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Alberta Premier Jason Kenney speaks at the Rideau Club in Ottawa on March 12, 2020.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Jason Kenney says two United Conservative Party MLAs who have joined a coalition battling COVID-19 public-health restrictions will remain in his caucus because he allows more latitude for his members to express their views than other political leaders.

The Alberta Premier said the policy of the government is to use what he describes as “limited” public-health restrictions to keep the pandemic under control. However, Mr. Kenney said his government allows MLAs to speak their minds to represent the views of their constituents.

“We have a wider latitude for MLAs to speak their views in this province and in the party I lead than perhaps is the case in other parties, and in other parts of the country,” the Premier told reporters Wednesday.

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But “I always challenge those who oppose any restrictions to tell us what the alternative is? What is their risk tolerance in terms of lives lost – in terms of the overwhelming of the health care system?”

Mr. Kenney’s stance contrasts with Ontario Premier Doug Ford, who booted York Centre MPP Roman Baber from his caucus last month after Mr. Baber challenged the government’s lockdown, saying the virus is exaggerated and the restrictions are taking a “catastrophic toll” on society. The Progressive Conservative Premier called the MPP’s comments irresponsible. “By spreading misinformation, he is undermining the tireless efforts of our front-line health care workers at this critical time, and he is putting people at risk.”

In Alberta, two UCP MLAs – Angela Pitt (Airdrie-East) and Drew Barnes (Cypress-Medicine Hat) – have joined an Ontario-based group calling itself the “End the Lockdowns National Caucus,” a small coalition of mostly independent, municipal or former politicians. Other people who have signed their names to the anti-lockdown group include Ontario independent MPP Randy Hillier; former Conservative cabinet minister and current People’s Party of Canada leader Maxime Bernier; and MP Derek Sloan, who was recently ejected from the Conservative caucus.

The End the Lockdowns Caucus is organized by a group called the Liberty Coalition, which was formed by pastors and others who were involved last year in a campaign to oppose the shutdown of churches in Ontario. Michael Thiessen, a pastor at a Baptist church in Alliston, Ont., and campaign manager for the Liberty Coalition, said the group opposes lockdown-style policies such as forced closings or restrictions on churches and small businesses.

“We’re partnering with politicians who are willing to stand up and say, ‘Let’s explore other ways. Let’s have healthy debate about this,’” he said.

Mr. Thiessen said the group is raising money through donations to pay for advertising, including on billboards and social media.

While Alberta was a COVID-19 hotspot two months ago, new cases have trended down since strict public-health restrictions came into effect on Dec. 13. Daily new cases are now well below 500, and deaths and hospitalizations have also dropped.

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Ms. Pitt said she is not questioning the seriousness of the virus but said her constituents are perplexed by some public-health restrictions, including those on gyms. For now, personal and wellness services are open for one-on-one appointments only. She said no government officials are providing data that would back up the restrictions, even as many businesses are on the brink.

“They will not survive this. There’s not enough government support out there for them,” said Ms. Pitt, who is also Alberta’s deputy speaker.

“I don’t think anybody disagrees that we should take the necessary measures to protect the health care system. But when we’re taking measures that don’t make sense, we need to push back.”

Calgary-based pollster Janet Brown said fractures were inevitable in the UCP, which has always been an uneasy marriage between the traditional Progressive Conservatives and the more populist Wildrose parties. She said it’s not a surprise that MLAs who have felt empowered to publicly oppose Mr. Kenney’s policies are from the Wildrose wing of the party – as is the case with Ms. Pitt and Mr. Barnes.

“It was just a matter of time,” Ms. Brown said, noting that the UCP government and the Premier are under pressure not only because of the pandemic and its economic fallout, but also because of unpopular decisions on coal development and provincial parks.

Ms. Brown said Mr. Kenney can’t be as quick to kick out members of caucus as Mr. Ford because of the history of his party. Mr. Kenney, she noted, has also been involved in two mergers – first in the creation of the federal Conservative Party and then the UCP in Alberta – which may make him more willing to tolerate open dissent in order to maintain unity.

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“Jason Kenney worked so hard to keep everybody in the same tent that kicking people out of caucus isn’t the easiest thing to do.”

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