The temperature of the debate over Alberta's controversial private health bill soared this weekend with massive, back-to-back protest rallies in Calgary and Edmonton.
At the same time, Alberta Premier Ralph Klein pledged to have the bill passed by Easter, even if he has to shut down debate in the legislature.
The rallies, attended by more than 8,000 people in Edmonton yesterday and 3,000 in Calgary on Saturday, drew the Canadian actor Kiefer Sutherland and his mother, the actress Shirley Douglas, as opponents of Bill 11. She is the daughter of medicare architect Tommy Douglas.
The bill has become a flashpoint across Canada for fears about the state of the health-care system. Mr. Sutherland told the crowd that his grandfather, Mr. Douglas, warned his family shortly before he died to be vigilant not to let medicare be eroded.
"He warned us and we let it slip," said the actor and director.
The Albertans who attended the rallies to protest against Bill 11 during the weekend were uncharacteristically vociferous. Normally, debate in Alberta is confined to ardent back-room dealings, which rarely spill into the public arena. Publicly, Albertans usually appear to support the government with few reservations.
But on the weekend, even people who live in the conservative stronghold of Calgary broke into chants of "Kill the Bill" during the protest rally. Privately, organizers had wondered whether any Calgarians would show up to protest against Bill 11 because the government enjoys such support here.
But when some of the performers sang O Medicare to the tune of O Canada, most of the Calgary audience gave a standing ovation and began to sing along.
In Edmonton, where the rally drew more than twice as many protesters as expected yesterday, the mood was even more raucous. Opposition Liberal Leader Nancy MacBeth, speaking from her cell phone at the rally, said it was a sign of the public anger over the bill. The Liberals are calling for a general election over the issue.
Christine Burdett, provincial chairwoman of Friends of Medicare and the organizer of the rallies, said from her cell phone at the Edmonton rally that the mood of the crowd was strongly antigovernment. She said MLAs are likely to wake up today to reams of angry telephone calls.
"The government is going to get a rude shock," she said.
She added: "In most of Alberta, people actually believed that if they said they didn't like the legislation, the government would back down."
Bill 11 would see public money used to pay private, for-profit clinics to perform a range of procedures now done only in hospitals. It would allow some patients to stay in private clinics overnight. The bill has sparked questions from the federal Liberal government over whether it respects the Canada Health Act.