Skip to main content

Preston Manning takes to the podium for a news conference about a citizen-led inquiry into Canada’s response to COVID-19, Nov. 2, 2022 in Ottawa.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith has appointed conservative stalwart Preston Manning, who has expressed interest in hearing “alternative scientific narratives” regarding the coronavirus, to chair a panel that will review the legislation and governing processes the province used to manage the COVID-19 pandemic.

The panel, which does not yet have any other members, will have a $2-million budget, the government announced Thursday. Mr. Manning, the former leader of the Reform Party, will be paid $253,000 for his work in Alberta. Mr. Manning’s appointment was first reported by The Globe and Mail.

Ms. Smith has been critical of public-health restrictions, vaccine mandates and other measures her United Conservative Party deployed in the first two years of the pandemic in an effort to contain the virus and prop up the health care system.

Ms. Smith, on her first day as premier, said people who chose not to get the COVID-19 vaccine were the most-discriminated against group of her lifetime. Mr. Manning, meanwhile, in November launched what he called a national citizen’s inquiry to explore how government policies during the pandemic inflicted social and economic pain upon Canadians.

Alberta’s panel will invite experts and the public to discuss “how the government can better respond to future health emergencies while mitigating impacts on the social well-being, mental health, civil liberties and livelihoods of Albertans,” the province said in a statement. The panel will then explore whether Alberta should amend legislation in order to better respond to another health emergency.

“It’s important that we apply those lessons to strengthen our management of future public-health crises, and the panel’s recommendations will be key in doing so,” Ms. Smith said in the statement.

Mr. Manning will recommend prospective panelists to Ms. Smith “in the coming months,” the government said. The panel must submit its report, with recommendations, by Nov. 15. The next provincial election is scheduled for the end of May.

Mr. Manning, when reached prior to Alberta’s announcement, referred questions to the government. He could not be reached after Alberta announced his appointment as chair.

The former politician’s inquiry into the COVID-19 response was launched last year with plans to host a series of hearings across the country, starting in Moncton and Montreal. He said the inquiry would be funded through donations.

Mr. Manning, in a video update posted in December, said the inquiry was looking for witnesses to share personal stories about how they were harmed during the pandemic. He also said he was keen to hear from experts whose opinions counter mainstream scientific beliefs.

“We’re also looking for expert testimony, particularly from experts whose alternative medical narratives or alternative scientific narratives were ignored or even censored during the time of the pandemic,” he said.

Rebecca Polak, a spokeswoman for Ms. Smith, said “to avoid perceived conflict of interest, Mr. Manning has stepped aside as public spokesperson for the national citizen’s inquiry.”

The New Democratic Party noted Alberta previously paid KPMG $475,000 to review the province’s pandemic programs. A legislative committee, struck by the UCP, has also reviewed the Public Health Act in light of the pandemic.

David Shepard, the NDP’s health critic, called the new panel a “political circus” and said if his party wins the election, it would consider redirecting the money budgeted for the panel toward other priorities. “Preston Manning has no expertise in health care,” Mr. Shepard said. “It is a waste of $2-million.”

Ms. Smith rose to power by harnessing support from those who felt aggrieved by federal and provincial COVID-19 restrictions. After winning the UCP leadership and becoming Premier last fall, she pushed out the province’s chief medical officer of health, Deena Hinshaw, who led Alberta through the pandemic.

Ms. Smith has yet to release the names of medical experts she says she relies on for advice. During the UCP leadership race, she said her team reached out to Paul Alexander, a former adviser to former U.S. president Donald Trump; Mr. Alexander described the COVID-19 vaccine as a “bioweapon.”