With a municipal election upcoming for Calgary, Wednesday's mayoral forum provided voters with needed insight into a controversial issue that has divided the public: vaccine passports.
With supposed frontrunners Jeromy Farkas and Joyti Gondek noticeably absent from the debate, two candidates went tit for tat on the necessity of public health mandates.
Ward Six incumbent Jeff Davison began with an attempt to sympathize with residents on their struggles throughout the pandemic.
"As an elected official, now is a really tough time to be elected," he said. "When COVID hit, it felt like there was no right decision you can make."
"While [voters] were anxious with COVID, I had 1.3 million Calgarians I had to deal with afterwards."
In a letter penned by 12 Edmonton-area mayors advocating for a vaccine passport, they wrote, "Residents should not be expecting municipal councils to assume public health policy development and responsibilities," adding concerns on costs to municipal taxpayers.
On Edmonton's recently reinstated mask bylaw, mayoral frontrunner and Councillor Mike Nickel said: "I have a council and mayor who think they are smarter than Dr. Deena Hinshaw."
"Without any provincial guidance, city hall has decided to reinstitute the mask bylaw, thinking they are smarter than your average virologist," he said, adding: "it is the province's call" to impose public health mandates.
The letter's signatories called on the Alberta government to release regional COVID-19 data, adding "more responsive and transparent public communications."
Davidson added, "It was hard finding out everything about COVID."
The mayors agreed that mandating proof of vaccination would protect "the prosperity of our economy."
A recent Leger poll found that 57 percent of Albertans "strongly support" mandating a vaccine passport, while 20 percent "somewhat support" and four percent "somewhat oppose."
Only 20 percent "strongly oppose" vaccine passports.
Davison reiterated the "tough position" of elected officials to protect public health and keep the economy open. He notes that "everybody's got lots of opinions" on how best to proceed.
However, a Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) survey in August indicated only 40 percent of Alberta businesses support a vaccine passport, despite the possibility of another lockdown.
"There’s a lot of valid reasons why business owners would have reservations," said CFIB Prairies Director Jonathan Alward, citing practical administration concerns and fear of harassment from the public.
"There’s a lot of grey area about requiring mandatory vaccinations of staff, for example… If you’re a restaurant, you can’t ask your staff to work from home."
"Vaccine passports are the way forward," tweeted Official Opposition leader Rachel Notley on Tuesday. "Let’s get back to doing the things we love. Music festivals, sporting events, movies at the theatre."
Davison said the City of Calgary requested vaccine passports from the Alberta government and that he stepped up as a City Councillor "when the province wouldn't."
"I would continue to make those decisions again if I had to [as mayor]," he exclaimed, contradicting a statement he made earlier on Wednesday on the "real need for continued collaboration between all levels of government."
Calgary entrepreneur, non-profit volunteer and fellow mayoral candidate Zane Novak took exception with Davison's remarks, pivoting to the City's failed consultations with City of Calgary unions the past week.
"Our current city council and mayor’s office voted in favour of introducing a mandatory vaccination policy for all city employees," said Novak Tuesday on social media. "The refusal to comply with this policy will result in disciplinary action up to and including dismissal."
The City mandated COVID vaccinations for its employees on Friday, a move that the city's two largest unions said was equivalent to a "blindside."
"I was completely blindsided by it," said Mike Mahar, president of Calgary’s transit union, on the vaccine mandate. He said the City did not have "a single discussion with our local."
"As recently as Wednesday, we had met with city officials, and they were talking about the confirmation of being fully vaccinated or participating in rapid testing, and the rapid testing was being set up to be as least intrusive as possible."
D’Arcy Lanovaz, president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 38, who represents employees at the City of Calgary, Calgary Parking Authority, and Enmax, said he did not expect the city to threaten vaccine-hesitant employees with termination. "That was not any of the conversations that we’ve been having with the city literally for months," said Lanovaz.
"All of the conversations we had, they were heading in a different direction and in 24 hours, it flipped."
The unions that represent these workers are rightfully indignant following city hall’s decision," said Novak. "Their discussions with city management led these unions to believe that workers who did not want to go along with the mandate would instead be allowed to participate in a rapid testing program."
"Many city workers have reached out to me as their decades of service to Calgary are not being recognized because their opinions are not being respected," he said. "The action of city council is creating division on a scale that Calgary has not seen in decades, if ever."
If elected as Calgary’s mayor, Novak said he would repeal the vaccine mandate for City employees and replace it with a system of rapid testing. "This works to both protect Calgarians and respect the choices of our city workers."
He pressed for unity among all Calgarians and for the current municipal leadership to end its divisive tactics.
"One of the areas that our leadership municipally, provincially, and federally has missed was identifying the fact we had specific at-risk groups throughout the pandemic," said Novak. "We need to be sure that we're working with all levels of government to look out for those groups, which are mainly senior citizens."
Rates of family violence, including elder abuse, tend to increase during and following natural disasters, public health crises and economic downturns.
The Alberta government confirmed its intent in June to engage Albertans and seek input on a revised provincial definition of elder abuse.
As the former president of the Kerby Centre, Novak was encouraged to hear the Alberta government dedicated $50,000 to the Centre in June to protect seniors.
“Having served on the board for eight years, this announcement is timely,” he said. “Their ability to engage in outreach and spread awareness on elder abuse provides an invaluable service to our community."
During Wednesday's debate, Novak did not mince his words when he condemned the lack of investment in long-term care facilities across the country. "We paid the price of lockdowns repeatedly through financial loss and mental health," he said, "and we didn't get the outcomes [we wanted regarding COVID]."
Novak continued his criticism of the pandemic leadership, acknowledging that they didn't recognize their actions had a collateral effect on every Calgarian.
"If we had invested more with our provincial government to look after those most at risk, it would have taken a lot of the stress off the rest of us, and our society could have gone forward more healthily.
"We could have been a more prosperous city and not suffered all the outcomes we have. Instead, we see what the results are, and we're living them today."
In June, Novak criticized the municipal mask bylaw as he does now with the provincial mandate, previously stating it "has to end" because the adverse outcomes outweigh the perceived benefits.
Concerned about its impacts on youth, he urged a 'true return to normalcy' and cited "public exhaustion" from residents.
Municipal Watchdog Save Calgary said there are social consequences to wearing masks because humans are inherently social creatures. "These interactions are strained when people's faces are covered," read a statement in early June. "Wearing masks is part of the reason why so many people have reported feeling isolated during the pandemic."
They also urged a return to normalcy and said, "It's about bringing back the way we lived and connected with one another before COVID-19 forced us into our homes and away from each other."
Novak also articulates that Calgarians can make well-informed decisions for themselves. "I believe that if you want to wear a mask... or choose not to wear a mask, you should be allowed to do so without judgement," he said.