Jason Kenney and COVID-19: A Proud Canadian?

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For one brief shining moment it appeared that Alberta premier Jason Kenney had turned over a new leaf.  After a political career characterized by hyperpartisan attacks on numerous opponents, Kenney recently surprised many observers when he took the high road on federal-provincial relations.

It had become clear in recent weeks that Alberta was less affected by the corona virus than several other provinces, and the province’s public health officials found they had far more emergency medical supplies than necessary to combat the pandemic. As a result on April 11, in a dramatic act of generosity, the Alberta premier announced his province was sending supplies worth $41.2 million to B.C. (295,000 N95 masks), Ontario (250,000 N95 masks, 2.5 million procedural masks, 15 million gloves, 87,000 goggles and 50 ventilators) and Quebec (250,000 N95 masks, 2 million procedural masks and 15 million gloves.) There would be no charge, he declared, and only the ventilators would have to be returned when no longer needed.

At the press conference where he announced the donation, Kenney declared “I for one, as an Albertan and a Canadian, could not in conscience watch us stockpile massive amounts of equipment while we see many of our fellow Canadians, some provinces within days of running out of some of these supplies…. and Albertans should be very proud that we are able to extend a helping hand to our Canadian brothers and sisters at this time of need.”[1]  

The generosity of this act is not in question. If only he had stopped there, this unprecedented donation would likely have had the desired impact. Canadians across the country would exude goodwill and compassion for the often prickly western premier and his province.

Unfortunately he carried on with his comments. Even so, his next words were still well above the political fray. “We want all of our country to know that in both good times and bad, Alberta is there for Canada,” he declared. A worthy sentiment, although many Canadians might have hoped that this interdependence was a given. After all, during the Fort McMurray fire in 2016 Ontario sent 80 firefighters. Quebec provided four water bombers and next-door BC offered 100 firefighters. Newly-minted prime minister Justin Trudeau made a personal visit to the area and sent several Canadian Forces planes from the Trenton air force base to help out with the evacuations. At a press conference Trudeau stated “I want to say to the residents of Fort McMurray: Canadians are with you, our thoughts are with you, our prayers are with you. As prime minister, I want you to know that our government and all Canadians will stand by you and support you now and when it is time to rebuild.”[2] Within weeks the federal government had provided $300 million in disaster relief assistance and an additional $90 million through the Canadian Red Cross, with the promise of more funds to come.

At his own recent press conference Kenney went on to reveal what many might consider to be his ulterior motive. “I obviously hope that Canadians will recognize in this contribution the generous role that Albertans have always played in this country. This is one example of that at a time of need… We are also going to need the support and solidarity of fellow Canadians to cope with huge economic challenges that we are facing as a province.”[3] Reiterating his view that health care in Canada has been heavily underwritten over time by the province’s massive resource sector revenues, Kenney made reference to the ‘triple whammy’ of collapsing oil prices, pipeline delays and high unemployment that his province would be facing as the country begins to come out of national lockdown.

So, perhaps not as altruistic or patriotic as one might have initially thought. But here, too, one might be willing to overlook some level of self-interest, understandable as that might be. Of course the premier’s personal anti-Trudeau campaign during  the 2019 federal election, his incessant demands for even more federal assistance after that government had already provided $1.6 billion in loans and aid to the energy sector and purchased the TransMountain pipeline for $4.5 billion, might give some observers pause. More recent actions by Mr. Kenney cast further doubt on his claim to be a proud Canadian. Take for example his post-election quasi-support for western separatists, his creation of a ‘Fair Deal’ committee to examine the province’s potential withdrawal from various federal programs and services, to say nothing of his pledge to hold a province-wide referendum on whether Alberta should ‘withdraw’ from equalization, ( a meaningless gesture since the program is entirely funded by the federal government, as the premier knows only too well, having been part of the Harper government that established the current funding formula he now rejects as unfair).   

Nevertheless, if this had been the end of it the premier might still have garnered some support for his plea for greater understanding and aid for his province in the post-Covid-19 economy. But Kenney was not able to maintain the high road for long. Within days he was back to his more recognizable self, attacking various federal officials for their handling of the pandemic. This included Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam, who came under heavy criticism from him, apparently for having followed the directives and advice of the World Health Organization. (In this he appears to be following the lead of federal Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, who has repeatedly declined to state that he has confidence in Dr. Tam.) 

In addition Kenney has picked fights with Health Canada (“dragging their feet”), the Public Health Agency and his own provincial health advisers, stating that he is prepared to use test equipment or medicines or vaccines approved or being tested in the U.S. and some E.U. states right away, rather than wait for Canadian approval. Responding to Kenney’s threat, public health expert Professor Louis Francescutti of the University of Alberta cautioned that such an approach could cause chaos in Canada, especially if other provinces were to follow that lead. Morevoer, Francescutti warned, “We’re in the middle of a crisis. Now is not the best time to try and start introducing new ways to be doing things that could have quite severe consequences if you don’t do them properly — whether it’s a test that gives a false result, whether it’s a vaccine that has side effects, whether it’s a treatment that has side effects.”[4] His views were shared by policy studies professor Lori Turnbull of Calgary’s Mount Royal College, who called Kenney’s attack on Dr. Tam “inexplicable.” (Given the booming sales of a Calgary designer whose items feature portraits of the popular Dr. Tam and her BC and Alberta counterparts, it may also be politically unwise.)

One explanation, other than the premier’s well-known penchant for belligerence, might be found in his plummeting polling numbers. As of December 2019 Kenney was the third least popular premier in the country, ahead of only Stephen McNeil of Nova Scotia and Doug Ford in Ontario. While there is some suggestion that Ford’s surprisingly strong performance in handling the pandemic, (after an admittedly shaky start), may be improving his standing with voters in that province, it remains to be seen whether Kenney’s abrasive tactics will earn him any plaudits with ordinary Albertans, who were already unhappy with his budget cuts and manufactured war with Alberta doctors. Picking fights with Ottawa has long been a route to success for Alberta politicians, but Kenney may have gone too far this time. As one observer concluded, far from reinforcing his self-described role as a proud Canadian, Kenney may end up being seen as “an agent of chaos on the national stage while Canada is in the grips of this pandemic.” [5]

[1] D. Braid. “In Striking Act of Generosity, Alberta Donates Protective Gear”.  Calgary Herald. April 12, 2020.

[2] CBC News. May 4, 2016.  https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/trudeau-government-responds-fort-mcmurray-wildfires-1.3565723

[3] D. Bloom. COVID-19: Alberta Shipping Protective Gear…British Columbia”. Edmonton Journal. April 12, 2020.

[4] Kearan Leavitt. “What it Means if Alberta’s Jason Kenney Bypasses Health Canada on COVID-19” The Star. April 14, 2020.

[5] Leavitt. Op cit,