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Alberta education minister says she will listen to top doctor about masks in schools


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By Colette Derworiz and Dean Bennett

Alberta’s education minister says she will take advice from the province’s new chief medical health officer on whether to allow school boards to bring in mask mandates in schools with respiratory illness outbreaks.

The Edmonton public school board has asked Alberta Health and Alberta Education whether it can require masks as schools deal with a wave of viral illnesses that is sending thousands of students home sick and straining hospitals.

Education Minister Adriana LaGrange was asked about the request multiple times during a news conference about additional mental health supports for students.

“There is not a one-size-fits-all for this situation,” LaGrange said Wednesday.

“We are going to continue to monitor the situation and, of course, we will take guidance from the new chief medical officer of health. Beyond that, we will continue to ensure our schools and our staff members are protected.”

LaGrange said students and staff are welcome to wear masks but “the premier was very clear recently that we do not anticipate having a mask mandate in place.”

Dr. Mark Joffe, who was appointed chief medical officer of health earlier this week, said in a statement later Wednesday that Alberta is seeing an early rise in seasonal infections such as flu, respiratory syncytial virus and COVID-19.

“The province continues to transition back to long-standing practices to manage respiratory infections in general,” he said. “That includes local public health officials notifying schools of outbreaks and giving them advice and support as needed.”

Joffe said Albertans can take simple, daily actions to help prevent the spread by staying up to date on vaccinations, wearing a well-fitting, high-quality mask and avoiding close contact with people who are sick.

“Albertans should be supported regardless of their choice to mask or not,” he said.

Premier Danielle Smith has been critical of mask rules in schools, saying they adversely affected the mental health, development and education of students during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Edmonton school board chair Trisha Estabrooks said Tuesday there are also mental health concerns with the current situation.

“Missing school and being worried about getting sick also have an impact on our children’s mental health,” said Estabrooks.

“A blanket statement of no more mask mandates ever in schools, I believe, is short-sighted. We can’t predict where the next stage of the pandemic will go.”

In Edmonton, Opposition NDP Leader Rachel Notley said parents and school boards are seeking leadership and guidance from Smith’s United Conservative government but are getting chaos.

“What we’ve got here is nothing but confusion and distraction and an abdication of responsibility by our provincial government,” said Notley.

She said Joffe is doing his job on top of his existing responsibilities as a senior leader with Alberta Health Services.

“(Joffe’s) not actually even being paid to do the job and he’s still doing his other complete job, so that sounds to me like we’ve got a government that doesn’t really value that role.”

Notley said while Joffe is officially tasked with setting public health policy, Smith is assembling a parallel team of medical professionals to advise her on public health.

Smith recently said she wants to hear from Dr. Paul Alexander, a controversial COVID-19 critic who has argued for herd immunity and has called COVID-19 vaccines a “bioweapon.”

“What the UCP, therefore, has created is a mess and a vacuum (of authority),” said Notley. “Danielle Smith seems most interested in talking to conspiracy theorists.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 16, 2022.

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Canada under pressure to produce more food, protect agricultural land: report

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Canada’s agricultural land is under increasing pressure to produce more food as demand grows domestically and internationally, while the industry grapples with limited resources and environmental constraints, a new report found. 

“We need to grow more food on less land and in a volatile climate,” said Tyler McCann, managing director of the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute.

The report by the institute released Thursday looks at the pressures on Canada’s agricultural land to produce more food while also mitigating and adapting to the effects of climate change, said McCann. 

Despite Canada being a big country, it doesn’t have as much agricultural land as people might think, said McCann, with the report noting that agricultural land makes up only around seven per cent of the country. 

Because of that, we can’t take what we do have for granted, he said. “We need to be really thoughtful about how we are using our agricultural land.” 

In 2020, Canada was the eighth largest country in terms of cropland area, the report said, with that cropland decreasing by seven per cent over the previous two decades. 

Canada is a major producer and net exporter of agriculture and agri-food products, the report said, exporting $91 billion in products in 2022, and one of the top 10 exporters of wheat, canola, pulses, pork and beef. 

In the coming years, Canada will face increased demand from countries whose populations are growing, the report said. 

“With population growth on one side and climate change on the other, Canada will be amongst an increasingly smaller number of countries that is a net exporter,” said McCann, noting that Canada’s own population is growing, and farmland also needs to be protected against urban sprawl. 

The wildfires clouding Canadian skies this week are a “vivid reminder” of the pressure that extreme weather and the changing climate are putting on the agricultural sector, said McCann. 

“We need to clearly mitigate … agriculture’s impact on climate change. But we also need to make sure agriculture is adapting to climate change’s impacts,” he said. 

One of the ways the world has responded to demand for increased agricultural production over time is to create more agricultural land, in some cases by cutting down forests, said McCann. But that’s not a viable option for Canada, which doesn’t have a lot of land that can be sustainably converted into farmland — and even if it could, doing so could have a variety of adverse environmental effects, he said. 

Some of the practices used to reduce emissions and sequester carbon in agriculture can also improve production output on existing farmland, the report found, such as precision agriculture and no-till practices.

However, intensifying the production of current agricultural land also comes with potential environmental downsides, the report said.

For example, McCann said fertilizer is an important part of sustainable agriculture, but there’s a balance to be struck because excessive use of fertilizer can quickly turn food production unsustainable. 

“We need to be a lot more thoughtful about the inputs that we’re using,” he said, adding the same can be said about the use of technology in agriculture and the policies and programs put in place to encourage sustainable intensification of Canadian agriculture. 

The report recommends that Canada adopt policies that provide financial incentives and technical assistance to farmers and develop regulatory frameworks promoting sustainable land use, as well as promoting education and awareness campaigns, so that the country can “ensure the long-term sustainability of its agricultural sector while protecting the environment.”  

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 8, 2023.

Rosa Saba, The Canadian Press

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Lawyer tells Alberta’s highest court review board biased in de Grood’s case

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