

KLASZUS: On November 15, Calgary city councillor Jyoti Gondek unleashed a blistering critique of the provincial government on social media. She said the province is derelict in its duty to Albertans, and is waiting for municipal councils to do their job for them and enforce greater restrictions as needed.

Gondek said this approach "allows the province to carry on with the facade of business-friendliness, and blame city council for not caring about local businesses."

I spoke with Councillor Gondek in more detail about her criticisms.

KLASZUS: So you said, "The province is waiting for us to do their job." And what do you mean by that?

GONDEK: I'm going to give you the example of the last council meeting that we had this summer. It was at the end of July, where we debated a mandatory mask bylaw...

KLASZUS: ...I need to quickly jump in here with a bit of additional context. Council was considering the mask bylaw at the advice of doctors and city's chief emergency officer, Tom Sampson.

CHIEF TOM SAMPSON: Your Worship and members of council, now is the ideal time to prevent the spread of COVID further.

KLASZUS: It passed 12-3. But three UCP-friendly city councillors voted against it. Councillors Joe Magliocca, Sean Chu and Jeromy Farkas.

COUNCILLOR JOE MAGLIOCCA: I think we have too much government interfering in too many people's lives.

COUNCILLOR SEAN CHU: We should treat Calgarians like adults.

COUNCILLOR JEROMY FARKAS: I'm very concerned about council going down this road and actually voting on interventions.

I think we have too much government interfering in too many people’s lives.

Joe Magliocca,

Councillor, Ward 2

KLASZUS: Okay, let's go back to that interview with Councillor Gondek.

GONDEK: I don't believe it should have been the responsibility of your local government to have to ensure that safety measures were being put in place to protect the public from the pandemic.

I believe that because the provincial government has a mandate for not only health, but also the economy.

There should've been a plan in place that said: If the pandemic increases at this level, then we will do this. These are the measures we will implement.

And at that time, I saw no plan coming from the province. Neither did my colleagues. So we took action with a mandatory mask bylaw. We are now at a stage where we just heard that 20 people lost their lives to this pandemic in a 24-hour period. That is shocking; it's disturbing; and there's a lot of sorrow in this province that we're losing lives and we still have no strategy or plan. That's why I'm saying the province needs to step up and do more.

KLASZUS: And the province has been pretty forthcoming about where it's coming from philosophically and ideologically, which is: they want to avoid restrictions wherever possible.

And there was a time where it seemed like that was working, to a point, but as you look at the numbers now, where does that leave you and your colleagues as a municipal council?

There’s a lot of sorrow in this province that we’re losing lives and we still have no strategy or plan.

Jyoti Gondek,

Councillor, Ward 3

GONDEK: So as a municipality, we have taken great measures to speak with our business community and find out what their pinch points are and how we can help.

We've got businesses, particularly in the hospitality industry... that have gone through great expense and time to retrofit their spaces to ensure that patrons feel safe, as safe as they possibly can during a pandemic. And they are quite concerned that they may have to shut down, because there's been no strategy on how to mitigate the transmission levels of this disease.

So I think, fundamentally, the greatest problem that we have seen out of the provincial government is the inability to have a plan that links health with the economy and demonstrates that, "These are the measures we will put in place to make sure that transmission is kept as low as possible so that businesses can stay open as long as possible."

If you don't link those two things together, you're not doing your job.

KLASZUS: That's interesting, because the province's rationale for not intervening is the economy. That's what Kenney cites: We don't want to meddle with, and we don't want to cause mass upheaval, social upheaval and economic upheaval.

What do you make of that argument as they continue to make that?

GONDEK: If your focus is solely the economy and you are not doing the other parts of your mandate, then that's a bigger problem than what we've got before us.

If you can't walk and chew gum at the same time, that's a big problem for the people of this province.

You can’t talk about the economy without talking about your plan for the pandemic.

Jyoti Gondek,

Councillor, Ward 3

GONDEK: I would argue that, in order to keep the economy alive, you need to have people running businesses and you need to have people frequenting those businesses.

If you can't give people the sense of security that they will not suffer transmission of COVID by going to these businesses, they're simply not going to go there.

If you can't provide some sort of assurance that you are doing everything you possibly can as a province on the public health front, people don't feel safe going to businesses. So you can't talk about the economy without talking about your plan for the pandemic.

And if you've known about this since March, why don't you have a strategy? Why don't you have a phasing plan that says, "Right now we're okay, so this is the only mitigation we will implement"? Or, "Right now things are really bad, so this is what we're going to do"? That's all I want to see, is a strategy.

The one thing that I would add is, sometimes it's okay to admit that you were wrong. In this particular case, I think when it's been revealed that in the last six months the Alberta contact tracing app has only managed to identify 20 cases, I think it's okay to admit it's not working, and I think it's okay to go to the federal app, which seems to be working fine.

As an Albertan, I would be fine with my provincial government saying, "Look, we made a mistake. Here's something new that works."

KLASZUS: And how hopeful are you that you'll see that change of heart and approach?

GONDEK: I have yet to see anyone in this government do anything than double down that they're a hundred percent right in their position, so I don't have a lot of hope right now.

KLASZUS: Well, thanks very much for your time and insights, Councillor Gondek.

GONDEK: You're very welcome, Jeremy.

Jeremy Klaszus is editor-in-chief of The Sprawl.

We want to hear from you! Send letters to the editor to hello@sprawlcalgary.com.

Support in-depth Calgary journalism.

Sign Me Up!

We connect Calgarians with their city through in-depth, curiosity-driven journalism—but we need your help! We rely on our readers and listeners to fund our work by pitching in a few dollars a month. Join us by becoming a Sprawl member today!