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Good morning! It’s James Keller in Calgary.

Provinces in the West and across Canada have started vaccinating against COVID-19 – the start of a complex and painfully slow operation that has raised optimism that the end of the pandemic is in sight.

Health Canada approved the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine last week and the shipments began arriving in Canada within days. The first vaccinations in the country happened in Ontario and Quebec on Monday, with other provinces, including B.C., Alberta, and Saskatchewan following suit yesterday. Manitoba expects to get its first vaccines today.

In B.C., the first person to receive the shot was Nisha Yunus, a residential care aide who works at Providence Health Care. She has worked at the same long-term care facility for more than 40 years. The province’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Bonnie Henry, was there to see it.

Alberta received its first shipments of the vaccine on Monday night, when Premier Jason Kenney met a UPS plane on the tarmac in Calgary. The first doses were given to Sahra Kaahiye, a respiratory therapist at Edmonton’s Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital and Tanya Harvey, an intensive-care nurse at the Foothills Medical Centre in Calgary.

The first doses in Saskatchewan were given at the Regina General Hospital, where health-care workers were first in line. One of them, critical care doctor Jeffrey Betcher, said he viewed it as his duty to get the vaccine.

Mr. Kenney said it was a big moment in the fight against the pandemic, even if it will be a long process: “Hope is near and the end of this terrible time is finally in sight.”

Health officials have warned that the beginning of the vaccination program does not mean the public or governments can let their guard down. Provinces across Canada have imposed varying degrees of restrictions on gatherings and businesses as the second wave takes hold.

Manitoba has been under a severe lockdown for weeks, while Alberta announced widespread business closures last week after earlier cancelling in-person classes and putting in less-strict restrictions on businesses.

Saskatchewan moved this week, banning household visits, limiting retail capacity, closing casinos and business halls, while also letting restaurants remain open. The restrictions on retailers won’t take effect until Christmas Day in an apparent attempt to protect the busy Christmas shopping season.

In some cases, provinces have put end dates on those restrictions, leaving open the possibility they could be lifted or relaxed in January. But experts have warned that a recent surge in cases will not be under control by then. In Alberta, for example, infections have levelled off in the past week, but they are nowhere near where the province’s own health officials say they need to be to protect the health-care system.

In the meantime, governments will need to continue sorting out the details of their vaccine programs – particularly who gets the vaccine second. Health-care workers and long-term care residents have been identified as first in line, but after that governments will need to balance which groups are at higher risks and which industries are essential.

B.C., for example, has identified long-term care residents and staff, health-care workers dealing with COVID patients, Indigenous people living in rural or remote communities, high-risk people living in group settings like shelters, and people over 80 years old as the first priority groups to receive vaccination.

Premier John Horgan said it’s too early to say precisely how it will be distributed to groups in the second phase.

That next stage will start with older people under age 80, as well as other health-care workers who were not in the first round. But it will also target police, firefighters and paramedics. It will also include school staff, child-care providers, and people working in grocery stores, transportation, manufacturing and production facilities.

In Alberta, Mr. Kenney acknowledged those difficult decisions in deciding, for example, when to vaccinate police officers, firefighters or people who work on the province’s electricity grid. He said Alberta Health Services, the province’s health authority, has a detailed plan, and there would not be any political pressure when it comes to who gets the vaccine.

“… While we have a priority protocol in place, I know that we’ll be getting submissions from different industries that will be making a case that perhaps people delivering critical services, essential services should be somewhere earlier in the schedules of vaccinations,” he said, bringing up electricity producers as an example.

“I don’t see that as political interference or queue jumping, but it is a consideration that probably should be taken into account.”

Open this photo in gallery:

Nisha Yunus, right, a residential care aide at Providence Health Care, and Dr. Bonnie Henry, B.C.'s Chief Medical Officer of Health, react after Yunus was injected with a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTEch COVID-19 vaccine.JENNIFER GAUTHIER/Reuters

This is the weekly Western Canada newsletter written by B.C. Editor Wendy Cox and Alberta Bureau Chief James Keller. If you’re reading this on the web, or it was forwarded to you from someone else, you can sign up for it and all Globe newsletters here. This is a new project and we’ll be experimenting as we go, so let us know what you think.


SASKATCHEWAN RESTRICTIONS: Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe defended his government’s handling of a spike in COVID-19 cases as he tightened public-health restrictions Monday for the holidays. Starting Thursday, only immediate household members can be inside the same home, with a few exceptions, and outdoor gatherings will be restricted to 10 people. Casinos and bingo halls must close Saturday – the only businesses ordered to do so – while personal-care services such as hair salons will be limited to 50-per-cent capacity. Starting on Christmas Day, retail stores will be required to cut their capacity in half and large retailers will be restricted to 25 per cent. The measures are to be in place until Jan. 15, when they will be reviewed. Previous rules, including wearing masks in indoor public spaces and a 30-person capacity limit for public venues, remain in place.

