Jason Kenney is bitterly hated. He has the lowest approval rating among all Canadian premiers. When Kenney took office in June 2019, his approval was at 61 per cent. Now his approval rating stands at a paltry 31 per cent. After numerous scandals, budget cuts, and handouts to large corporations, it’s no surprise that millions of working class Albertans have come to loathe Jason Kenney.
But the resentment goes further than just among the workers of Alberta. Kenney and the United Conservative Party are hated by nearly everyone, including many of those who supported him up until recently. The UCP government is plagued with internal strife and calls for resignation. But in spite of all of this, Kenney still rules unphased. All this is setting the stage for a clash of epic proportions.
A fundamental shift
Kenney won the election on the promises of jobs, economy, and pipelines. Nearly three years later, Alberta has lost jobs, a bad economy, and pipelines that will not do a thing for the vast majority of Albertans. Jason Kenney’s personal failings, however, are not a full explanation of the dramatic changes that have taken place.
There are deeper forces at play. The population of Alberta has gone through a profound transformation of consciousness over the past decade which has destroyed the basis for stable conservative rule and permanently altered the political landscape. The old Alberta is dead, and the new Alberta is struggling to be born. The existing conservative movement has fractured into separatists and non-separatists, amateurs and professionals, the embarrassed and the emboldened. All while the working class is searching for a way to fight the UCP’s austerity and force them to make an early exit. The stage is set for a major clash.
The dominance of the energy industry in Alberta’s economy has meant that historically, the sector played an important role in the politics of the province. The 2014 oil glut preceded the historic election of the Alberta New Democratic Party (NDP) and defined their time in office. This time around, the 2020 oil price war has played a huge role in the UCP’s fall from grace.
For the past seven years, the stated intentions of all Albertan politicians seemed to be a return to the oil boom. If they could somehow make the patch as profitable as it had been in its period of capital frenzy, everything would return to the good old days. But despite all the speechifying and promising, no boom has been achieved. The jobs in the energy industry continue to dwindle. Capital investment in Canada’s oil and gas sector has fallen to a quarter of what it once was, from a high of $61 billion in 2014 to just $16.6 billion in 2020.
One economic crash after another in the energy industry has driven consolidation, mergers and acquisitions, and layoffs. For example, the fourth largest oil giant, Cenovus, bought the fifth largest oil giant, Husky, then proceeded to announce layoffs of 25 per cent of of the workforce for both companies.
Since 2014, the oil barons have dealt with low oil prices by maximizing output and ruthlessly cutting costs wherever possible. Anywhere the oil barons could save a penny, whether it was investments, wages, jobs, or taxes, they did. Oil prices falling to negative levels in 2020 served to accelerate this process. As much of Alberta’s economy depends on the investment in the oil patch, Alberta faced the worst recession of all Canadian provinces in 2020. Investment in the energy industry in 2014 was higher than investment in all other sectors combined in Alberta in 2019 and 2020.
There is a growing understanding that the oil patch cannot provide the province with the high standard of living it once did. During the capital frenzy, the wealth really did, to a certain extent, “trickle down”. Oil companies were making huge profits, destroying the environment, and subjecting workers to wild-west conditions, but wages were quite high, and the working class had a higher standard of living compared to other provinces. Median wages were among the highest in the world. Now wages are down, costs of living are up, and the oil barons are still reaping enormous profits off the backs of working people. There is no way forward for the Albertan working class under capitalism.
Alberta not immune from the global crisis
More recently, global oil prices have sharply recovered thanks to historic production cuts enforced by OPEC, as well as a dispute between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates over production levels. This should have Jason Kenney jumping for joy, as the oil barons are once again flush with cash. But instead of investing that money and expanding operations, oil companies are holding back. Suncor, the largest oil company in Canada, announced that it would pursue “value over volume” until 2025. Canadian Natural Resources, the second largest, has no plans for any major expansion either. In fact, the entire energy industry is projected to take in record-breaking revenues up 85 per cent from last year, but only plans to reinvest 40 per cent of revenue, the lowest amount in decades.
