Alberta Politics
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney at yesterday’s COVID-19 news conference (Photo: Screenshot of Alberta Government video).

Jason Kenney, speaking directly to rural COVID skeptics, tries an end-run around his rebellious caucus

Posted on May 18, 2021, 2:19 am
8 mins

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney used the daily COVID-19 briefing yesterday to send a message directly to the supporters of his opposition in the Legislature. 

Not the official NDP Opposition. Those guys aren’t the premier’s biggest problem just now, especially with the Legislature still shuttered, supposedly to reduce the threat to politicians from the coronavirus pandemic. 

Former UCP Caucus rebel Drew Barnes, now the independent MLA for Cypress-Medicine Hat (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

No, it was the COVID-dismissing, mostly rural opposition inside his own United Conservative Party that Premier Kenney’s news conference message appeared to have been crafted to counter.

Mr. Kenney’s effort to put the fear of COVID into those UCP supporters who have been pressing their MLAs to resist pandemic restrictions in the deluded belief everything’s worse in the city seems to have been a key goal of Mr. Kenney’s appearance at the afternoon news conference.

He conscripted Chief Medical Officer of Health Deena Hinshaw and Alberta Health Services CEO Verna Yiu to lend a little medical and scientific credibility to his effort. 

There’s been a belief in large swathes of Alberta, the premier said, “that COVID-19 is a big city problem and not a rural one.”

“But this couldn’t be further from the truth,” he averred. 

True enough, although Mr. Kenney himself has contributed to this dangerous misapprehension. 

The truth, Mr. Kenney went on, is that “throughout the pandemic, people living in rural areas of the province have been more likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19 than people living in large urban areas. Since February of this year, hospitalization rates are 26 per cent higher, and ICU rates are 30 per cent higher in rural areas than in urban ones.”

Central Peace-Notley MLA Todd Loewen, also banished by to the demi-monde status of an Independent MLA (Photo: Chris Bolen, Wikipedia).

“Right now, several of the regions that are showing the highest rates of COVID-19 per capita are outside the bigger cities,” he went on in a tone of voice that suggested he might be as astounded by this discovery as some of his dissident caucus members. “Some of these areas are reporting rates that are higher than Calgary, and in some cases rates that are two times higher than Edmonton!”

This is a good message to get out there, although plenty of Albertans wondered about the timing, after months of the premier’s nudges and winks about the coronavirus to his skeptical base. “Is it just me, or does 14 months into a pandemic seem a little late for a myth-busting press conference?” asked the Globe’s Emma Graney. 

“The point is simply,” Mr. Kenney told the newser, “this is not an urban-versus-rural issue.”

Yet this is exactly what the premier’s government has made it, with its constant pandering to the supposedly unique virtue of rural folk, which many have apparently come to imagine extends even unto natural immunity to disease. 

“It’s clear that COVID-19 is everywhere in the province, and people’s lives matter just as much no matter where they live,” the premier said. 

Chief Medical Officer of Health Deena Hinshaw (Photo: Alberta Newsroom/Flickr).

This homily would be astonishing to anyone who hadn’t been paying attention to the attitude of moral superiority rural voters have been encouraged to hold about their urban counterparts by cynical conservative politicians all over North America. Surely that was a contributing factor to the confidence of the COVID-deniers who make up more than a quarter of the UCP Caucus in the Legislature. 

Last week, Mr. Kenney reluctantly tried to put down the open rebellion against COVID-19 restrictions in his caucus by banishing two of the most vocal rural dissidents to the corner of the Legislature reserved for Independent MLAs. 

After a seven-hour caucus meeting Thursday afternoon and evening – which doesn’t bode well for Mr. Kenney’s ability to control future caucus uprisings – the party sent Cyprus-Medicine Hat MLA Drew Barnes and Central Peace-Notley MLA Todd Loewen packing. 

Mr. Barnes had been the caucus bad boy for months, advocating Alberta separatism, undermining the government’s inadequate COVID-19 mitigation efforts, and occasionally daring the premier to discipline him. The day before, Mr. Loewen, up to then the caucus chair, had posted a letter on Facebook accusing Premier Kenney of arrogantly ignoring the views of his MLAs and calling on him to resign.

Alberta Health Services CEO Verna Yiu (Photo: Alberta Newsroom/Flickr).

Whether or not Mr. Kenney’s attempted end-run around his own MLAs will work remains an open question. It reduced the group of COVID-skeptical UCP MLAs known mockingly as the COVID 18 to 16, but it doesn’t solve Mr. Kenney’s problem with push-back from their recalcitrant rural supporters.