MANITOBA FIRST NATIONS: Samuel Knott, Chief of the Red Sucker First Nation, is facing an overwhelming responsibility: the weight of leading his community in northern Manitoba during a potentially catastrophic COVID-19 outbreak while he battles the coronavirus himself. The future for his remote, fly-in community, hit by the H1N1 crisis in 2009, remains uncertain. It is unclear how many members of Red Sucker have the coronavirus now or exactly how the illness made its away into the community, the Chief said. Red Sucker First Nation is not alone in its fear about the potentially deadly impact of COVID-19. There is widespread concern about the spread of COVID-19 among First Nations across the country, particularly in the second wave of the pandemic. Communities in northern Manitoba facing outbreaks are very remote, making them far away from medical care. The virus also has the potential to spread like wildfire in the communities because of overcrowded homes and other challenges. Tim Warmington, a spokesperson for Public Safety Canada, said work is under way to assess the situation in Red Sucker through the federal government, the province of Manitoba and community partners.

ALBERTA HOSPITALS: Hospitals in Calgary and Edmonton have been routinely operating near or above capacity for weeks as COVID-19 infections in Alberta have surged at a rate higher than anywhere else in Canada. The increase in infections has, in turn, led to a dramatic spike in hospitalizations, leaving Alberta with the second-highest per-capita rate of hospital and ICU admissions in the country, behind only Manitoba. The province has implemented a series of harsh restrictions, including banning all social gatherings of any kind, implementing a provincewide mask requirement and significantly restricting the capacity of retailers. It has also ordered restaurants, casinos, hair salons and other businesses to shut down. Some of those restrictions were in place immediately after they were announced last week and the rest went into effect over the weekend. But even if those measures are effective in reversing the curve of COVID-19 infections, the province’s health-care system is bracing for hospitalizations to continue their sharp increase for the next month, with the number of people admitted with severe cases of the disease expected to at least double – or potentially worse.

KIDS IN CARE: B.C.’s children’s watchdog is calling on the province to significantly increase supports for youth ‘aging out’ of foster care, including continuing them through to adulthood. Jennifer Charlesworth noted Tuesday that most youth in British Columbia can rely on family support into their 20s and those in government care should be treated the same: She called on the province to ensure youth continue to receive government services until they are 27. That “probably sounds pretty expensive,” said Ms. Charlesworth. “What is even more expensive is the status quo.”

CHINESE AMBASSADOR: China’s ambassador to Canada has rejected Canada’s efforts to contrast the harsh conditions of his country’s detention of two Canadians with the relatively luxurious accommodations enjoyed by Huawei’s CFO, saying the Canadians haven’t been mistreated by Beijing whereas Meng Wanzhou has been unjustly incarcerated.

During a conversation with the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada on Tuesday, Cong Peiwu responded to the non-profit’s latest poll, which reveals a worsening Canadian public opinion toward China. It shows the average feeling has dipped to its lowest point in the past decade.

“Their lawful rights have been guaranteed,” Mr. Cong said. “Actually, in fact, they have been provided with adequate food and services, in terms of in this period of COVID-19, even the better food, to make sure that their immune system has been enhanced, so they can better deter the risk of being infected.”

TENT CITY: The Vancouver Park Board has agreed privately to allow its staff to proceed with injunctions to clear Strathcona Park, but it will likely be months before the city’s most visible homeless camp will be cleared. In an in-camera meeting last month, park board commissioners agreed to an injunction only if there was a guarantee that people had housing to move to. The park board has resolutely refused to seek an injunction to clear out a sprawling tent city in the Strathcona neighbourhood. The park is now home to about 500 tents with an estimated 200 homeless people living there.

GIFTS FOR FOODIES: Food critic Alexandra Gill suggests food is the easiest – and most satiating – way to anyone’s heart. And this year, food-related gifts for the holiday season can also provide a lifeline to struggling restaurants and small businesses that have taken a harsh beating from COVID-19. Shop local and feast well with these suggested Vancouver picks for the epicureans on your list.


JP Gladu on Indigenous-corporate partnerships: “For the past 30 years, Canada has been struggling to balance Indigenous, environmental and economic interests surrounding major infrastructure projects. In recent years, the country has converted what could have been nation-building initiatives into legal battlefields and contests over public opinion. But we know, from watching hundreds of collaborations between Indigenous communities, resource firms and infrastructure companies, that models of mutually beneficial co-operation exist.”

Gary Mason on the Liberals’ carbon plan: “The Conservatives talk about broadening their tent, but it’s hard to see how they do that when the party seems so at odds with popular sentiment on the most pressing issue of our time. The values represented by those who care about the environment, who want our political leaders to take serious action on climate change, are being embraced more broadly among citizens in Western democratic countries, not the opposite. At least the federal Liberals believe this. And in the not-too-distant future they are going to put that theory to the test.”

Mark Jaccard on selling the carbon tax: “Carbon pricing is fundamentally equitable because it rewards anyone who smartly decides, when renewing their vehicle or furnace, to take advantage of the subsidies for electric vehicles, home insulation and electric heat pumps. After doing this, they’d pay zero carbon taxes. What is more equitable than financially rewarding those who decarbonize to avoid major climate costs to our children?”

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