Under pressure from his fringe anti-lockdown base, and from rebellious MLAs inside his own party, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has fanned the flames of the third wave. By the beginning of May, Alberta held the dubious honor of having the highest per capita case rate of COVID-19 in all of North America. The third wave has now surpassed the second wave’s peak of 1,873 daily new cases, reaching over 2,000 daily cases. The number of COVID patients in the ICU also broke records, rising to 187 by May 15. Meanwhile, Jason Kenney refuses to take any responsibility. When asked why Albertans should trust his government after it got us to this point, he said, “Well, the virus got us to this point .” Yet Kenney is clearly responsible.
On March 8, the government eased restrictions back to step 2 of their reopening plan. Less than two weeks later, Alberta saw rising cases yet again. By March 20 doctors were sounding the alarm on any further easing of restrictions, pointing to the fact that we had already entered a third wave of rising cases. It wasn’t until April 6 that the government reluctantly put in some restrictions like closing indoor dining. Even then, they still allowed restaurants and bars to operate outdoor patios. Doctors spoke out against this inaction in the face of rising cases, saying that these half-measures wouldn’t be enough to bring the numbers down.
They were right. The province was forced to announce further restrictions on April 29: closing schools, gyms, and restaurant patios. In early May, a group of doctors signed yet another letter calling on the government to take further action to control the spread of the virus. The government’s mismanagement was aptly summed up by Dr. Noel Gibney, professor of critical care medicine at the University of Alberta: “The province has responded, but it has responded very often too late and with too little, with the end result that we’ve never really gotten COVID under proper control.”
Instead of taking responsibility, Kenney has the audacity to blame ordinary people. He neglects to mention that some of these same people he is blaming are forced to work in conditions where physical distancing is not possible, where they risk catching COVID-19 every single day they are at work.
The provincial government has failed at every turn. Describing the government’s failures, experts say the “premature easing of restrictions”, “underestimation of variant spread” and “non-compliance with public health measures” played a part in contributing to the massive third wave we are seeing. All three of these failures fall squarely on the shoulders of Kenney and his United Conservative Party government.
A reasonable person may ask why we continue to get to this place of rampant spread of a virus we’ve lived with for over a year. Throughout the pandemic, the short answer has remained: Kenney and the UCP are hell-bent on maintaining profits for the bosses, at any cost. Every decision this government makes contains a large dose of “Who can profit from this?” This ensures the fat donations from their rich backers keep coming in.
The UCP is no stranger to self-interest. But in addition to donations, they also want to stay in power and get re-elected. This means Jason Kenney as leader must do two things: keep the support of their base, and avoid a pitchfork rebellion. Unfortunately for him, after more than a year of pandemic turmoil, the anger in society is white-hot. On one hand, he is under immense pressure from the left. In the working class, outrage has only grown since Kenney took office. The anger threatens to explode at any minute. Even a general strike may be in the cards. This has haunted the UCP ever since their first budget, with major unions talking of strike action.
On the other hand, the more right-wing elements of the UCP’s base are in revolt. The highlight reel includes anti-mask protests, which are a regular sight in major cities; churches defying restrictions, and protesters chanting “lock her up” in reference to Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health. The right wing has even sent death threats to Jason Kenney and his mother.
In stark contrast to his iron-fisted approach to left-wing protesters, Kenney has tried to appease these right-wing anti-lockdown protesters, attempting to coax them into taking one for the team by obeying restrictions. This is exemplified by the Bowden “No More Lockdowns Rodeo Rally”, which attracted thousands. The Kenney government did nothing to stop the rally, even though Alberta Health Services knew about it in advance. Whereas 800 AUPE workers were reprimanded after last October’s wildcat strikes, only a few organizers of the Bowden rally were charged.
The responsibility for things such as the Bowden rodeo ultimately rests with the Kenney government. Kenney has repeatedly downplayed COVID-19. At one point Kenney even described COVID-19 as “just another flu”. It is understandable if people don’t trust a government whose politicians tell people to follow public health orders then go on secret vacations abroad. As one Mount Royal University professor said, “When you have politicians who believe the conspiracy, who don’t listen to health authorities, don’t listen to others in government, this is where we’re starting to see toxic politics having a direct impact on human life, on public safety, and health.”
The disparity between Kenney’s treatment of the right and the left has nothing to do with the strength of either side. The left is far more numerous, able to bring tens of thousands onto the streets—and it is overwhelmingly working class. This is critical. Because it is responsible for all large-scale production, the working class is the most powerful force in Alberta. By refusing to work, the working class can completely shut down the economy, costing the ruling class billions in profits. Jason Kenney lives in fear of this immense power being harnessed.
