Check against delivery

Alberta is enduring its most serious and disruptive public health emergency in over a century. COVID-19 is a global pandemic crisis. As I rise, more than 200,000 people around the world have been infected with this disease, and more than 8,000 have lost their lives.

In Alberta, some 15,000 people have been tested. As of now, more than 119 cases of novel coronavirus infection have been confirmed, an addition of 22 cases since yesterday. Fortunately, we have not suffered loss of life to this disease and, while we hope for the best, the velocity and nature of this pandemic mean that Albertans will not be immune. We will experience fatalities.

That is why we are taking increasingly stringent measures to slow the spread of this virus. It is why we declared a public health emergency yesterday to ensure that our health care system has the tools to cope with the peak of the viral curve, which we expect about four weeks from now. It is why this Legislature authorized an additional appropriation of $500 million in the budget last night to ensure funding for Alberta Health Services as our world-class medical professionals fight this disease.

Let there be no doubt. We will spare no expense – no expense – in fighting COVID-19, and we will win that fight. We will do everything within our power to limit the spread of this disease and to maximize the capacity of our health system to cope with the top of the curve of infections.

I can assure Albertans that our medical professionals believe that with the measures taken to date and efforts to maximize the capacity of our health system, we will be able to care for those who are infected and to get through this with as little in terms of fatalities as possible.

Other jurisdictions around the world have seen their health systems overwhelmed, and we are doing everything in Alberta to prevent that from occurring here.

That is why we have taken increasingly stringent social distancing measures, such as the decision to suspend classes, to close recreation facilities and bars, casinos, gyms, children’s play areas; to limit service at restaurants; and to ban organized events of over 50 people. This includes weddings, funerals, and religious gatherings.

It is also why we have invoked a public health emergency, to ensure that we have the powers that we need to ensure the protection of Albertans.

 None of these are easy decisions to make. Behind a decision to close every business lies lost jobs and lost dreams. I am sure we all understand the profound anxiety of everyone who has been affected. They’re wondering how they’ll pay the bills. Small-business owners wonder whether they’ll ever be able to reopen.

At the same time, tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of Albertans have done the right thing and stayed at home in self-isolation, because they feel unwell or they’ve recently travelled abroad.

From elementary school kids, whose routines have just been upended, to the self-employed, who have no safety net, to entrepreneurs who fear losing their life’s savings, to seniors who feel particularly vulnerable or isolated, there is fear and anxiety.

We need all of those Albertans who feel such fear and anxiety to know that they are not alone. In facing this unprecedented challenge, we have each other. We have strong institutions. We have a culture of caring and of resilience. We have a world-class health care system, one of the best-funded on earth. And together we will get through this.

For those who may be feeling depressed, I encourage them to reach out to friends or family, to social service organizations. Mental health support is available, and one way of accessing it is by calling the Alberta Health Services’ mental health support line at 1-877-303-2642.

At the height of the Blitz, when the Luftwaffe was bombing the cities of England in 1940, when it looked like all was going to be lost in the great struggle for civilization, the British government prepared signs that it distributed and displayed on every street corner and lamp post, that said: Keep Calm and Carry On.

While people are right to feel great anxiety, we encourage Albertans to have confidence in the strength of our institutions and in one another, to keep calm and to carry on.

Having said that, this public health crisis has been matched by economic challenges of, I believe, an increasingly unprecedented nature. We know that the coronavirus has caused a collapse in global demand and the onset of a world-wide recession.

It is hard for us right now to grasp the potential depth of that recession. I do not offer these views to discourage people. I think it is our collective responsibility as leaders to offer a sense of solidarity, confidence, and hope, but it must be predicated on realism.

Today, major financial institutions are projecting that the American economy is likely to experience a contraction of as much as 14 per cent in the second quarter of this year and 30 per cent in Europe. Canada will not be immune.

Indeed, Alberta is likely to be at least as badly affected, because of, obviously, the important presence of the energy industry in our economy, which is now being hit by an unprecedented decline in energy prices after five years of economic fragility.

At the end of trading today, the benchmark energy price for Alberta, WTI, was trading at $21, and Western Canadian Select oil was trading at $9. I just received a projection from a major financial institution that the average price for Brent oil in the second quarter of this year may be as low as $5.

