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Jason Kenney making political hay out of tragedy? Why not?

The Alberta premier has been rightfully condemned for promoting oil interests in the midst of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

Canadian PoliticsEuropeWar Zones

Jason Kenney holds a press conference following his meeting with former Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach and the Consul General of Ukraine in Edmonton, February 23, 2022. Image courtesy Jason Kenney/Twitter.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney on Wednesday simply wasn’t be able to resist weighing in on the Russian invasion of the Donbas region on Ukraine’s eastern flank, and crassly trying to turn it to his own political advantage.

“Professor” Kenney, beleaguered in the polls, facing a leadership review in April, and widely disliked right around the province, found it utterly impossible to refrain from bellying up to a lectern at a Red Deer presser and explaining the geo-political intricacies of a highly volatile, dynamic, and uncertain situation now emerging roughly a million miles from the premier’s own current problems.

The distance between Kenney’s imaginary and aspirational role as a player on the world stage and his actual one, namely running a smallish province within a middle-power federation, is possibly even longer than that.

That’s just the way he rolls. He’s about as unpredictable as a sunset.

At the event, attended by former Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach and the Consul General of Ukraine in Edmonton, Oleksandr Danyleiko, Mr. Kenney pledged $1 million from the province’s coffers for “first aid and medical support,” in light of the crisis in Ukraine through the offices of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress. Whether the province will follow normal accounting procedures or simply make the grant and let the UCC decide how best to spend it remains unclear.

Of course, as with anything Kenney does, there’s also a base political calculus at play. At one and the same time, Mr. Kenney can present himself as a man of the moment, ready to assume a role in global affairs, while simultaneously taking cheap shots at actual players in international politics like US President Joe Biden and Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

As missile strikes rain down on Ukraine, Ukrainian citizens take refuge in deep underground subway stations, and the whole world stares aghast at the unfolding human tragedy within its borders, oil-and-gas-always-on-the-brain Kenney felt now is the time to take US energy policy to task, to tout Alberta’s ‘democratic’ oil and gas industry, and to make pipelines the centre of the story.

“Let me speak very bluntly to our friends and partners in the United States,” he bleated. “President Biden a year ago arbitrarily and retroactively vetoed the Keystone XL pipeline that would have delivered over 800,000 barrels per day of responsibly produced oil to help fuel the American economy. Today the US imports over 800,000 barrels per day from Vladmir Putin’s Russia.”

Presumably, the premier’s point is that if only US energy policy had followed Mr. Kenney’s advice on the Keystone XL pipeline, then Putin’s Russia would have had smaller muscles to flex on its western border, and might well have thought twice about invading Ukraine. And it’d be hard not to see the further implications underlying that point: namely, Russia’s military action in Ukraine can only be good for Alberta’s oil and gas industry and, by extension, the province’s bottom line. “Alberta oil is better than dictator oil,” Kenney observed in his best salesman’s tone. “We are working to make sure Alberta gets the credit it deserves.”

Well. It’s important to keep your eye on what really matters, I guess.

The Russian invasion also appears to have offered Kenney several opportunities to mess about in history’s sandbox. The Holodomor (literally, the deliberate starvation of Ukrainians by Stalin’s Russia in the early 1930s), one of Mr. Kenney’s favorite topics, made a lazy appearance in the premier’s remarks at the Red Deer presser. Naturally, the premier’s cartoonish analysis comparing interwar Russia to twenty-first century Russia offered up no historical context whatsoever.

He then moved on to Alberta’s historical relationship with Ukrainians dating to the earliest days of settlement prior to the creation of the province in 1905. “Alberta of course has a special place in its heart for Ukraine and the Ukrainian people,” he noted, “having benefitted from hundreds of thousands of Albertans of Ukrainian origin who helped to build this province.”

What Mr. Kenney conveniently failed to mention, of course, was successive generations of British-origin westerners’ nativistic disdain and distrust for the “herds of half-civilized Galacians” arriving in the region after 1897. The onset of the First World War only heightened antipathy toward eastern European immigrants on the Canadian prairies, with thousands of them branded as ‘enemy aliens’ and interred in camps without trial for the duration of the war.

Finally, and as a totally normal aside in the early stages of a staggeringly awful war, Mr. Kenney took the time to toot his own horn, boasting that as Canada’s defence minister back in 2015 he seemingly single-handedly “deployed the Canadian armed forces to the Ukraine for the first time ever in Operation UNIFIER to help to train and better prepare Ukrainian troops for, uh, Russian aggression.”

Thanks to his own vision and foresight, he continued, “thousands and thousands of Ukrainian soldiers … have received world class training in an important reform and westernization of Ukrainian military tactics.”

You can watch Mr. Kenney further describe his heroic accomplishments here, if you have a strong enough stomach.

Albertans are by now sadly only too familiar with Kenney’s boastfulness, petty political instincts, and straight-up gaslighting. One need look no further than the premier’s ‘best summer ever’ that predictably turned into the ‘worst fall ever,’ his schoolyard description of Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer as ‘brain dead,’ or his insistence that his Sky Palace garden party was fully compliant with his own government’s COVID-19 rules.

Given Mr. Kenney’s current fight for his own political survival amid multiple and chronic political and policy miscalculations, it is perhaps understandable that he’d gamely try to turn any worldwide event to his political advantage. Events in eastern Europe shouldn’t be among them. In politics, of course, there are times to make political hay. But it’s best done when the sun is shining. These days the sun doesn’t seem to be shining much.

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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