'We have to turn the page': Alberta prime minister explores future blocking of school mask mandates

Alberta's prime minister said he "will not allow further undercover mandates of children" in schools following a court ruling on the government's decision to cancel and block the mandate.

Earlier this week, the Alberta Court of King's Bench ruled that the government's decision to block school boards from imposing their own mask mandate after the province was revoked "was made for inappropriate purposes."

Judge G.S. Dunlop is leading the case, noting that while Chief Medical Officer Dr. Deena Hinshaw issued a public health order, it was simply implementing a "cabinet decision" rather than being her own.

Decisions on public health orders should be made by the province's top doctors, Dunlop said.

On Saturday, Prime Minister Danielle Smith released a statement saying she directed the justice minister to assess whether an appeal against Thursday's decision was appropriate.

"(I) have instructed our government's ministers of justice, health and education to warn me of any legislative or regulatory changes that may be required to reaffirm or clarify our government's full authority with respect to these and other health and education matters," Smith said.

"The detrimental effects of masquerade on children's mental health, development and education in classrooms are well understood, and we must turn to the pages of particularly difficult times for children, along with their parents and teachers." 

CHANGES TO REGULATIONS OR LAW

A legal challenge to the decision is unlikely, the assistant law professor told CTV News Edmonton.

"It is clear from Judge Dunlop's decision that he can limit the use of masks in schools without appeal," said Lorian Hardcastle, of the University of Calgary. "I think it's likely he will just pass the necessary regulations."

"Another reason I don't think he's going to appeal this case is because the government was successful on the Charter issue, and if the case is reopened, then so is the argument that not wearing masks at school is discriminatory against children who have health conditions that make COVID is very risky for them," Hardcastle said.

Hardcastle believes the province will draft a new government regulation, which can be made by the issuing ministry and doesn't have to go through three readings like the new bill.

"In the Education Act, it is clear that school boards have the authority to implement policies to protect the safety and health of children and their staff," he added. "But there is room in the law for the education minister to implement regulations that limit the ability of schools to regulate this issue."

Another option, Hardcastle said, is for the health minister to examine current rules governing public health orders to limit the powers of chief health officers or so they don't have the final say.

'LEAVE SPACE FOR OTHERS TO ALSO MAKE DECISIONS'

While Smith believes masks have a detrimental impact on children, Hardcastle disagrees.

"That has to be balanced with the detrimental effects on children affected by COVID," he said.

For a government that claims to want to reduce the number of bureaucracy, Hardcastle said making further regulations will increase government bureaucracy. That could be dangerous, he added, especially as situations involving public health can be volatile around the province and require assistance from multiple authorities.

"Schools know their population. Schools have very different risks. So one school board may have very different rates of COVID in the school and in the community than another," Hardcastle said. "So I think the government needs to make room for other people to also make decisions or, at the very least, to collaborate."

CTV News Edmonton contacted Smith for further comment.

'HE WILL BE THE breaker'

The decision was praised by the president of the Alberta Labor Federation, Gil McGowan. Now that the province is planning to address it, McGowan said all Alberta should care.

"The judge was very clear that the decision maker in terms of public health is the chief medical officer of health," he said. "The court made it clear that he was the one who decided."

The AFL initiated court challenges to protect the health and safety of children and frontline workers during the ongoing pandemic, McGowan said in an interview Saturday.

"Public health rules should be set by public health authorities and not by politicians who have a political agenda or who are driven by ideology," McGowan said. "I think most Albertans would agree that it was the right decision to make when people's health and even their lives are at stake."

The prime minister's decision to change the arrangement would have major implications for public health and workplace safety, McGowan said.

"Decisions should be made on the basis of the best science by people with the best experience," he added. "What the prime minister said today is that none of that matters. The court's decision doesn't matter; the law doesn't matter.

"He will be decisive, and he will make decisions about public health based on his opinions and ideologies."

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