We have never experienced anything like this in the history of our energy industry. When layered on top of a massive global contraction in demand and layered on top of five years of economic and social fragility, we are facing a period of profound adversity.

That is why this government will join other governments across Canada in doing everything within our power to protect people: first of all, to protect the health of people; secondly, to protect the financial security of people; and, thirdly, to protect our broader economy.

But we must begin to prepare ourselves for a time of adversity unlike any we have seen since the 1930s in this province. Happily, we enter this time of adversity as a much wealthier society. We enter this time of adversity with the youngest and best educated population in Canada. We enter this time of adversity with a province that leads the world in so many ways, And we enter this time of adversity with a determination to get through it together, and to emerge stronger than ever.

Today the Government of Canada announced a number of measures, which we appreciated, I believe totalling some $27 billion in fiscal action, much of it concentrated on income support through a significant expansion of the Employment Insurance system. This morning I spoke to Deputy Prime Minister Freeland and, on behalf of Albertans, thanked the Government of Canada for those measures on which we have worked with them.

Albertans should understand that we have been significant net contributors to the Employment Insurance system for decades, and it is only right that we should be able to see some of our decades-long net contributions come back to help us at this time of need.

However, the Government of Alberta must act in its own right. So today I will enumerate some of the initial measures – extraordinary financial and economic measures – that we will take to try to protect people from the effects of this disturbing and pending downturn.

First of all, as I mentioned last night, this Assembly authorized a $57 billion budget for the upcoming fiscal year. That gives us certainty that we will be able to deliver the critical public services that Albertans will need now more than ever. In addition is a $500 million supplementary appropriation for the health care system, which we anticipate would be the beginning and not the end of additional resources to combat COVID-19.

Secondly, yesterday we announced $60 million for municipalities and charitable and non-profit organizations providing social services to support seniors and other vulnerable people who are affected by COVID-19. I can assure the House that my colleague the Hon. the Minister of Community and Social Services in particular is working with our homeless shelters to ensure that they have the resources to protect vulnerable people from the potential spread of the disease.

The further actions that we announced today take assistance one step further for Albertans. Effective immediately, we will take a number of measures to help Albertans struggling financially. We will provide as a bridging mechanism $50 million to Albertans who are currently self-isolating or will be self-isolating in the next two weeks because they meet the Chief Medical Officer’s published criteria, before the federal payments for emergency support begin to flow later in April.

This will be distributed in one payment, and Albertans will be able to apply online at next week. We expect that funds will be deposited in bank accounts by the end of next week. The point here is to provide for the availability of cash as quickly as possible so that individuals are not forced to choose between doing the right thing for public health – staying at home in self-isolation if they feel ill or have recently come back from abroad – and working.

Those Albertans need to understand that a payment of $573 will be available to them through this emergency financial support.

The government will defer utility charges for residential, farm and small commercial customers for the next 90 days, and will ensure that no Albertans will be cut off from these services. I repeat: Albertans will have full protection from having to pay utility bills over the next three months. This will cover electricity and natural gas regardless of the service provider, and I have spoken to mayors to encourage them to match these measures with respect to water charges.

Like the federal government, Alberta will also implement a six-month interest-free moratorium on student loan payments for all individuals who are in the process of repaying these loans.

Similar to actions by Canada’s six largest banks, we have worked with ATB Financial to ensure a relief program for customers affected by COVID-19. Personal banking customers can apply for a deferral on their ATB loans, their lines of credit, and their mortgages for up to six months.

Small-business customers, in addition to payment deferrals on loans and lines of credit, will be provided access to additional working capital. For other businesses and agricultural customers, ATB will work with customers on a one-to-one basis, and further solutions are being considered at this time.

Alberta credit union members will also have access to a variety of programs and solutions tailored to their specific situations. Both individuals and businesses are encouraged proactively to contact their credit union directly to work out a plan for their personal situation.

I want to thank the major national Schedule 1 charter banks for having taken similar steps, announced just hours ago, to provide mortgage and personal loan relief as well as relief to small businesses in terms of their repayment schedules to reflect these extraordinary circumstances.

On top of the immediate needs in our health system, this pandemic has also changed our day-to-day lives and our spending habits. We are also working diligently to put the right plans in place to ensure people will have access to jobs to come back to when this situation passes.

