Alberta Premier Danielle Smith vowed Saturday to take measures to ensure masking mandates for children in Alberta’s kindergarten-to-Grade-12 classes can no longer be imposed.
“Our government will not permit any further masking mandates of children in Alberta’s K-12 education system,” her edict published on the government’s website read.
With Halloween right around the corner, this seems like a seasonally appropriate decree.
After all, while the legal foundation for Premier Smith’s directive may be shaky, its message to the United Conservative Party’s increasingly radicalized base is clear: As long as Danielle Smith commands the ship of state, witchcraft trumps science when it comes to health policy.
In the premier’s own words: “The detrimental effects of masking on the mental health, development and education of children in classroom settings is well understood, and we must turn the page on what has been an extremely difficult time for children, along with their parents and teachers.”
In reality, while the detrimental effects on children of mask mandates to prevent infectious disease are questionable, the detrimental effects of COVID-19 infection on people of all ages are quite clear. They die in large numbers.
More than 5,000 people have died of COVID-19 in Alberta since the start of the pandemic; about 40,000 in Canada. The pandemic continues.
If nothing else, the unusual timing of Saturday’s announcement signals our unelected premier’s annoyance with Court of King’s Bench Justice Grant Dunlop’s declaration Thursday that the former Kenney Government’s Feb. 8 order lifting the masking requirement in schools was “based on an unreasonable interpretation of the Public Health Act.”
Justice Dunlop said he issued his ruling “for the benefit of the chief medical officer of health and other medical officers of health in considering future public health orders.”
That is, so that health officers understand they have legal authority to declare public health mandates and need not bow to the politically driven wishes of elected officials.
In her riposte Saturday, Premier Smith said, “I have directed our Justice minister to assess whether an appeal of Thursday’s Kings Bench Court decision is appropriate, and have instructed our government’s ministers of Justice, Health and Education to alert me to any legislative or regulatory changes that may be necessary to reaffirm or clarify our government’s full authority with respect to this and other health and education matters.”
If Justice Minister Tyler Shandro’s staff is doing its job, it will inform the minister that an appeal of Justice Dunlop’s ruling by the government stands very little chance of success. Indeed, as a lawyer, Mr. Shandro surely understands this himself.
Sharper legal minds than mine say there is no way for the government to appeal Justice Dunlop’s finding of fact that the cabinet and not Chief Medical Officer of Health Deena Hinshaw made the decision to lift the order.
Indeed, the only part of the ruling on which an appeal might have some hope of success was when Justice Dunlop sided with the government and rejected the appellants’ Charter argument that their immunocompromised children’s rights had been breached.
Whether or not the appellants, who also included the Alberta Federation of Labour, could succeed in such an appeal is another question, but not one that helps the Smith Government’s case in any way.
The second part of Ms. Smith’s statement is more politically significant.
Here Ms. Smith is saying that regardless of the diversionary benefits to governments of school districts like the one she once sat on in Calgary, her government intends to run them all directly from the centre.
Alert readers will recall that in August, 1999, the Calgary Board of Education of which Ms. Smith was a member had become “completely dysfunctional” in the words of its chair. In response, the Klein Government’s “learning minister,” Lyle Oberg, fired the entire board and handed its operations over to a single trustee, retired Calgary chief commissioner George Cornish.
Ms. Smith was hired days later as a columnist by the Calgary Herald and worked as a strike-breaker through the labour dispute that began in November that year. She did not seek re-election to the school board.
Back to the future, it remains unclear whether Premier Smith intends to try to extend her anti-masking policy to infectious diseases other than COVID-19, or if it will influence masking procedures in health care facilities.
In addition, it is also possible the government may draft legislation to make the chief medical officer of health clearly subordinate to cabinet.
Between the lines of her statement yesterday, Ms. Smith was also telling her supporters that Canada’s constitution doesn’t matter, her government will dictate to provincial boards regardless of what the courts have to say about it.
That likely won’t work either. But it will take longer, and be more painful and expensive, to resolve.