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Jason Kenney's pandemic politics

Based solely on his party platform, antagonism towards Ottawa, and penchant for rolled-up shirtsleeves, you might be forgiven for mistaking Premier Jason Kenney for Ralph Klein 2.0. Factoring in his social conservatism and pandering to the religious right, there is also a solid case to be made for for Kenney’s likeness to William (“Bible Bill”) Aberhart. In his “Protecting lives and livelihoods” address to Albertans on April 7th, setting out the United Conservative Party government’s strategy to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, Kenney name-dropped former premier Ernest Manning, whose son Preston has contributed no shortage of financial and ideological support to his agenda. But it is the “great leader” that Kenney quoted in his address, but neglected to name, to whom we might turn for some instructive historical parallels. And even more stark contrasts.

Reciting the well-known but often misquoted words of American President Franklin Delano Rooosevelt, who first took office at the height of the Depression in 1933, Kenney declares that “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. We face the arduous days that lie before us in the warm courage of (our) unity.”

While his speechwriter(s) no doubt intended the reference to be interpreted as solely a rejoinder to resist pandemic panic and place our trust in our dedicated leader, the lack of attribution to Roosevelt and the complete vacuum of any context of the entirety of his speech, suggest either that Kenney’s staffers aren’t possessed of a deep understanding of Roosevelt’s politics and the importance of his Depression-era policies; or—more likely—that they feared merely naming the architect of the New Deal would trip the Socialist Alarm Bells of their party’s base. The quote as recited is also a deliberate edit: the second sentence, originally “We face the arduous days that lie before us in the warm courage of national unity”, was uttered by Roosevelt near the end of his address; in between it and “fear itself” he outlines the substantive measures he pledges to undertake to restore the American economy. That Kenney’s address conveniently skips over all over that and, tellingly, avoids any mention of “national unity” that would preclude him from tossing blame at the Prime Minister, reveals the ideological underpinnings to the UCP government’s pandemic politics.

It is useful, then, to explore some of the themes in Roosevelt’s inaugural address of March 1933, and interrogate the extent to which Kenney has steered his ship far from that course.

In his opening, when Kenney likens our current circumstances to both the “Spanish Flu” pandemic of 1918-19 and to “the economic collapse of the Great Depression and drought of the 1930s, when Alberta’s government could no longer pay its bills,” he is laying the groundwork for a narrative of the pandemic, and his government’s response, that is inherently political. Yet those politics are obscured by the historical allusions and professions of “candor” and “not sugar-coating” the grim realities ahead of us. This narrative is predicated on three assumptions:

  • “Today, we are facing not one crisis, but three” – namely, the pandemic itself, the imminent global recession triggered by the virus containment measures, and the catastrophic collapse of energy prices in which Western Canadian Select was valued as low as $3 per barrel.
  • The pandemic and the economic downturn cannot be resolved separately. “They are intertwined.”
  • “We must face a great fiscal reckoning” in the post-pandemic future

In Roosevelt’s description, the political and economic landscape of the Great Depression had many echoes to our current crises:

“In such a spirit on my part and on yours we face our common difficulties. They concern, thank God, only material things. Values have shrunken to fantastic levels; taxes have risen; our ability to pay has fallen; government of all kinds is faced by serious curtailment of income; the means of exchange are frozen in the currents of trade; the withered leaves of industrial enterprise lie on every side; farmers find no market for their produce; the savings of many years of thousands of families is gone.”

The key difference of course, was that in the 1930s “We are stricken by no plague of locusts.” The other difference was Roosevelt’s proposed solution: to drastically reduce unemployment through direct government recruitment, and “accomplishing greatly needed projects to stimulate and reorganize the use of our natural resources.”

For Kenney’s UCP, the “relaunch Alberta” strategy seems to be predicated on bailouts by various means of the oil and gas industry and also filling potholes. Here, the government’s announcement of $1.9 billion of reallocated (accelerated) funding from the 2021 capital maintenance fund is more akin to UK Treasurer Charles Trevelyan’s Famine Roads than Roosevelt’s New Deal.

Where Roosevelt spoke of “unifying relief activities which today are often scattered, uneconomical, and unequal,” the Alberta government’s pledge to provide a provincial financial support package for those who faced loss of income from the pandemic resulted in a website that prevented many eligible applicants from submitting claims. Where Roosevelt called for a public approach to transportation, utilities, and communications, Kenney’s government has worked to undermine public services—notably public education, public health—at the time when they are needed most. While lauding the superhuman efforts of our lab services staff, as Alberta public laboratories (recently renamed Alberta Precision Laboratories) conducted more tests for COVID-19 than any other jurisdiction in North America, the government will presumably still go ahead with plans to outsource lab services post-pandemic. And the superlab halted mid-construction will never be completed as a public resource.

Instead of a National Industrial Recovery Act as per Roosevelt, setting out the right to unionize and bargain collectively, we have a government that bargains in bad faith, tears up contracts with physicians, and a health minister who refuses to re-enter negotiations. Astonishingly, in the midst of this once-in-a-century health crisis, Alberta doctors have launched a lawsuit to pursue their right to fair contract negotiations.

Roosevelt’s address emphasized interdependence: “we now realize as we have never realized before our interdependence on each other; that we can not merely take but must give as well; that if we are to go forward we must move as a trained and loyal army willing to sacrifice for a common discipline.” Instead, Albertans were treated to an unlikely anecdote from Kenney, by way of his pal Preston Manning:

“In a fierce prairie storm, he said, cattle often get spooked, turn tail, and try to run from it, getting separated and lost. But the buffalo, which Indigenous people have always revered as a symbol of life on the prairies, herd closely together and face the storm head on, coming out of it strong and united. That captures who we are, and how we’re going to get through this.”

While the imagery of “herding together” is perhaps the exact opposite of the social and physical distancing that is required to stop the spread of the virus, the metaphor of the buffalo (AKA plains bison) also provoked other responses from Albertans. Some thought of the slaughter to near-extinction of the animal and the disruption of the prairie ecosystem by early European settlers, and how that sits alongside the Alberta government’s recent relaxation of environmental reporting regulations. Others felt the story evoked connotations of buffalo stampeding toward the province’s iconic buffalo pounds or jumps—off a cliff. As our Health Minister continues measures to hamstring and alienate Alberta’s physicians, the lawsuit filed by the Alberta Medical Association in defense of their Charter rights to fair bargaining might be perceived as their resistance to being pushed over the edge.

In 1937, during his second inaugural address, Roosevelt declared that, “We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals; we know now that it is bad economics.” In our current crisis, it seems the UCP government has not yet learned either.

Photo credit: Video frame grab from Government of Alberta website

Rebecca Graff-McRae

Rebecca Graff-McRae completed her undergraduate and doctoral studies at Queen’s University Belfast (PhD Irish Politics, 2006). Her work, which interrogates the role of memory and commemoration in post-conflict transition, has evolved through a Faculty of Arts fellowship at Memorial University Newfoundland and a SSHRC post-doctoral research fellowship at the University of Alberta. She has previously worked with the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland and Edmonton City Council.

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