Many businesses are concerned whether they will be able to reopen their doors after this public health crisis, so effective today we are suspending the collection of corporate income taxes and instalment payments until August 31, 2020, to match a measure announced by the government of Canada today.

This will give Alberta businesses access to about one-and-a-half billion dollars in funds to help them cope with this difficult situation. This is in addition to the decision of the Government of Canada today, made in co-operation with the government of Alberta, to also defer the filing deadline for personal income taxes to help individuals seeking to cope to pay their bills now.

These measures will maximize the cash available to Alberta families and employers so that they can pay their employees, address other debts, and maintain operations.

I’m grateful to all employers who are placing the safety of their people above profit. I encourage them, where they can, to provide paid leave to those who have had to take time for self-isolation. I also encourage them, wherever possible, to provide some support to individuals they’ve had to lay off in the interim period. The more employers who are able to maintain operations and continue to pay their staff, the greater the chance we have of keeping Albertans working and negating some of the damage of COVID-19 on our economy.

In these exceptional circumstances, making sure businesses have the ability to stay in business is another way we are working to provide certainty to Albertans that we as a province can recover from this crisis.

These measures are just the beginning. Our action plan will continue to roll out as the situation continues to change, and it is changing hour by hour. I can assure the House that the government will be announcing additional measures tomorrow, additional measures on Friday, and additional measures next week.

I want to thank our public servants, some of whom have literally been working around the clock to help us design these programs and others that we will be announcing in the days to come.

Let me close in saying this. The challenges before us are enormous. They will require great resolve, yes, fast action but also patience. The period of economic adversity through which we will go is likely to last, at the very least, several months. At this point a government faced by some of these developments would likely launch an immediate countercyclical stimulus package.

This government is preparing a very robust package to stimulate the Alberta economy, but, to be blunt, the challenge that we face as Albertans’ elected representatives is that much of our economy is moving into hibernation right now. There are very limited policy levers to stimulate an immediate increase in demand when, in fact, there’s enormous momentum in the opposite direction.

So Alberta’s government will in the immediate term focus on the immediate imperative of doing everything we can to keep cash in people’s bank accounts to maintain the ability of households to pay their bills, to defer their bills wherever possible, and the ability of businesses to maintain at least basic operations. We are working closely with the Business Development Bank of Canada and Export Development Canada to maximize the use of the recently enhanced credit facilities, which includes $10 billion of expanded federal backstop for distressed companies.

This morning I and the Hon. the Minister of Energy spoke with the board of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. And in the last two days I and the ministers of Finance and Economic Development, Trade and Tourism have spoken with the leaders of most of the major industry and employer groups across the province to seek their input on what measures we can take to ensure a path forward in the challenging months ahead.

We are prepared to do what it takes to offer a lifeline of hope for families and businesses who are and will be feeling extreme financial distress in the weeks and months to come. For example, we are reviewing every charge and fee assessed by the government of Alberta to see if that would constitute an impairment to the operation of businesses, employers in the months to come. We welcome suggestions from all corners, including the Official Opposition, on other areas through which we could provide concrete relief.

Tonight I will be joining our newly formed economic recovery council, chaired by Dr. Jack Mintz, with representatives of a broad range of sectors of the Alberta economy, including the union movement and the social sector, to help us to begin to focus on the mid- to long-term recovery. Because, by necessity, the government is focused on managing multiple crises on an hour-by-hour and day-to-day basis.

We need some of our brightest minds as Albertans, who are removed from daily crisis management, to think seriously and imaginatively about how best that we can recover after we get through the worst of the challenging months ahead.

We will act with the greatest possible speed, bluntly, to get money in people’s pockets, to relieve them from the enormous stress of bills and mortgage and utility payments, of taxes and other charges.

We are developing what will likely be the most robust countercyclical stimulus package in the fiscal history of this province. We will work closely with other governments, both municipal and federal. We will depend increasingly on the great compassionate power of civil society, of our charitable, not-for-profit, and faith-based organizations, that will do so much, that already are doing so much to care for those who are in need right now.

Let me close, as I’ve often said, by reminding Albertans that the history of this province is often one of struggling and emerging, of overcoming adversity. Now, more than ever, we need to relearn those memories, to redevelop a sense of social solidarity across regional, demographic, political, and other lines.

It is a time for us, to the greatest extent possible, to come together for one another. People need to know that the government of Alberta will stand behind them at this difficult time.