It was weird.
Here was Alberta Premier Jason Kenney in June, explaining to incredulous reporters that he has never supported a ban on Muslim women wearing niqabs. And yet, here too was Jason Kenney in May 2015 explaining to reporters that he supported a ban on Muslim women wearing niqabs.
And here was Jason Kenney again, this time in May 2021, insisting that he, some caucus colleagues, and several others broke no Alberta Health Services rules relating to physical distancing and masking during the pandemic. And yet here, plain for all to see, was photographic evidence of Jason Kenney, some caucus colleagues, and several others clearly breaking AHS rules relating to physical distancing and masking during the pandemic.
In May 2020, here again was Jason Kenney in the Alberta legislature—recorded this time both on camera and in Hansard—repeatedly calling the serious and viral disease caused by SARS-CoV-2 nothing more than a flu. Yet here was Jason Kenney nearly a year later insisting to a local Edmonton talk news show host that he “never called this the flu… of course,” he continued, “people are going to distort this for their own purposes.”
Is this a tale of two Jasons? Have we entered a twilight zone? How can one respond to such jarringly strange juxtapositions, where the premier clearly says or does one thing, and then later straight-up denies having said or done those things?
Alberta NDP leader Rachel Notley tweeted that he’s a lying liar who lies. It’s hard to argue when it’s true.
Most politicians, of course, routinely take liberties with facts to suit their own agendas or to match their own political aspirations. That’s just politics.
I want to suggest here, though, that in this twilight zone Jason Kenney’s relationship with the facts is a different beast altogether.
This kind of thing has made its way in recent years into American political discourse. One need look no further than former US President Donald Trump’s reality-denying ways, including hilariously claiming a larger inauguration crowd than his predecessor even in the face of clear photographic evidence to the contrary. Or having an aid hastily use a sharpie to move Hurricane Dorian’s path into Alabama on an altered map to fit his farcical and patently incorrect assertion that the storm’s path included the Yellowhammer State.
While some might argue that these kinds of outright lies are harmless enough, most now know it doesn’t take much for lies to take darker turns. Trump’s insistence, with zero evidence, that he won the 2020 US presidential election led directly and dramatically to his supporters’ siege of the US Capitol Building on that now infamous day in early January. Some of the latest polls suggest that more than a third of Americans continue to believe Trump’s ‘Big Lie’ baloney that nefarious actors stole his second term in the White House.
Back in Alberta, Jason Kenney and the UCP government continue to insist the verities of their own ‘Big Lies,’ including patently false assertions of foreign money trying to shut down the province’s oil industry, disingenuous characterizations of Ottawa ‘stealing’ Alberta’s wealth through the federal equalization formula, and unfounded charges that Justin Trudeau is somehow ‘subverting’ democracy simply by following Senate appointment procedures that have been in place since the literal founding of Canada.
This worrying tendency towards overt and obvious denialism of reality appears to have seeped into the upper echelons of Kenney’s cabinet. Education Minister Adriana LaGrange continues to insist that her department’s curriculum re-write is pedagogically sound, despite copious evidence to the contrary, and fully 56 of 61 school boards refusing to pilot it.
In the wake of nearly 100 percent of Alberta’s doctors voting no-confidence in the minister of health, Health Minister Tyler Shandro maintained that “there was no fight with the Alberta Medical Association.”
In May, 2020, on the Friday before a long weekend, the Alberta government quietly rescinded a 1976 coal policy prohibiting open-pit coal mining along the eastern slopes of the Rockies. Following widespread anger at the government’s lack of transparency, Energy Minister Sonya Savage backtracked, assuring Albertans that the government would “reinstate the full 1976 coal policy.” As Albertans now know, that wasn’t quite true, either.
Is this denialism of reality a new trend in Canadian politics? It’s hard to say. Whatever the case, Canadians should keep a close eye on what their politicians say, and gauge for themselves how far it departs from reality, especially during the widely anticipated federal election this fall.
In the meantime, what Albertans deserve, at the very least, is honesty on issues both big and small. What Albertans (and all Canadians for that matter) cannot allow is for this sort of altered reality-twilight zone to become the new normal.
Politicians saying the earth is flat when it’s clearly round is, and must be, weird. Politicians claiming they didn’t say or do something when they clearly did is, and must be, weird too.
It might even be dangerous.
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.