Jason Kenney has pleaded with the oil barons to invest. “But they now have cash on hand, many of them have very large reserves of cash on hand, and we urge them to translate a lot of that cash into new capital investment.” But no amount of pleading seems to be working. Another indication that oil companies are not looking to expand operations, and importantly staff, is the downward trend in exploration. The number of active drilling rigs has fallen from 459 in 2012, to 297 in 2017, all the way to 119 in the peak season of this year. But while new drilling is slowing to a halt, oil production reached an all-time high in March of this year. This means that current wells are producing, or are capable of producing, a volume that the oil barons think will be the maximum they can sell in the medium term. At the end of the day, Jason Kenney does not control the energy industry, because he does not own it. The oil barons are in control, and they will not invest unless it will turn a profit.
The most farsighted elements of the ruling class do not expect stability or any long-lasting boom. Jackie Forrest of ARC Energy Research Institute said: “Despite the fact that the industry is doing really well, they’re being very cautious with their money and not directing that to new projects or [capital expenditure] and things that would generate a bunch of jobs in the province that way.”
Oil giants like Suncor and Cenovus are now likely more profitable than ever, thanks to the UCP’s tax cuts, corporate handouts (from the UCP and the federal government), depressed wages and the recovery in oil prices. As one industry insider put it: “The profitability for this sector has probably never been better than what we’re seeing here today,”
But on the other side of the equation, the Albertan working class has had among the worst pandemic job recoveries of all provinces, despite the UCP placing minimal restrictions on businesses, and no real comprehensive lockdown measures. In June 2021, there were 204,800 people on Employment Insurance (EI) benefits in Alberta, an increase of 152,900 people from the previous year, which includes all of the initial 2020 layoffs. Women were the hardest hit, with a 434.9 per cent year-over-year increase in EI recipients. All of the tax cuts, handouts, bailouts, and red tape reduction have achieved increased profits without creating jobs. The UCP’s “Job Creation Tax Cut,” has proven that higher profits do not translate to investment or employment.
Making the workers pay
The unpopularity of the UCP flows from the poor economic situation. When the UCP were elected in 2019, their slogans included “jobs, economy, pipelines”, “fiscal responsibility”, and “cutting red tape” among other right-wing clichés. In between the lines the UCP were planning to balance the budget by forcing the workers to accept deep cuts to social spending. After all, if revenues and royalties are wiped out, the difference in the government’s pocketbook has to be made up somewhere.
The implementation of austerity in a time of economic stagnation is one thing, but austerity during a full-blown economic crisis and extreme instability is another. Most provincial governments took on huge deficits to prop up businesses and ride out the pandemic. The question of who would pay for those deficits was put off. The UCP employed the same deficit strategy, but did not mince any words about who would pay for it.
The most unpopular and outrageous attacks on the working class have been in the health-care sector. After signing an oversized four-foot tall symbolic “commitment to public health care”, Kenney has presided over a full-frontal attack on public health care. Health-care workers’ wages and working conditions are a main target, and the system is being privatized piece by piece.
The UCP are in the middle of privatizing up to 11,000 Alberta Health Services (AHS) jobs in favour of contracting out to private companies, mostly jobs in laboratory, linen, cleaning and in-patient food services. That’s 16 per cent of AHS’s 2020 workforce. The government is also supporting a new $200-million private orthopedic surgery facility in Edmonton. The lobbyists pushing this facility have connections to recently-fired UCP Health Minister Tyler Shandro.
The UCP has also done their best to cut wages and compensation to health-care workers throughout the pandemic. This includes cuts to physicians’ compensation, pushing doctors to leave the province. Most recently, the government has demanded a three-per cent wage rollback for nurses. Kenney and his ilk have praised health-care workers for their hard work, but in the same breath demand they take cut after cut for the sake of “fiscal responsibility”
These attacks have exposed the UCP. No other provincial government has attacked health-care workers so recklessly during the pandemic. Health-care workers have turned sharply against the government and are looking for a way to fight. An absolute majority of doctors voted no confidence in Shandro last year. A whopping 97.83 per cent voted non-confidence with 66.6 per cent of eligible physicians taking time out of their day to vote.
