A proposed bill from Alberta's provincial government would change the date of provincial election, and introduce a system for the Province to take control of emergency response efforts.

Premier Danielle Smith was joined by several provincial ministers and officials in announcing the Emergency Statutes Amendment Act, 2024 (Bill 21), on May 9.

The premier explained that the intention of the new bill is to give the province the ability to act quickly during situations where time is of the essence.

"When an emergency hits, inter-agency communications skyrocket. Depending on the scale of the emergency, municipalities can quickly get overwhelmed, requiring them to ask the provincial government for assistance. In some cases, fire chiefs have asked the province to step in earlier to help manage wildfires. We've also seen emergency situations that have spanned multiple jurisdictions which can make it more challenging to mount a coordinated and effective response. We can't just sit back and wait until communities are damaged and people's homes and livelihoods are destroyed. We need to be able to act sooner to be able to protect the health and wellbeing of Albertans, including their families, their pets, and their livelihoods."

If the bill were to be passed, Bill 21 would amend the Emergency Management Act, Forest and Prairie Protection Act, Water Act, and Election Act.

Regarding the Emergency Management Act, the amendments would provide criteria for circumstances where the Province would assume authority for emergency responses, including in cases where municipalities ask for help, when municipal authorities are unable to respond to sudden events, and where events like floods or wildfires span multiple jurisdictions.

Local governments would also be required to provide the Province with information during states of emergency, including the powers that local authorities intend to use in response to the event, the kinds of resources utilized, and the status of evacuation orders.

The Water Act would also be amended to allow the Province to take actions like determining priority water usage in specific areas and direct water license holders on how/when they can divert water.

Bill 21 would also change the set date of provincial elections, with the next scheduled provincial election being moved from May 1, 2027, to October 18, 2027.

According to Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Services, Mike Ellis, the goal of holding elections in October rather than May is to avoid wildfires impacting provincial elections.

"In 2023, severe wildfires were occurring at the same time as the provincial election. The spring and summer months bring with them a heightened risk of wildfires, droughts, and floods, posing significant threats to both lives and livelihoods. Our experience shows us that the spring and summer are vulnerable periods in Alberta and that the spring is not the best time to hold a provincial election."

Premier Smith provided examples of the response to last year's wildfires, where provincial officials didn't have access to the tools they normally would, and were "technically at odds with the Elections Act" in using government resources while campaigning for the election.

When asked by a member of the media if any consultation was done with municipalities before the bill was tabled, Smith neither confirmed nor denied, but said the bill was largely put together with feedback from previous emergency responses.

"There's lots of ways to consult, and we do formal consultations in some cases, we do public consultations in some cases, we listen to resolutions in some cases, we meet one-on-one with people who come into our office, we listen to the public, we get letters, we get emails. Sometimes things are so obvious that you have to act, and that is what I would say in this case. This is so obvious that we have to make these changes. We're making them."

Smith was also asked if safeguards had been put in place in the bill to prevent the abuse of power, to which she responded that she doesn't foresee a situation where that would happen.

"We have no interest in getting into firefighting in areas that are completely under control within the boundaries and borders of an individual municipality and they can manage it, but as soon as it threatens to go cross-border or threatens to rage out of control, then we have to be prepared to step in. These are the kinds of decisions that have to happen quickly. You don't have the luxury of waiting 24, 48, or 72 hours when the wind changes, you have to be able to act quickly. So I can't foresee that there's going to be many municipalities who are going to oppose this move, in fact, we've been hearing the opposite, that when we've had these major catastrophes in the past, whenever the post-mortem is done, it's always 'Why didn't the province step in earlier? Why wasn't the province proactive? Why didn't they take the steps?' If that happens time and time and time again, you've got to start listening, and that's what we're doing, we're listening and we're responding to that."

Ellis stressed the fact that local governments would still be responsible for emergency planning and response unless the provincial government decides they need to step in.

He says the bill would provide a clearer picture of the circumstances where that kind of intervention would be necessary in the eyes of the provincial government.

"We have the ability, right now, without this bill, to go and take over a critical incident, as an example. What we are doing is putting the safeguards in place. This is what the reporting structure is, this is what the levels 1, 2, 3, and 4 are there, so that when things start to drastically take a turn for the worse, and as the premier mentioned, we're talking about hamlets and villages and stuff like that, if a fire or potential fire is beyond their capabilities, then the province, through that proper reporting structure, will be able to come in and effectively take over control."