There are few things conservatives love more than talking about cutting “red tape” and some have even gone so far as to name cabinet ministers to that role. That includes Alberta, where Dale Nally, the “minister of red tape reduction”, has taken to bragging about how many regulations his government has removed since 2019. “Ultimately,” he told the Medicine Hat News in February, “red tape reduction is the unnecessary regulatory compliance that makes life difficult for job creators and Albertans.”
But as the more than 300 parents and children sickened by an E. coli outbreak at a series of Calgary daycares are finding out right now, the red tape getting cut can sometimes be what was protecting you from other people’s carelessness — or worse. A common kitchen owned by Fueling Minds that serves multiple affiliated daycare centres has been identified as the source of the outbreak, and it’s a minor miracle people didn’t get sick sooner. It’s had problems with Alberta Health Services (AHS) inspections dating back to 2021, when everything from unsafe dishwashers and improperly mixed sanitizer to food being transported without refrigeration and even an invalid food handling permit were noted by inspectors. Many of these problems were identified again during subsequent inspections, which speaks to the lack of compliance or any consequences flowing from it. On the most recent visit, AHS inspectors even found cockroaches — two live and more than 20 dead in sticky traps.
And yet, despite all these problems and the obvious inability to address them properly, the facility was never closed down by inspectors. Parents whose children were being fed food produced at the facility were never warned about these ongoing deficiencies and would only have known if they actively sought out the inspection reports. It’s fair to wonder if this dangerously light touch is because the AHS inspectors have decided to err on the side of keeping businesses open — the government that employs them, after all, clearly takes a dim view of “unnecessary regulatory compliance that makes life difficult for job creators," as red tape reduction minister Nally put it.
If this all sounds familiar, it should. There are echoes of the Walkerton E. coli outbreak in 2000, one that killed seven people in Ontario and sickened more than 2,000 after drinking water was contaminated by agricultural runoff. Lax testing and monitoring by the Walkerton Public Utilities Commission was ultimately identified as one of the contributing factors behind the outbreak, along with the failure of the provincial government to properly enforce its regulations.
Not coincidentally, the province was also being run by a regulation-phobic conservative government that had privatized the labs that tested municipal water for contamination back in 1996. As the Globe and Mail’s John Saunders reported in 2002, “Despite expert advice to implement the change over a two- to three-year period, the Tories rushed the privatization through in two months… Even worried scientists and other officials felt powerless to push for tighter rules with the government determined to slash red tape.”
One of the key lessons contained in the two-volume report from the Walkerton Inquiry was the need for redundancy in certain areas of regulatory oversight. "Redundancy was an essential lesson of the Walkerton inquiry, that we need to have in place safeguards so that if something goes wrong at one level, you can catch it at the next level," Theresa McClenaghan, the executive director and counsel for the Canadian Environmental Law Association, told the CBC in 2020.
The thought of so many children getting so sick from their daycare lunches and snacks is a sobering reminder that less isn’t always more when it comes to government oversight and regulation. Our governments don’t exist to clear the way for businesses or to ensure that their regulatory burdens are as light as possible. They exist to protect and promote the welfare of their citizens — especially the well-being of children and other vulnerable populations.
Time will tell whether this latest E. coli outbreak finally drives that point home for Canada’s red-tape-obsessed conservatives. Focusing purely on the number of regulations we have rather than their quality is like judging someone’s intelligence by how many books they own rather than their contents — and whether they’ve even read them.
It’s long past time for a more mature and sophisticated approach here, one that sees regulation as a form of collective insurance rather than an obstacle to individual prosperity.
Like most conservative politicians, Danielle Smith thinks less is always more when it comes to regulation and government oversight. Now, with hundreds of sick children and a public health crisis on her hands, will she give that a second thought?
As we’re seeing right now in Calgary, red-tape reduction isn’t a free lunch. Instead, it’s a meal that can come at an incredibly high cost — one that’s being paid by innocent children and their families.