United Nurses of Alberta (UNA) president Heather Smith stated that nurses say these cuts feel like “being kicked in the gut” and members are already asking “when is the strike vote?” Furthermore: “There’s certainly some who would suggest that legal or not, we should do it now.” After the Oct. 26 wildcat where many hospital support staff spontaneously walked off the job, there is a precedent for illegal strikes in healthcare. With an escalating fourth wave wreaking havoc in the province, tensions are at an all-time high. The UNA now has an “essential services agreement” in place, meaning a legal strike is on the table. UNA director of labour relations David Harrigan said recently, “I think it’s absolutely inevitable that there’s going to be a strike”
The tension between the workers and bosses does not only exist in health care. In all sectors the same processes are at work. In education, grade schools and universities have been forced to swallow severe budget cuts and deal with absurd commands from Kenney and his cabinet. Teachers are facing yet another school year with less funding, more students, less support staff, and a rising tide of variant cases. In the Wild Rose School Division, so many of the staff are ill that the resumption of classes has had to be postponed. In the past year teachers have also had their pensions hijacked from their union-created fund and handed over to the controversial Alberta Investment Management Corporation (AIMCo), an “arms-length” government fund manager. AIMCo has become notorious for using pension funds to invest in risky ventures, especially oil and gas, and lost more than $2.1 billion on a single bad deal. School boards will also be directed to teach an internationally ridiculed curriculum full of outdated methods, plagiarism and racism. For these reasons and others, education workers are looking to fight back against the UCP. Last year teachers at the Centre-Nord School Council voted massively in favour of a strike. A survey released showed that 91 per cent of teachers are opposed to the new curriculum, and pressure from below has forced most school boards to reject it outright. To top it off, at the Alberta Teachers’ Association’s assembly last March, 99 per cent of delegates voted no confidence in the UCP’s education minister.
Wealth before health
Another major factor for the shift in consciousness in Alberta is the short-sighted, foolish, “wealth-before-health” approach of the Kenney government towards COVID-19. Alberta has maintained the highest case rates in the country throughout most of the pandemic, sometimes having more total cases than Ontario and Quebec. On Sept. 17, Alberta had 19,201 active cases, while Ontario had 6,239 active cases with a three-times higher population.
The UCP has shown that maintaining profits is their number one priority. Public health, the safety of the elderly, the sick, children and working class people in general can take a back seat. This is the fourth time that the UCP has prematurely forced the economy open, forced kids back to schools, and ended health restrictions to get production and profits flowing again. Every single time, case rates have skyrocketed, hospitals have overflowed, more people needlessly die and the government is forced to reinstate health restrictions..
Each time a catastrophe is seen on the horizon, the UCP have played hide-and-seek until their hand is forced at the eleventh hour. As the third wave swelled out of control, Jason Kenney took an 11-day hiatus from appearing publicly until he was forced to declare a public health emergency on Nov. 24, 2020. When he did emerge, he implemented an absurd series of “targeted restrictions” which criminalized anyone who visited their mother, but left bars and casinos open.
On June 29, Chief Medical Officer of Health (CMOH), Deena Hinshaw announced that the province would move forward with Stage 3 reopening plans. In other words, nearly all restrictions would be lifted just in time for Canada Day, and the Calgary Stampede. The justification given was that vaccine availability and uptake was trending up, and by the time the Stampede was set to take place, 70 per cent of the eligible population would have at least one dose. At that point, the Delta variant was already sweeping the world, and early research clearly indicated that, not only was Delta more transmissible and resistant to vaccines, but also that a single dose was less than half as effective at providing protection from symptomatic infection.
