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New bill would give Alberta more power in emergencies, change election date to fall


The Government of Alberta has tabled another bill granting the province greater power to make unilateral decisions.

Bill 21, The Emergency Statutes Amendment Act, amends four pieces of legislation, increasing provincial authority in emergency situations like wildfires, drought and flooding.

Included is a change to The Election Act to move Alberta's fixed election date from May to October.

Last year, Alberta declared a state of emergency due to wildfire just weeks before the May 29 election.

Premier Danielle Smith said natural disasters are more common during spring and summer, pointing to other former spring emergencies like the 2011 Slave Lake Fire, and Fort McMurray's 2016 fire and 2020 flood.

Moving elections to the fall would prevent cabinet members from having to manage emergencies during an election period, Smith said.

Currently, Alberta is one of only four provinces that hold elections in the spring. If the legislation passed, the next provincial election will be held Oct. 18, 2027.

Emergency management

Bill 21 includes a suite of changes to The Water Act, The Forest and Prairie Protection Act and The Emergency Management Act.

Those include giving the province authority over local emergency response efforts "where additional provincial oversight and support is required."

Examples include the depletion of local resources, events spanning multiple jurisdictions, or where "local actions are at a cross purposes with broader regional or provincial actions."

The province said current legislation is unclear on when cabinet could take control over a local response, saying the bill will "clearly define" that authority.

"We have the ability right now, without this bill, to go in and take over a critical incident. What we are doing is putting the safeguards in place," said Mike Ellis, minister of public safety and emergency services.

Like other recent bills increasing provincial oversight, officials said "authority would only be assumed in extreme circumstances."

Smith said she doesn't believe municipalities will take issue with the legislation, which she said is based on their own feedback.

"When we've had these major catastrophes in the past … it's always, 'Why didn't the province step in earlier?'" Smith said. "If that happens time and time again, you've got to start listening, and that's what we're doing."

However, the president of the Rural Municipalities of Alberta said members are confused by the bill and other new legislation aimed at local governements. 

"Our understanding of this government was following conservative values which was actually supporting local government and local decision making," said Paul McLauchlin. "We're quite surprised by a lot of these moves for centralization."

Natural disasters

The province says changes will let it act faster in emergency situations.

Those include empowering provincial crews to access, occupy and use private property on all provincial lands, including Métis Settlements. That includes building fire guards and removing buildings where needed.

Cabinet would also decide where water goes during a water-related emergency – including unilateral approval of low-risk inter-basin water transfers.

Authorization processes would be removed from some flood and drought mitigation activities and the province would be able to direct water licence holders to reduce or stop water use.

"[It's] really about making sure that we can prioritize human health and safety if we find ourselves in drought emergency," said Rebecca Shultz, minister of environment and protected areas.

Alberta is currently in Stage 4 of the provincial drought response. Stage 5 is the declaration of an emergency under The Water Act.

McLaughlin said he understands central Alberta members are always concerned when there is talk of inter-basin water transfers, which currently require a special decision by the legislature. 

"In dire situations, I think entrenching that legislation does make sense," he added. "But my members are wanting to make sure that there's public accountability by the government – ensuring that all other things are considered prior to any move like that."

Bill 21 includes changes that prevent any actions taken by the province during an emergency to be challenged through the Environmental Appeals Board, the independent body managing appeals on environmental decisions made by the province.

With files from Chelan Skulski Top Stories

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