Why are “man-camps” exempt from lock-down?

Elizabeth May (Saanich—Gulf Islands)
2021-05-05 20:37 [p.6728]

Mr. Speaker, my thanks to my hon. colleague from Jonquière for splitting his time with me.

We are in a terrible place now. When we were first getting used to the idea that we were in a pandemic and needed to adjourn Parliament on March 13, 2020, some of us stood in this place to say that by unanimous consent we were going to adjourn until April 20, 2020. It seems absurd now. I clearly remember saying that the Greens had given their unanimous consent, while wondering if we really needed to stay out as long as April 20. It seemed maybe a little extreme, but we would see.

We have learned a lot. We started talking about flattening the curve. We thought that would be adequate, because we were told it would be, but we have learned more. This has been a very steep learning curve. We could have learned faster, gone faster, and followed the models of countries like New Zealand, Australia and South Korea, the countries that decided to go hard and fast, using the kind of advice that the World Health Organization, Dr. Michael Ryan, recommended back then of, “Go hard, go fast. Don’t wait to be perfect. Speed trumps perfection.” I thought we were going fast and I certainly am not at the level of someone who wants to start casting blame.

I find this debate tonight difficult because, as much as there is blame to be cast, does it help? I do not want the people of Alberta to feel that the federal Parliament has decided to lay into them with clubs. It is pretty clear that their premier miscalculated badly and cost people’s lives.

I want to reflect a bit on something that I do not think gets said enough in this place. I think there is a perception in Alberta that people like me, who want to see the fossil fuel industry shut down, phased out over time and take care of the workers that that somehow means we do not love Alberta. I really love Alberta and I love Albertans.

I have so much respect for the grit of Alberta in facing major disasters. I remember very clearly, of course, the 2013 floods in Calgary. I went. I pulled rotted debris from people’s basements in High River because I found myself in the days after the 2013 flood in Calgary for the stampede and just thought I could be more useful if I got a friend and we went up to High River to see if we could help. I have the t-shirt that says, “Come Hell or High Water”. Mayor Nenshi decided that even though it looked impossible to have the stampede, they were going to have it. I admire that spirit.

Soon thereafter, during the 2016 fires at Fort McMurray, there was incredible community spirit with no one left behind. There was a very strong image of a patient, orderly evacuation with fires on all sides, and the residents of Fort McMurray moving out along the single road. If somebody’s car ran out of gas, they got into somebody else’s car. It was inspiring.

For Alberta to be the site of the highest COVID rates in North America is devastatingly frightening, because we know more about this pandemic now. We know about this virus. We know the longer the virus lives among us, the more likely we are in a human petri dish to have more dangerous variants. We do not know yet if it is all about getting vaccines in case a variant overcomes a vaccine. We are in a very dangerous place during this third wave.

Today we are marking Red Dress Day, to think about and to pledge solidarity with all of the families of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls. It was early June, two years ago, that the government had delivered unto it the report of the inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women and girls and two-spirited peoples. One of the inquiry’s key recommendations was to shut down the “man camps”. At that point, the threat to human life was from what were called the “man camps” in the inquiry. Many Canadians may not know the term, but it meant that large construction sites represent a threat to the vulnerable, to the marginalized who have to hitchhike.

I know there was a very strong reaction from people in Alberta, and of course most of the workers are the dads, the grandads, the brothers, the sons and thoroughly decent people, but there is no question but that the evidence shows that missing and murdered indigenous women and girls are at more risk when there are transient camps of workers.

In COVID, I just want to ask why it is that we, public health officials and governments, decided that when others things had to close down, like mom-and-pop shops and various places where people might have been able to be better off than in a concentrated place like a work camp, the work camps were so essential that we could not shut them down. The highest rates of COVID in Alberta right now are in the region of the oil sands. They have very high rates.

In British Columbia the NDP Government of British Columbia has decided Site C is so important to continue, that we would not possibly think of shutting it down when it has outbreaks. We have outbreaks right now at the Site C dam site, the Kitimat LNG facilities that are being built, along the Trans Mountain pipeline construction link, the Coastal GasLink. All the man camps turn out to also be places where COVID flourishes.

One of the key things about the oil sands is that the workers commute by airplane. Members can think of poor Newfoundland and Labrador, where they were in the Atlantic bubble and felt that the rates were low enough to meet the requirement under Newfoundland and Labrador law that new Premier Andrew Furey had to call an election within a few months. Suddenly, they had an outbreak of COVID from the oil sands workers, and they are having them now. If we search this we will find it everywhere that academics and scientists are saying they have a problem with these fly-in, fly-out camps. One expert said that COVID did not just walk in there by itself, it showed up on an airplane.

While we worry about international borders and why we are not being tighter with our borders, how is it that we are so addicted to oil that we turn a blind eye to the impact of these man camps that we should have been shutting down, or at least ensuring that the work force there was not commuting across many provincial borders? There were ways, perhaps, to keep people in the construction industry working when many other industries were shut down, but we have turned a blind eye to the fact of these squashed, busy workplaces like slaughterhouses. We have shut down parts of our economy, but turned a blind eye to the places that seem to me, in reviewing the evidence, to be the places where COVID flourishes.

We have seen the mayor of Lethbridge, Chris Spearman, say, “We have done the least of the provinces. We’ve tolerated protests against masks and at the hospital and rapid vaccination clinic.” We need to do more. One of the Albertans I admire the most, because he is brilliant, is journalist, Andrew Nikiforuk, who wrote a piece just a few days ago in The Tyee entitled “A Coronavirus Hell of Kenney’s Own Making”. I only mention the title so members can look it up.

He said the “numbers reflect, first and foremost, Premier Jason Kenney’s callous and persistent disregard for scientific findings and mathematical reality.” One of those mathematical realities is exponential growth. Alberta is in a dangerous place right now, and it is certainly not the fault of Albertans. We had a government in Alberta that, over Christmas, had a fairly significant portion of its elected provincial leadership decide it was okay to go on a vacation. As I dug into it, I found one of the ministers excused herself by saying she wanted to make sure she was helping the airlines in this economic crisis. I thought it was a facetious comment that would not land well, but then I read further and found that the premier had thought it was a good way to help WestJet and that there would be a kind of safety on an Alberta-to-Hawaii corridor that could somehow live outside the reality of COVID.

There were problems in leadership. There were problems of not leading by example. There were problems in not wanting to address the science of COVID by allowing the policies to be ideological. None of us can let this be ideological. We have to set aside whatever partisanship we bring to this and end up where Andrew Nikiforuk’s article ended, which was, “It’s time to pray for Alberta,” and I will also note that faith by itself does not do the work.

We need to do the work to help Alberta and Albertans in any way we can.