While case rates were low in late June following tighter restrictions implemented in early May, Alberta’s rate of fully vaccinated individuals hovered at an abysmal 38 per cent. But vaccines were the horse Jason Kenney was betting other people’s money on! Citing vaccination rates, on June 18 Kenney argued that the pandemic was in essence over, saying, “This is open for good. Not just open for summer.” That the UCP wanted to open the province just in time for the Stampede is not surprising. The Calgary Stampede has a long tradition of being an important fundraising event for conservative politicians. At least 129 people caught COVID-19 at the Calgary Stampede, and the event played a role in jumpstarting the fourth wave. Cases rose steadily in the weeks following the stampede, an event meant to kick off what Jason Kenney notoriously dubbed “the best summer ever”.
On July 28 Deena Hinshaw announced that the legal isolation of confirmed close contacts, contact tracing, and asymptomatic testing would end the following day. Additionally, on Aug. 16, people who tested positive for COVID-19 would no longer be required to be isolated at all, and testing for those with mild symptoms would also end. Hinshaw justified these decisions in an op-ed titled, “We need to learn to live with COVID without extraordinary measures.” These decisions came with the UCP’s new strategy of attempting to treat COVID like an endemic respiratory disease. Hinshaw cited modeling data, which had not been released at the time, to justify this strategy. Within a few days, COVID began to spread faster than it ever had before. The threat of removing health measures pushed people into action, and thousands protested across the province every day from July 30 until Aug. 13, when the UCP were forced to walk back. Hinshaw appeared publicly to apologize and delay the removal of restrictions until Sept. 27. When asked about the modeling data, Hinshaw said more time was needed to release it. This would be the last time she appeared publicly for weeks.
Hinshaw began the pandemic as a beloved, NDP-appointed doctor who was capable of working within the state with the UCP. She initially appeared to be entirely committed to science and evidence as the only guiding light. That may have been true. However as the UCP pushed for more rash reopening strategies and maintained a “wealth-before-health” approach, she began to take blame for the COVID disaster. Now Hinshaw is deeply unpopular. People who bought mugs and T-shirts with her face on them can be found on social media destroying them and criticizing her.
For most of August, Jason Kenney took a 23 day vacation, and did not face the public again until Sept. 1. During his absence, Alberta saw ICU admissions quadruple, with 12,290 active cases, 465 in hospital, and 107 in ICU. Just like waves one, two and three, the UCP waited until the eleventh hour to acknowledge the disaster they were headed for. But upon his return, Jason Kenney announced: not vaccine passports, not restrictions, not a lockdown, but that Alberta would offer a $100 incentive for anyone getting a vaccine until Oct. 14, a program which cost $20 million taxpayer dollars if it even worked.
In the same press conference, Kenney is quoted as saying, “If the choice is between a sustained crisis in our hospitals or, God forbid, widespread restrictions, which I want to avoid at all costs, or finding some way to get the attention of those vaccine latecomers, we’re going to choose the latter.”
In the following two weeks, the government held zero public COVID-19 updates, while growth in ICU admissions grew exponentially. With the school year just around the corner, a panel of Alberta doctors and scientists held their own press conference to fill the void left by absentee politicians. They continued warning that the situation in the province was becoming worse, and that measures had to be implemented without delay to avoid a disaster. While Kenney sat on his hands, nurses were informed that they would soon be required to work mandatory overtime and prepare to invoke emergency triage protocols.
By late September, the healthcare system collapsed, and Kenney was forced to implement a lockdown and vaccine passport. On Sept. 23, Dr. Verna Yiu, CEO of Alberta Health Services stated that “It’s tragic that we are only able to keep pace with these sort of numbers because, in part, some of our ICU patients have passed away.” The next day, the head of emergency medicine for the Alberta Medical Association said that major components of triage have begun in Alberta. The Alberta Children’s Hospital in Calgary announced that 75 per cent of operating rooms are closed and they have been reduced to life-and-limb procedures only. Major hospitals in Edmonton experienced morgue capacity strain. Healthcare union leaders have called upon the government to request military support with the fourth wave, which the UCP did only after the federal election, reasoning that they wouldn’t know who to send the request to. Countless Albertans have had life-saving surgery cancelled. There have been ambulance shortages in Edmonton and Calgary, and in the short term, there is no end in sight.
