Did you hear that sound? That slight puff of air followed by a whimpering sickly pffft noise, leaving nothing behind but a fetid and raunchy odour? That was the sound of a premier abandoning any pretence of heading up a normal and broadly democratic government aiming to do the greatest good for the greatest number.
No, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has fully acquiesced the reins of governance on the COVID file to a motley band of angry, frustrated, and mostly ill-informed anti-mask, anti-vax, anti-Trudeau, anti-science freedom lovers. They’re kind of like the Jesus freaks from the 1970s, but lacking the same ideological coherence.
In an ongoing story that’s made international headlines, disparate packs of self-obsessed truckers backed by murky financial muscle have descended on various cities and border crossings across the country. Their goals? To promote their causes of, variously, employing dubiously pseudo-legal means of wresting political power from duly elected governments, safe-guarding their freedom to harass and sometimes terrify anyone who disagrees with them, and weaponizing their diesel-fueled tractor-trailers to deny freedom of movement to everyone but themselves.
In late January, just before the truckers started to arrive in Ottawa, Kenney predicted the removal of Alberta’s vaccine passport system by the end of March. “We are not out of the woods yet,” Mr. Kenney cautioned Albertans in early February as the trucker protest gathered steam and spread to other cities and smaller centres, including Edmonton and the important border town of Coutts.
“Once we begin to see a sustained reduction in, uh, COVID pressure on the hospitals,” he continued helpfully, “I am looking forward to being able to make decisions about moving towards relaxation of public health measures at that time.”
Well, that was then.
On Tuesday, a day when the province recorded its highest number of daily COVID-related hospitalizations since the pandemic started, Mr. Kenney announced major changes to Alberta’s COVID mitigation strategy. Effective at midnight, the province would end its vaccine mandate for restaurant dining and attending entertainment venues.
Next Monday morning, masking for kids under 12—including in schools—will no longer be required. And come March 1, the Alberta government will eliminate nearly all COVID-related ‘restrictions.’ Thereafter, Albertans will be free to spread COVID around the province, contract COVID themselves, and spend some quality time recuperating at home or clogging up the hospital.
What caught many observers off-guard was the speed with which the UCP government plans to lift Alberta’s COVID-related restrictions. Mr. Kenney’s Tuesday afternoon announcement was particularly startling given that little more than a week earlier he’d been assuring Albertans that this time, and in contrast to the UCP’s disastrous ‘best summer ever’ debacle last autumn, the government would pursue a measured, responsible, and prudent path to transitioning from a pandemic to an endemic approach to the public health crisis.
It’s hard to imagine that the policy switcheroo and the ongoing trucker border blockade are unrelated.
Nevertheless, if Kenney is true to form, the next thing you know he’ll be claiming that placating the loosely organized anger brigade along Alberta’s southern border played no role in his decision to accelerate lifting restrictions. That’s like saying my eating three cans of baked beans played no role in my taking up residence in the bathroom for the better part of the day.
Oh, I’m sure Mr. Kenney would have preferred to roll out his basement dwelling politics in a more incremental way, slowly heating the vegetable stock so the frogs in the pot don’t notice when the soup starts boiling and it’s too late to get out. But his polling numbers are in the toilet. Party donations are falling. He’s facing a leadership review on April 9. His caucus doesn’t like him. Most Albertans don’t seem to either.
What’s more, and again true to form, Kenney has once more revealed his staggering lack of political acumen; the border protesters largely ignored the premier’s efforts at seeking out what might well have been his last bastion of support, and simply moved the goalposts on their demands. They seem no longer satisfied with the lifting of restrictions in Alberta. Now nothing short of the elimination of restrictions nation-wide will do (and possibly the resignation of the prime minister to boot).
And so, on we go, ditching continued COVID measures strongly recommended by people who actually understand how the Omicron variant works with a premier hoping for the best spring ever.
Eric Strikwerda teaches Canadian history at Athabasca University. He is the author of The Wages of Relief: Cities and the Unemployed in Prairie Canada, 1929-1939 (AU Press, 2013). At present he is working on a history of western Canada following Canada’s acquisition of the region in 1870.