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Alberta bills focus on business, public health as province seeks to emerge from pandemic

Tuesday, June 23, 2020 @ 9:27 AM | By Ian Burns

As Alberta begins the process of emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic, the provincial government has introduced legislation which it says will improve the business climate in the province by removing red tape and allowing some pandemic response efforts to continue.

The first salvo was fired with the introduction of Bill 22, the Red Tape Reduction Implementation Act, 2020. The bill proposes 14 legislative changes across six different ministries, focused on improving the government approval process and eliminating what the government calls outdated requirements regarding non-profits and business, minerals and mines, grazing leases and the oil sands approval process.

“Alberta is open for business and that includes supporting non-profits that do such important work in our communities,” said Minister of Service Alberta Nate Glubish. “I’m happy to see these red tape reduction items coming forward to make life easier and more attractive for businesses and non-profits in our province.”

And a second bill, the COVID-19 Pandemic Response Statutes Amendment Act (Bill 24), is even more ambitious, proposing amendments to 15 acts across seven ministries. It would extend to August 2021 the unpaid job-protected leave brought in as a response to COVID-19; allow for the remote signing and witnessing of estate and care documents through two-way videoconferencing; extend the maximum time for temporary layoffs related to COVID-19 from 120 days to 180 days; and create a new regulation-making authority to support and empower orders of the provincial chief medical officer of health.

“Bill 24 allows us to continue to effectively respond to the COVID-19 pandemic to protect public health and ensure Albertans have access to the services and support they need as Alberta moves forward with reopening our economy,” said Health Minister Tyler Shandro.

And some of the changes have been met with approval by members of the business and legal community. Cal Johnson of Burnet, Duckworth & Palmer LLP, noted the Law Society of Alberta, on which he serves as a bencher, had recommended removing several Canadian resident director requirements under the Business Corporations Act.

“That requirement was an annoyance in the sense that corporations would look to have a resident director, and sometimes you’d have lawyers signing on even though they were not intimately involved with the affairs of the corporation the way a classical director would be,” he said. “With the director position comes responsibilities and obligations — and that was a potential for personal liability that I don’t think a lot of people necessarily recognized.”

Johnson said the change would be effective for companies, especially limited liability companies, as that structure is often used by institutions which have business in the U.S., making it a comfortable way of doing business in Canada.

“But they weren’t comfortable if it operated better in some provinces than others, so it didn’t make any difference to some companies whether the company was incorporated in Alberta or Nova Scotia,” he said. “You would have this anomaly where we would be asked to have a company incorporated outside Alberta when it was going to be doing business here.”

The government is also focusing on Alberta’s vital energy and natural resource sector in its efforts to speed up economic development. Under Bill 22, oilsands projects in the province which get the go-ahead from the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) will no longer need a final stamp of approval from the provincial cabinet. The bill also would also remove the requirement for cabinet to approve mine development and royalties under the Mines and Minerals Act.

Tim McMillan, president and CEO of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), said streamlining project applications and approval timelines will support the energy industry’s recovery and job creation efforts, while providing greater certainty to attract investment back to the sector.

“These efficiencies can be achieved while still maintaining the highest level of environmental and safety standards that Albertans expect,” he said.

Jason Unger, executive director of the Environmental Law Centre in Edmonton

But concerns have also been raised about removing that additional step of accountability to the government as a whole, as well as the potential impact on the honour of the Crown and the duty to consult with First Nations as energy projects go ahead. Jason Unger, executive director of the Environmental Law Centre in Edmonton, said the bill’s provisions on energy “raise more questions than answers.”

“Insofar as cabinet is able to put conditions on their authorization in removing that ability to provide additional conditions, I think it begs the question of what type of conditions may no longer be applied,” he said. “It would be interesting to look back at past decisions and see if there were additional cabinet authorization decisions over and above the AER’s conditions.”

Unger said the moves were an attempt to by the government to de-politicize some of the approval process but added the question then becomes “at what point should there be a level of political accountability for large projects and their social and environmental impacts, and how well-suited the AER is to really consider those.”

“I think there is a question about how the public is able to engage generally in relation to the AER,” he said. “Often the standing rules related to these things are quite limited and discretion remains with the AER in terms of allowing interveners or parties to bring concerns forward.”

Both bills are currently before the provincial legislature.

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