Scandal-ridden government in crisis
One of the biggest flashpoints for change in consciousness is the scandals that the UCP find themselves embroiled in month after month. For example, the UCP had an extraordinary number of MPs caught travelling overseas for Christmas after lecturing the public about personal responsibility and staying home. Between the school mask scandal, energy war room, the Allen inquiry, and Kenney’s recent three-week vacation during the fourth wave spike, this government has been characterized by hypocrisy and corruption. The scandals around COVID restrictions have been especially anger-inducing. This shows that the working class is not afraid of sacrifice. When it’s clear that all of society needs to shift in a time of crisis, war, catastrophe or pandemic, workers have no problem pulling their own weight. But when that weight is distributed unequally, when it’s clear that working people are being policed and fined into staying home while Kenney and his cabinet wine and dine luxuriously atop the Sky Palace, the workers develop a deep resentment.
It is not only the working class that is fed up with Kenney. Even members of his own party have had enough. The onset of the 2020 economic crisis, the oil price war and the pandemic heightened friction within the UCP between the more fringe right-wing elements who made up the Wildrose Party and the more professional far-sighted conservatives from the Progressive Conservative tradition. The UCP has lost three MLAs so far in its term. The enormous budget deficits and even the very limited COVID-19 mitigation measures caused a rift in the UCP which resulted in 16 MLAs releasing an open letter condemning health restrictions. The most far-right elements, Todd Loewen and Drew Barnes, were eventually expelled from the caucus in a contentious vote, which was updated live from a leak in the UCP. Recently, UCP MLA Tracy Allard publicly demanded the UCP’s new curriculum rollout “slow down” citing concerns over it’s racist social studies content, plagiarism, and the fact that almost no school divisions will touch it. As the class struggle heats up, the United Conservative Party only becomes more disunited.
The sharp increase in the amount of leaks and public spats within the government is quite indicative. Information has flowed from different parts of the state about the UCP’s privatization plans, internal rifts, and even plans to avoid a lockdown. There is, or was, a rat inside Kenney’s cabinet. The health restrictions imposed by Kenney as the fourth wave pushed hospitals to collapse have brought even more of these internal divisions out in the open. Even Chief Medical Officer of Health Hinshaw’s office had a leak in which it was revealed that the UCP pressured her and dismissed her advice in favour of their desire to open the economy. People who held secret information at their jobs for years now find government decisions so upsetting or disgusting that they risk their careers publishing information.
According to the Western Standard, a right-wing website run by former Wildrose MLA Derek Fildebrandt, more than 30 UCP constituencies are voting to secure an early leadership review, with local UCP presidents leading the charge. The constituency of Olds-Didsbury-Three Hills has already voted in favour of this by a margin of 27 to one. The UCP’s website was mysteriously down for two days, then scrubbed of all content a few days after the lockdown was announced. UCP MLA Richard Gotfried publicly criticized Jason Kenney, stating ,“The words ‘never,’ ‘passport’ and ‘open for good’ may go down in embarrassment and infamy.” Kenney’s press secretary fired back once again, publicly, with the party line: The UCP was right to do the things they did, and has never made any mistakes!
How to Bring down the UCP government!
On the political front, the Alberta NDP has capitalized on the discontent and the downfall of the UCP, to the point where they now look like a government in waiting. Recent provincial voting intention polls show the NDP at 39 per cent while the UCP stands at 29 per cent. The NDP is also leading in places where it has historically done poorly, including in Calgary and much of rural Alberta. In fact, in every demographic the NDP is more popular, based on age, sex, race, rural or urban, with the exception of the over-65 crowd, where the UCP leads 47 per cent to 39 per cent. Leger executive vice-president Ian Large says, “The numbers are bad for the UCP.” Even in terms of fundraising, the Alberta NDP has the UCP licked. They doubled the UCP in 2021 second-quarter fundraising. In that quarter, the NDP raised more than the UCP has in all of 2021, with more donations and more donors.
