Doug Schweitzer, minister of jobs, economy and innovation, spoke to Camrose County constituents during a virtual town hall on March 3, giving an update on the province’s plan to move Alberta into economic recovery.
The meeting held via Zoom was hosted by the Camrose and District Chamber of Commerce.
Those in attendance included Camrose MLA Jackie Lovely, Battle River-Crowfoot MP Damien Kurek, and Camrose County Reeve Cindy Trautman, Alberta Chamber of Commerce president Ken Kolby and about 40 other participants.
Camrose was Schweitzer’s first ‘stop’ on his virtual tour. He began by giving an update on the government’s response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
The increasing cases over the winter have started to stabilize but have not disappeared, he says.
There are still restrictions on businesses, but the “vast majority” are able to be open now, with the start of Step 2 of the province’s reopening plan.
Three vaccines have been approved for use in Canada, and potentially a fourth later this month, which is encouraging, he says.
“We’re going to do everything we can at the provincial level to get those vaccines into the arms of Albertans as quickly as possible.”
The government is now exploring vaccincation data to determine if the time between the first and second dose can be extended, which will allow more Albertans to be vaccinated now.
“We’re doing a deep dive into that right now … there will hopefully be some more encouraging announcements in the near future.”
Schweitzer says he has been tasked with helping to create a strategy to what he calls “vaccine nationalism” — countries being reluctant to share vaccine doses to ensure they have enough for their own citizens.
One of the ways Alberta can combat that, is by utilizing the abilities we have right here in Alberta.
“Alberta is actually very well positioned to play a leading role in pharmaceutical and vaccine development in our country,” he said.
Schweitzer noted that Dr. Michael Houghton at the University of Alberta is a recent Nobel Prize Laureate for his work in virology (more specifically his discovery of the hepatitis C virus).
“There’s probably a role for us and Alberta Health Services in how they procure supplies, drugs, vaccines, for us to play a leadership role in Canada as well as helping flesh out that strategy.”
Schweitzer added that health and safety remain a priority with the UCP’s budget they just handed down, noting the province has allotted more than any other year on record on health.
They also created a $1 billion contingency fund for health response, depending on how the pandemic unfolds.
“Hopefully we will put this in our rear view sometime around summer — hopefully.”
Small business supports
The UCP has put $500 million into a contingency fund to support small businesses.
There is a relaunch grant of up to $20,000 to small businesses that will be open until the end of March. Google Alberta biz connect to find the details.
“Now that we have our four-step reopening plan, we recognize we’re asking certain businesses to make more sacrifices than others,” he said.
“We just say thank you to them, because it’s helping us keep people healthy through this pandemic.”
The UCP has created an additional program called Enhanced COVID-19 Business Benefit that will provide support up to an added $10,000. It is set to start in April.
Schweitzer then switched gear to talk about the province’s three-tiered recovery plan: low taxes, efficient government, and talent.
The corporate tax rate is now eight per cent, which he says is the lowest in Canada and lower than all but two states in the U.S.
Schweitzer says that for numerous decades, Alberta has done very well.
“We’ve all benefited from a robust economy, and the Alberta government spent; we spent a lot of money,” he said.
“Our spending per capita was an outlier in the country.”
By the end of the UCP’s first term in government, they aim to bring their spending down to the same national average as other big provinces in Canada.
He says the reason this is needed is to keep taxes low and attract businesses and growth.
The UCP now estimate they have reduced ‘red tape’ by one-third, which they estimate has small businesses a total of half a billion dollars.
Developing and retaining talent is another critical part of their macro strategy.
The UCP are also looking to grow the economy in all sectors, including agriculture, forestry, technology and energy, and to diversify.
Agricultural has one of its best years in 2020 than it’s had in decades, which provided the opportunity to grow out the base of that industry, he says.
He added large investments the government has made in irrigation will lead to higher value crops.
Schweitzer says diversification is happening now, and we’re passed the tipping point of it just being an idea.
“It’s a reality on the ground in Alberta.”
Industries the UCP see potential for growth and for Alberta to take a leadership role in include technology, mines and minerals, film and television, tourism and Indigenous tourism, recycling and hydrogen.
The province has also set up a new Crown corporation that is the business development arm for Alberta, “Invest Alberta,” which is now responsible for trade offices around the world.
“There is a role for Alberta to play.”