In complete contrast, anti-lockdown protesters are fringe elements. Atomized in rural areas, they have no ability to hit the government where it hurts—the wallet—so despite their howling over restrictions, they pose no threat to the status quo. Kenney handles them with kid gloves only because they’re his base.
The rebellion among the party’s base has been mirrored within the UCP caucus. In mid-April, 16 UCP MLAs released an open letter condemning Kenney’s new restrictions, despite his light touch. The letter states, “We have heard from our constituents, and they want us to defend their livelihoods and freedoms as Albertans.” In other words, the pressure from their base drove these 16 UCP MLAs to openly rebel.
Just days later, the imminent danger of hospitals being completely overwhelmed with COVID-19 cases forced Kenney to announce more restrictions, shutting down schools and restaurant patios. These new restrictions were likely an effort to avoid setting off the powder keg of working class anger by letting hospitals get overwhelmed, because Kenney certainly didn’t bring in these restrictions out of concern for the lives of working class people.
Alberta’s premier is also under pressure from the more moderate conservatives, both inside and outside the UCP. These representatives of the more enlightened elements of the ruling class understand that pandemic catastrophe—possibly sparking a confrontation with the working class—is supremely bad for business.
This has led to the most bizarre compromises in pandemic policy. Seemingly to head off the anti-restrictions revolt, Kenney introduced regional restrictions on April 29. These restrictions applied to all areas with more than 350 active cases per 100,000 people and at least 250 total active cases. This minimum active case requirement left many rural areas with high per-capita case counts exempt. These rural areas have high concentrations of right-wing anti-lockdown types, and include areas represented by the most rebellious UCP MLAs. Just before restrictions went into effect, Cypress County had 31 active cases on May 5 and Medicine Hat had 235—so both were exempt. Both areas are represented by anti-lockdown MLA Drew Barnes.
When justifying the new regional approach, Kenney himself euphemistically admitted that this was a sop meant to quell the discontent: “Albertans have said, loud and clear, that this isn’t fair. And we’ve heard them.” Unfortunately for Jason Kenney, even this didn’t work. On Thursday, MLA Todd Lowen resigned as UCP caucus chair and issued a public letter calling for Kenney to resign. He called Kenney’s messaging “contradictory, confusing and needlessly inflammatory.” The Kenney leadership retaliated, immediately holding an emergency caucus meeting. Todd Lowen and Drew Barnes were both expelled from the caucus in a contentious vote.
By trying to please everyone on the right, Kenney has pleased no one. Everything he does to manage the pandemic and please the “moderates” only stokes the rage of his anti-lockdown base and vice versa. The UCP is polling at an all-time low. The UCP is so unpopular that, in April, CBC reported that the Alberta NDP would form a majority government if an election was held immediately. Confidence in Kenney and the UCP has been shaken so vigorously by Kenney’s unstable balancing act that The Globe and Mail referred to Alberta’s “political doomsday clock.” Kenney being ousted before his term is up looks increasingly likely, and the UCP are hemorrhaging MLAs, down to 59 from 62.
The potential for this kind of conflict was built into the DNA of the UCP. The United Conservative Party was an opportunistic fusion between the establishment Progressive Conservative Party, and the more radically right-wing Wildrose Party. Many of the MLAs in conflict with Kenney today, including Drew Barnes and Todd Lowen, are former Wildrose Party MLAs. Now we’re seeing the consequences.
Disagreements are easy to ignore while you’re toasting record profits and election victories. However, in the heat of crisis, old disagreements boil to the surface. We are living in just such an epoch. Alberta’s current catastrophe is a symptom of the general crisis of capitalism, which has enraged and polarized ordinary people. This is reflected in the conflict inside the UCP caucus and refracted through the leadership of Jason Kenney—producing Alberta’s morbidly ridiculous pandemic response.
It is entirely possible that Kenney may eventually be forced to resign as a result of these internal conflicts in the UCP. A serious division in the UCP could even bring the government down. Working class Albertans cannot sit idly by as Kenney’s government falters. The trade unions have been at the forefront of the opposition to the UCP government’s austerity agenda, and could play an important role in establishing a rational approach to dealing with the pandemic. Such a rational plan would include demands for paid sick leave, work refusals, and workers’ control to determine which workplaces are safe and can remain open, and which should be closed to protect the safety of workers. The trade unions must take the lead in bringing not just Kenney down, but the entire inept UCP government. People’s lives are at stake, and we cannot wait several years for the next election to show Kenney and the UCP the door. The time to fight, the time to stand up to Kenney is now!