Divided House of Kenney: COVID pandemic widens urban-rural divide in Government of Alberta

At the end of this week, the Alberta restaurant will be closed for in-person meals.

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The intersection of political and geography persuasion over Alberta’s lockdown views has been evident in polls throughout the pandemic.

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EDMONTON – Alberta’s rural-urban divide has become a deeper problem for Alberta Premier Jason Kenney as the province enters wave three of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Earlier this week, Kenney announced another round of restrictions, saying it was his job to “make tough choices,” and bring the province back to the tough rules that were in place in February during the second wave, when cases had increased rapidly and there was concern that the hospital system was overwhelmed.

“The only responsible choice to save lives and protect our health care system is to take immediate action,” Kenney said Tuesday.

The Prime Minister also hinted that some Albertans – and some members of his caucus – were not going to be happy about it.

“I fully expect to hear some of these opinions publicly, in the coming days, and look forward to it,” Kenney said. “I am simply asking that the debate be informed by facts.”

As of Wednesday night, it was clear how many politicians were thinking this way: Seventeen of the 63 members of the United Conservative Party caucus – or a quarter – signed a letter to Kenney, claiming they disagreed with the return to more stringent restrictions.

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For months, there have been a handful of disgruntled UCP MPs who have opposed further restrictions or, in some cases, advocated an approach that treats parts of the province differently.

Most of the letter’s signatories are from rural areas or small towns, with a few from the suburbs of large cities, such as Airdrie.

Nathan Cooper, for example, who is the president of the UCP and represents the constituency of Olds-Didsbury, north of Calgary, wrote in a Facebook post that he had “advocated publicly and privately for a regional approach to COVID-19 restrictions ”. While the majority of cases are in Edmonton and Calgary, the argument goes, it is not fair to treat other parts of the province in the same way.

“I think it’s the most important factor, it’s this rural-urban divide,” said Duane Bratt, a political scientist at Mount Royal University, referring to the motivations behind the open letter.

The current distribution of COVID cases in Alberta includes 5,408 active cases in the Calgary area, 2,640 in the Edmonton area, 934 in central Alberta, 1,522 in the north and 865 in the south.

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But the raw numbers don’t tell the full story. Athabasca County, a population of 13,000, two hours northeast of Edmonton, has only 260 active cases, but it is also the highest per capita rate in the province. Calgary Center, a population of 67,000, has 275 cases of COVID-19.

Businesses resisting COVID-19 measures come from both rural and urban areas, but, as in the case of the Whistle Stop Café in Mirror, Alta., Which remained open during restrictions earlier in the year, they have skewed the small town. and rural.

At an independent press conference on Thursday, Kenney was again asked if the province is considering a more regional approach to the restrictions. He said this had been discussed and would continue to be an option.

“But, quite frankly, right now, that surge is happening pretty much everywhere,” Kenney said.

UCP President Nathan Cooper wrote on Facebook that he had
UCP President Nathan Cooper wrote on Facebook that he had “advocated publicly and privately for a regional approach to COVID-19 restrictions.” Photo de David Bloom / Postmedia

The tension between rural conservatives and urban conservatives is hardly new in Alberta.

“Rural domination is what brought the PCU to power; this is what has kept the PCs in power for decades, but they feel left out of the power structure, ”Bratt said.

The intersection of political and geography persuasion over lockdown views has been evident in polls throughout the pandemic. A November 2020 ThinkHQ poll, as new restrictions arrived to deal with Wave 2, showed that only 9% of Albertans in Edmonton and Calgary felt the restrictions went too far. In northern, central and southern Alberta, about 20% 100 felt they had gone too far.

Opposition New Democrats have seized on Kenney’s latest political crisis, saying the UCP is not taking the pandemic seriously.

It is not surprising that there is dissatisfaction with the COVID-19 policy, that politicians are passing these concerns on to the Prime Minister either. But what is unusual in this case is the public nature of the dissent.

Kenney, for his part, has said the party will tolerate this dissent, although any member who pleads for disobedience will get the boot.

“There’s no point in pretending that there isn’t a range of passionately held views in our society,” Kenney said.

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