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Is Alberta’s UCP government trying to open a new front in the old Cold War?

Seeking out secret Cold War-era communist espionage rings seems on point for Jason Kenney’s United Conservatives

Canadian Politics

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney provides an update on the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines in Alberta, February 19, 2021. Photo courtesy Alberta Newsroom/Flickr.

Last month, a “deeply concerned” Alberta Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides instructed the province’s four comprehensive academic research universities to “pause” any new or renewed research partnerships with the People’s Republic of China.

The reason? Nicolaides worries that such “research partnerships may be used by Chinese military and intelligence agencies,” presumably to the detriment of Alberta’s strategic international position.

“Research originating in Alberta’s taxpayer-funded postsecondary institutions,” the minister continued, “could be used to undermine Canada and her democratic allies and to facilitate the People’s Republic of China’s human-rights abuses at home against its citizens.”

Never mind the jarring asynchronicity of a smallish province within a mid-sized national federation attempting to leap-frog over normal state-to-state international relations and unilaterally engage directly with one of the world’s superpowers.

Never mind, too, the Alberta government’s lack of similar concerns about whether Chinese state investments in the oil patch might also be used to undermine Canada and her democratic allies and to facilitate human rights abuses.

If nothing else, the minister’s directive betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of post-secondary institutions’ basic functions (to teach, to engage in unfettered research, and to freely disseminate its results) or their internal governance structures.

For one thing, university researchers are supposed to be free from state or political interference, not collaborators to the UCP’s seeming desire to bring back the Cold War. For another, universities already have rigorous internal and external collegial oversight to detect conflicts of interest, assess the academic soundness of research proposals, and ensure academic research meets the highest ethical and professional standards.

If there is any threat to universities’ abilities to carry out these functions, it is a government that has hobbled Alberta’s post-secondary sector by massive funding cuts hampering the province’s four research institutions’ ability to deliver core teaching and engage fully in world-class research.

University administrators and research professors, of course, continue as best they can to facilitate and carry out their teaching and knowledge production and dissemination duties. That’s their job, and they have the qualifications and tools and experience to do it. What they don’t have are the qualifications and tools and experience to effectively root out, investigate, and stymie communists engaged in international espionage.

That’s what super-secret spies do.

More to the point, and in the real world, that’s what Canada’s security agencies do.

In the short-term, Mr. Demetrios needs to step aside and let the professionals, both those associated with Alberta’s research institutions and Canada’s security agencies, do their jobs. In the longer term, the minister of advanced education might want to up his spycraft game.

Some friendly advice: if you believe that foreign nations are engaged in espionage and you’re trying to root them out, maybe don’t issue a press release explaining exactly what you plan to do.

Then again, perhaps rooting out spies isn’t the main goal. The premier might well be eyeing an eventual return to Ottawa, and if he can confidently report to Canadians that he took a ‘hard line’ against communism while he was in Alberta, it might boost his capitalist credentials nationally (although judging by his government’s actual performance in Alberta, he makes for a pretty lousy capitalist as well).

Whatever the case, seeking out secret Cold War era communist espionage rings seems on point for Jason Kenney’s United Conservatives, a party that appears most comfortable in the 1950s when suspicious-looking strangers wearing fedoras walked around talking into their cuff links, and when bowties might really be cameras.

And the province has already made a good start in that direction. Its House UnAlberta Activities Committee (aka the Allen Inquiry) is busy blowing deadlines and investigating imaginary global conspiracies meant to land-lock Alberta oil. Its so-called “war room,” which may or may not be run by Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper from Dr. Strangelove, beavers away at countering falsehoods about Alberta’s oil industry cooked up by children’s cartoons. And its K-6 curriculum draft promises to take Alberta’s students back to an imagined past when men were men and Reds were under every bed.

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.


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