INNISFAIL – Opponents to the proof of COVID vaccination program for local facilities had their say at a packed and emotional town council meeting last week but both sides of the divisive debate remain as far apart as ever.
However, at least one town councillor offered an olive branch that brought a sliver of hope the two sides could find some common ground at some point in the future.
“Delegations are our constituents, and they need to be heard. I would support more discussion,” said Coun. Don Harrison, who remains steadfastly supportive of town policy to follow provincial direction on the pandemic battle front. “We may not agree with their opinions or their points, (but) we are the sounding board and its back to us about their concerns.”
The Nov. 15 town council meeting attracted unprecedented local public interest, and was carefully monitored by two Innisfail peace officers whose presence ensured the 50-minute event went peacefully.
The public gallery had room for 30 citizens, the maximum one-third capacity allowed under provincial COVID guidelines. Up to another 60 citizens wanting to attend were turned away. The town later told The Albertan an additional 50 citizens logged on to Zoom to watch the proceedings.
The meeting featured two citizen delegations vehemently opposing the town’s accepted provincially-mandated COVID management strategy, which includes the proof of vaccination requirement at town-owned recreational facilities, which allows for adult group programming at the arena.
“You are discriminating against the people who want to go into those arenas, the pools, the restaurants. If you are not actively fighting against it then you are for it,” said Glen Carritt, who represented the second delegation presenting to council.
Carritt, who was soundly defeated in the municipal mayoral race on Oct. 18, claimed more than 300 citizens have signed a petition denouncing the town’s response to ministerial-ordered provincial COVID guidelines.
The petition is also demanding the restrictions be lifted immediately, or the town remove the facilities from being funded by local tax money, and tax refunds be made to property owners who no longer can access town-owned facilities. Carritt did not address the petition or its demands during his brief presentation to town council.
“Both of our delegations forgot I guess,” Carritt later told The Albertan. “Hard to stay focused with a council who is constantly interrupting.”
However, there is no current evidence town council is willing to budge on the petition demands.
“Our property taxes do not go to give people access to use the facility. If you want to use the arena you rent the ice. If you want to go swimming, you pay to go swimming,” said mayor Jean Barclay in an interview with The Albertan.
“Property taxes go to supporting the operating budget for the community, and the capital budget too. You don’t pay your property taxes and get free access to use the facilities.”
She also told the audience at the Nov. 15 meeting the town will continue to follow provincial ministerial orders on COVID management.
“They are the law, and we are going to follow the law,” said Barclay, adding the town and its facilities have “probably the loosest” set of COVID restrictions of any others in Central Alberta.
Local resident Iris Reimer led the first citizen delegation and told council the town must allow citizens to make “their own choices for their bodies," adding the implementation of a proof of vaccine policy would create even more division in the community.
Reimer, who was joined by Jeffry Mydland and Daryl Hillman, proposed the creation of an “inclusive roundtable discussion group” to bring healing to the town, which she said would be a safe space where information, questions and concerns about the Restrictions Exemption Program (REP) and vaccine passports could be shared.
“We could also be creative and see if there would be other possible solutions which no none has thought of yet,” said Reimer, who ended her lengthy presentation by handing out revised bogus notices of liability to each member of council, as well as to Todd Becker, the town’s chief administrative officer.
“Imagine, Innisfail having an ingenious idea and other towns following us. We could invite user groups, individual citizens; ones that actually set foot in our facilities, council members and team players.”
Reimer then put two questions to town council, including whether council would impose REP and vaccine passports in the town, whether they are in public facilities or to individual businesses.
Secondly, she noted Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau promised $1 billion to help provinces pay for vaccine passports, and wanted to know how much money the province promised municipalities for implementing the REP.
Harrison conceded Innisfail “has been torn apart” by COVID and that “something” was needed to bring it back together but told Reimer it was unfair for her to ask for answers to questions that were presented to council only “two minutes” earlier. He asked Reimer to give council more time to consider them.
Reimer apologized, and was agreeable to give council more time to consider the questions.
The following day Barclay confirmed council will respond to Reimer’s two questions and a letter will be sent to the delegation.
She also told The Albertan the rest of council remains united to press forward on all issues, including COVID and what absolutely needs to be done for the community, like the upcoming and expected challenges of the 2022 budget.
“Absolutely they are united. I keep going back to the election. People overwhelmingly chose this council and the vision we have,” she said. “So, one month in I personally am not going to reverse course and do something I said I wouldn’t do.”