Alberta’s Minister of Municipal Affairs, Ric McIver, will investigate whether municipal single-use item bylaws in Edmonton and Calgary violate the Municipal Government Act, announced Premier Danielle Smith on Thursday. 

Calgary passed a single-use item bylaw in mid-January, requiring businesses to provide cutlery, condiments, and shopping bags only by request. Paper and reusable bags are each accompanied by a fee.

Edmonton’s single-use item bylaw has been in place since last year, but councillors moved to increase the fees for paper and reusable bags last week, which is set to come in effect by July 1. Edmonton’s bylaw has banned plastic bags from stores, but paper bags can be sold for 15 cents, and reusable bags cost $1.

By July 1, Edmonton’s charge for paper bags goes from 15 cents to 25 cents. The charge for a reusable bag will double, from $1 to $2.

Edmonton’s bylaw aims to reduce waste by targeting items that can be easily avoided or replaced with reusable options, according to the city’s website.

“The goal is to reduce single-use items, not to switch from plastic items to non-plastic items,” reads the website. 

Edmonton city staff admitted that they do not have data to show whether the fee is serving its purpose of cutting back on waste in a committee meeting earlier this week, according to Global News.

Speaking at an unrelated conference on Thursday, Smith was asked about the bylaws in light of the Federal Court ruling which found the federal single-use plastics ban to be unreasonable and unconstitutional.

“I heard there was near-mutiny on wing night in some restaurants because you have to ask whether or not people want napkins. I mean, some things are just so obvious that you need napkins when it’s wing night,” said Smith. 

Despite starting off her response with a humorous touch, Smith clarified that she does not support the single-use item bylaws.

“I’m not supportive of the decisions in both Calgary and Edmonton, but I’ve put it to my Minister of Municipal Affairs to see if they’ve gone outside the realm of the MGA,” she said. “I think there’s a little bit of ideology getting ahead of common sense here.” 

Edmonton Mayor Amarjeet Sohi said he is confident that the city’s bylaw is in accordance with its authority under the Act.

“The MGA authorizes the city to pass bylaws for environmental purposes and to regulate businesses,” he said in a statement to Global News.

Josh Dehaas, counsel for the Canadian Constitution Foundation (CCF), said that he understands people’s frustration with these bylaws, having himself recently sat at Edmonton’s Swiss Chalet. He said he was dumbfounded when he wasn’t given cutlery with his quarter chicken dinner.

Dehaas said he’s no expert in Alberta’s Municipal Government Act, so he doesn’t know whether either city followed the correct procedures. However, he said that even if the bylaws were properly enacted, the Alberta legislature could change the law to take away the power of municipal councillors to pass these kinds of bylaws.

“That’s because provinces have exclusive jurisdiction over municipalities granted to them under section 92(8) of the Constitution Act, 1867, said Dehaas. “As was reiterated by the Supreme Court of Canada’s 2021 decision that confirmed the constitutionality of Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s cuts to the size of Toronto city council, municipalities are ‘creatures of provincial statute’ and provinces have ‘absolute and unfettered legal power to do with them as [they] will.’”

Smith said that if there’s a garbage management problem, the province should instead figure out how to manage that. She said that Edmonton is doing a waste-to-energy project, as is a similar project in Southern Alberta. 

“I think we have to have policies that put people first, and some of these are really just putting ideology ahead of common sense,” she said.

While Sohi said that single-use item bylaws are a common feature of waste bylaws in several major cities in Alberta and North America, Smith said that this bylaw seems to be happening only in Calgary and Edmonton, not other municipalities.

While McIver has been tasked with investigating the municipalities, Smith recommended that, in the meantime, people call their councillors and mayors to tell them what they think of the bylaws. 

“In the meantime, call your councillor and call your mayor and tell them what you think of these because I can tell you it’s not happening in every municipality. It just seems that it’s happening in Calgary and Edmonton.”