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Alberta's hospitals are overwhelmed to the point where the government has reached out to institutions in the United States for help.JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

Members within Alberta’s governing party are, once again, openly challenging Premier Jason Kenney’s leadership, with the province’s hospitals overwhelmed to the point where the government has reached out to institutions in the United States for help.

Mr. Kenney survived an internal revolt last week, but some United Conservative Party MLAs have since denounced his leadership or insinuated they are less than fully supportive of him. Meanwhile, a handful of UCP MLAs have attempted to shift blame for Alberta’s hospital crisis away from the government and onto the provincial health authority, while others have aligned themselves with a group calling for the province to declare itself “sovereign.”

Alberta added another 18 fatalities on Monday to its mounting COVID-19 death toll. The province’s health care system has buckled, with all non-emergency surgeries cancelled. Alberta has opened 370 beds in intensive-care units, up from its prepandemic baseline of 173. Mr. Kenney told reporters Tuesday that 380 spaces may be necessary by the end of October.

The province’s ICU system is still keeping pace with incoming admissions, but only because existing patients are freeing up beds by dying. Officials have conceded that patients are receiving substandard care.

Mr. Kenney told reporters at a news conference on Tuesday that Alberta has contacted American health care facilities, and that it has identified some that may be able to take on the province’s COVID-19 patients, if needed. The government did not announce new measures to mitigate the spread of the virus. There were 263 people with COVID-19 in Alberta’s ICUs as of Monday.

The government’s COVID-19 response has created deep divisions within the UCP.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, facing consistently high COVID-19 cases that are pushing the health system to the brink of collapse, is rejecting new measures and a so-called 'firebreak' lockdown of the economy. He also announced protests will be banned outside hospitals.

The Canadian Press

UCP MLA Angela Pitt, Deputy Speaker of the Legislature, said at a separate Tuesday news conference that she has no confidence in Mr. Kenney. “I don’t think that my constituents do, either,” she continued.

At the same news conference, Ms. Pitt, along with backbencher Jason Stephan, endorsed a proposal for the province to declare itself a “sovereign” jurisdiction. The “Free Alberta” strategy, developed by the Alberta Institute, an organization that has been advocating for the province to have more control over its affairs, calls upon the government to assert autonomy and ignore federal laws and court rulings.

Mr. Stephan did not directly address his feelings about the Premier. However, in a letter to constituents dated Sept. 23, he wrote: “The leadership review process supports principles of accountability and good governance and should occur sooner rather than later.”

A leadership review, in which party members vote on whether or not they have confidence in a leader, was originally scheduled for fall 2022. Last week, Mr. Kenney quelled revolt among the UCP caucus by promising to hold the review in the spring, instead.

The Speaker of the Legislature, Nathan Cooper, attended the Freedom Alberta news conference. He did not take questions, but in a subsequent text message he told The Globe he was there as an MLA representing his constituents and was taking no position on the Free Alberta proposal.

“The issue of Alberta’s role in confederation is a top-three issue for constituents of Olds-Didsbury-Three Hills,” he wrote, referring to his riding. He said he must remain impartial as Speaker, but he added that this does not prevent him from participating in a meeting to learn about new ideas and points of view.

Earlier this year, Mr. Cooper apologized after signing his name to a letter criticizing Mr. Kenney for imposing public-health measures to control the spread of COVID-19. At the time, Mr. Cooper said he regretted “crossing a line” that could undermine his impartiality as Speaker.

Leela Aheer, who was kicked out of cabinet after criticizing Mr. Kenney earlier this year, still questions the government’s leadership. However, unlike many of her caucus counterparts, she is frustrated with the lack of government action to control the pandemic.

“You cannot wish COVID away,” she said last week. Mr. Kenney was on vacation for much of August, when cases were climbing and the government refused to act. It was a “failure in leadership” for him not to delegate power while he was gone, Ms. Aheer said.

The UCP said this week that Joel Mullan, the party’s vice-president in charge of policy, has been fired. Mr. Mullan publicly called last week for Mr. Kenney to resign for failing to act consistently and effectively on COVID-19.

“The democratically elected board of directors voted to remove Mr. Mullan from his position for breaking the code of conduct and confidentiality agreement,’’ UCP spokesperson Dave Prisco said in a statement.

Mr. Mullan disagreed. He said on Tuesday that he was let go for publicly sharing one of his own e-mails calling for a leadership review. “Ultimately, I think the reason I’m out is I spoke out against the leader.’’

With a report from The Canadian Press

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