Erin O’Toole has rightly taken much heat of late for first praising Alberta Premier Jason Kenney’s handling of the pandemic in that province, and then refusing to respond to reporters’ questions about whether he still holds the view that Kenney has done a better job on the COVID file than Justin Trudeau.
COVID, of course, and the response of governments to it, remains one of the top issues of the day. This is particularly true—or ought to be—during a federal election campaign.
O’Toole’s refusal to deal with it in any meaningful way is a problem. His campaign, for instance, stands alone among the main parties in thus far refusing to reveal whether all candidates have received the vaccine. O’Toole himself has maintained the deeply unhelpful assertion that Canadians ought to be unencumbered by science and facts and expert knowledge when concluding whether or not they should get the jab.
Anything less is a direct assault on ‘freedom.’
Such rhetoric is as disingenuous as it is unhelpful because no one is forcing anyone, including O’Toole’s candidates, to do the responsible and sensible and frankly sane thing of getting themselves inoculated against a deadly and highly infectious disease currently rampaging across the planet.
The vast majority of Canadians who are concerned about letting COVID rip through their populations have instead broadly supported instituting so-called ‘vaccine passports’ that provide proof of relative immunity from COVID-19 infection. Remaining unvaccinated is indeed a ‘personal choice,’ and the small minority of people who don’t trust the science, dispute the facts, and otherwise hold expert knowledge in disdain are free to do so. But so too ought the majority of Canadians who are vaccinated be free to go about their lives without fear of their hospitals becoming overwhelmed, their kids getting infected with COVID, or their loved ones dying from the disease.
In Alberta, Kenney’s UCP government has for much of the pandemic pandered to its minority base by emphasizing ‘personal choice’ over responsibility to the broader collective when it comes to vaccines. Worse still, it has actively and inexplicably scuttled efforts to curb COVID’s ferocity by easing up on, and, after July 1 eliminating altogether, even the most modest of restrictions, including mandatory indoor masking, physical distancing, and contact tracing.
The result of this disastrous strategy is now plain for all to see. Alberta’s healthcare system has collapsed. Hospitals and ICUs are bursting at the seams with unvaccinated Albertans of all ages. Patients are being relocated to Ontario. Hospital administrators have enacted triage protocols, forcing healthcare workers to make life or death decisions based on patients’ likelihood of surviving. The United Nurses of Alberta, the Health Sciences Association of Alberta, and the Alberta Federation of Labour have together urged the provincial government to seek help from the Canadian military and the Red Cross.
What explains the Kenney government’s inability to act even in the face of disaster? Kenney’s caucus is dominated by the vaccine hesitant. It’s packed with MLAs who can’t seem to make the distinction between, on the one hand, protecting the freedom of Albertans to enjoy a restaurant meal or go to a movie, and on the other, protecting their freedom to not become seriously ill or die of entirely treatable non-COVID illnesses because hospitals are filled to the brim with unvaccinated patients.
Kenney and his strategic brain trust have proved themselves to be either sympathetic to that caucus or too fearful of raising its ire to act decisively in dealing with the COVID situation. Even when faced with the imminent collapse of the province’s healthcare system, Kenney’s government has only reluctantly introduced measures to ‘flatten the curve’ and encourage the loud-mouthed minority to finally do the right thing and inoculate themselves. And yet even these measures, confusing and back-ended with myriad exemptions and workarounds, and trotted out with ham-fisted, back-of-the-envelope precision, have come far too late to halt system collapse. Albertans won’t have any sense if they worked for at least two more weeks.
This is what happens when you let the tail wag the dog.
For his part, Erin O’Toole seems incapable of stopping the same thing from happening federally, should his Conservative Party form government. Pick a hot-button issue: gun control, women’s rights to access abortion services, efforts to take meaningful action on climate change, addressing Canada’s reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. Will O’Toole have the stuff to rein in a caucus loaded with members who answer to the loud-mouthed minority?
I’m not optimistic.
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.