‘A huge divide:’ COVID-19 response strains relationships in Alberta’s North County

The mayor of High Level, a town in far northwest Alberta, says she hasn’t spoken to the county government for several weeks.

“We’re not at each other’s throats, but it’s a very distant relationship,” Crystal McAteer said.

“There is a divide between us. We had problems before, but it has come to the fore in the last two years.”

Public health measures to try to curb the spread of COVID-19 have sown a deep divide in Mackenzie County, the least vaccinated region of Alberta.

Residents and local leaders say friendships have ended, arguments have broken out in stores and government projects have failed to move forward amid disagreements over face coverings, vaccines and other responses to the pandemic.

“It’s like the Hatfields and the McCoys,” says top realtor Sylvia Kennedy, in a nod to the famous rival families of 19th-century American lore.

Realtor Sylvia Kennedy likened friction in the county to the Hatfields and McCoys, the famous rival families of 19th-century American lore. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

“I was accosted because I was wearing a mask. It’s really sad… This stupidity is [creating] a huge divide in our region.”

Mackenzie County is larger than New Brunswick and has an abundance of oil, gas and agriculture. In addition to High Level, it is home to the hamlets of La Crête and Fort Vermilion as well as four First Nations.

The Alberta government says just under a third of county residents are fully immunized and about 38% have received their first dose.

The province could not provide a breakdown of vaccination rates for individual cities and First Nations. The Mayor of High Level, after speaking to several businesses and health workers, estimates that three-quarters of the city is fully vaccinated.

The Beaver First Nation says 60% of the people living on the two reserves it manages are fully immunized.

McAteer says his city has become “a pariah” because it enforced public health measures — sometimes through its own regulations when the provincial government lifted the rules — while businesses in neighboring towns did the one of the newspapers for challenging them.

The Crete Chamber of Commerce, an hour’s drive from High Level, organized a bus to Ottawa as part of the so-called freedom convoy challenging government restrictions. Some protesters stopped at High Level for a few days to demonstrate against local restrictions.

The animosity between High Level and the county culminated in February when the county council passed a motion to stop working with contractors and companies that had an employee vaccination policy. A letter stated that these businesses would not be permitted to enter county premises.

McAteer says she hasn’t spoken to County since.

“To protect our workers, High Level employees had to be vaccinated, including firefighters,” McAteer said.

“They proposed that we could not enter their workplaces.”

Warden Josh Knelsen says The County, Crete and High Level “obviously” have their differences.

In an interview at his Crete office, Knelsen said the companies appreciated the county’s decision. He couldn’t say how many were no longer working with the county.

“Before, it was always where it didn’t matter what your political position was,” said Knelsen, who added that he hadn’t been vaccinated against COVID-19.

“I can appreciate what they’re doing as long as they don’t expect us to do the same… The biggest frustration I’ve seen through all of this is the division it’s caused.”

He said he and many others in the area where he was born and raised believe “health is a personal choice” and that the government should not tell people how to take care of themselves.

He and some in Crete had COVID-19 at the start of the pandemic, he said, but were able to recover, although some did not.

“They have a brain. Everyone has their own mind and they are very capable of using it. If you want to live in the North, you have to be a bit tough and tough. If you’re too stupid, you don’t survive .”

“It used to be always where your political position didn’t matter,” said Mackenzie County Warden Josh Knelsen, pictured in La Crete, Alta. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

Even without a government order, and since he was a child, he never went to a family member’s house if someone was sick, he said.

“I love my family. I won’t put them in danger.”

Knelsen said he was ready to come out of the pandemic.

“It will be a bad memory in a very short time.”

McAteer says the projects High Level is working on with the county have not moved forward. The municipality has been waiting since December for the department to sign an agreement recognizing their “inter-municipal cooperation”.

“I hope we get together,” McAteer said.

“What’s happening in the north is good for all of us, and to stay together we have to work together.”