But the infighting and crisis of the UCP has not pushed the leadership of the Alberta NDP to call for Kenney’s resignation, which in itself is a demand that much of the UCP grassroots is trying to win. The ANDP seems to be focused entirely on the parliamentary plane. Rachel Notley has limited her demands to asking the UCP to “show leadership”. As the working class begins to struggle, the NDP could find themselves trailing behind the evolution of events. The working class does not want the UCP to lead; that’s what has led to this situation.
But this is all connected to the political trajectory of the NDP leadership of Rachel Notley. After the NDP’s first term from 2015-2019, where they found themselves attempting to be the best managers of capitalism, the direction of the party has been decidedly to the right. While they do criticize the insane decisions of the UCP from the left, their alternative proposals do not stray very far from their time in government. The most farsighted elements of the ruling class are already starting to look towards the NDP as the better managers of capitalism. Some suspicious job titles can be found in the accolades of NDP candidates like former Suncor HR Director, Heather Eddy. Even some of the oil barons may notice their long term strategies align with the NDP. For example vice-president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, Ben Brunnen argued: “Urging companies to invest, it’s helpful to encourage investment, but we need more than that.” Brunnen added, “We need to look at the conditions for creating a good investment climate … but also the right commitment on addressing ESG.” ESG, short for environmental social governance, is a strategy which the NDP has been behind for a long time.
While the ANDP leaders are stuck in the mentality of parliamentary opposition, the focal point has shifted to the trade union front, where a pitchfork rebellion is brewing. The wildcat strike of health-care workers last October showed that there is a strong desire to fight the UCP’s cuts. Reports and surveys from nurses and teachers also show that throughout the public sector conditions are extremely tense. While Kenney declared war on the unions after his election, there have only been minor skirmishes and a real confrontation has not yet taken place. But this does not mean that it is not coming.
Under pressure from below the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) launched the “Stand up to Kenney” campaign last year, after the October wildcat. But recently the Canadian Union of Public Employees in Alberta, an affiliate of the AFL, has created the campaign to “Fire the UCP“. The AFL also extensively promoted daily demonstrations against the removal of all COVID-related health measures. This is a significant step forward from one year ago, when Jason Kenney threw down the gauntlet to the labour movement with Bill 32 and the unions limited the fight to a lawsuit.
A number of public-sector contracts have come to term after years of bargaining which have gone nowhere. Leading the pack are the nurses, who have everything in place for a legal strike. The Alberta Union of Public Employees also has a number of contracts which have expired or have been in limbo, and the union has been rejecting the government’s attempts to delay negotiation. Teachers have been working without a contract since September 2020 with negotiations resuming this fall. The class struggle for the entire public sector has potential to culminate in late 2021, and there is more than enough tinder to set off a mass movement against the UCP.
All signs show that any movement against the government would have immense public support. The October wildcat against Kenney’s cuts enjoyed an enormous amount of public support. Kenney has the lowest favorability rating of any premier, and he has angered every special interest group, every group of workers in the public sector, and the vast majority of society. If the trade union leaders simply set out a bold plan for a one-day stay-at-home strike to bring down the UCP, the response would be massive and the UCP government would be paralyzed. Currently, the “Stand up to Kenney” campaign has no upcoming events listed on its website. The AFL should be taking advantage of the widespread anger, and holding online meetings discussing the need for a one-day, stay-at-home general strike, and organizing and preparing the working class to execute it.
Kenney has shown serious resilience, and refused to resign in the face of fierce criticism from all directions. He has no intention of giving up, and the best way to get rid of him and the entire UCP is with militant methods: massive mobilization of the working class. If Kenney does succumb to the pressure within his party and does resign, it may give the UCP enough breathing room to save face and blame the disaster entirely on Jason Kenney. But if the workers mobilize to kick the UCP to the curb, It could show the immense power the working class contains and inspire them to fight for more.