The premier’s recitation yesterday of “proven scientific information” likely comes too late to quell a rebellion by MLAs who have come to accept the quaint notion that that infectious diseases and crime only happen in big cities.

Indeed, the premier’s optimism that “when presented with the facts, people overwhelmingly will do the right thing,” expressed again yesterday, has been remarkably ineffective up to now – leaving Alberta with the highest COVID-19 infection rate in North America.

His pitch to rural voters over the heads of his own MLAs illustrates how seriously he takes his political problem, as well as how entrenched skepticism and outright hostility to COVID-19 mitigation measures remains in rural Alberta.

Characteristically, Mr. Kenney soon turned to promises of sunny days ahead if only we’ll all behave ourselves. Can another flip-flop in time to let the Calgary Stampede prematurely open its gates in July be far away? 

23 Comments to: Jason Kenney, speaking directly to rural COVID skeptics, tries an end-run around his rebellious caucus

  1. Susan

    May 18th, 2021

    Spelling: change COVOD-19 to COVID-19. 🙂

    Reply
  2. Anonymous

    May 18th, 2021

    The Covid-19 beast hasn’t been kept under proper control by the UCP. The UCP didn’t look after this issue properly, time and time again, and Albertans are paying for this. Opening things up prematurely, such as allowing rodeos and the Calgary Stampede to proceed, is a disaster waiting to happen. More people will get Covid-19, including the variants of it, and the UCP will be scratching their heads, wondering where they went wrong – again! The UCP will be taking Alberta back to square one, and in a very short period of time. It’s clear the UCP are fractured, and they aren’t accomplishing anything with their internal squabbles. What’s also interesting, is that Tyler Shandro is nowhere to be seen, and the premier of Alberta is at media conferences, when talking about Covid-19. Alberta’s top doctor, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, isn’t there. The summer is fast approaching, and it won’t get better. It won’t be a good fall or winter either.

    Reply
    • Caron

      May 19th, 2021

      The fact is that many needless deaths could have been prevented had Kenney gone for Covid-zero. But that would have required a fully staffed and funded public health system which the Cons dismantled to the point it could not even cope with a syphilis outbreak in Edmonton just three years ago. When the inevitable happens and a Covid 19 mutant learns how to avoid the vaccines, you can bet the UCP/Cons will be blaming the victims again instead of looking in the mirror.

      Speaking of victims: anybody with a passing acquaintance of how things work in rural Alberta knows this is an authoritarian single party state with a gerrymandered electoral system designed to elect grifters and loonies. The Govt. of Ab chose to do what it has always done: privilege business over human life and the environment. So, blaming rural residents for the failure of Kenney and the Govt. of Ab to protect its citizens is not the whole story.

      Here’s how it works in rural Alberta and why the Govt. of Ab lost the consent of the governed a long time ago:
      https://thetyee.ca/News/2021/05/18/Brutal-Legal-Odyssey-Jessica-Ernst-Ends/

      Reply
  3. Abs

    May 18th, 2021

    I will call him “Mr. Fourth Wave” henceforth. Four is a very unlucky number in certain cultures.

    The promised “Best Summer Ever” was downgraded to a “Great Summer”, so presumably the Calgary Stampede will still offer mini-doughnuts again, if nothing else.

    In the meantime, let’s see if the number of Covid tests can be reduced to 5000 today, so the kiddies can go back to school on Tuesday, shall we? Covid should be vanquished by Friday at this rate. Yahoo!

    Reply
  4. Patrick Hertel

    May 18th, 2021

    “…leaving Alberta with the highest COVID-19 infection rate in North America.” I believe that ‘honour’ belongs Manitoba right now.

    I wish every province had a Diary.

    I often see problems in your text including elided words (like your thoughts are faster than your fingers). You need an editor or a second check through:)
    eg: “COVOD-19” “be [as] astounded” this time around.

    Reply
    • David Climenhaga

      May 18th, 2021

      When I checked last before writing that story, Alberta was still leading. You are correct now that Manitoba is in the lead. This will be noted in a future post. As for the spelling eror and the missing word, my thanks as always for pointing them out, they have been fixed. Errors of this sort tend to elude us when we are the writer. I can assure you that these pieces go through many reads – all by the same reader, though. Usually I catch my worst errors when I re-read it in the morning. It would be nice, but probably not practical, to have a good editor. As I have said before, writing a blog like this is like performing on a trapeze without a safety net. I rely on my readers to be my editors. DJC

      Reply
      • Mike J Danysh

        May 18th, 2021

        Rest assured, DJC, that we readeers are happy toe help wotiht the spell-ckedck and grammar error dterection. As you can see, my own typing skills are only arprtlty correlcted by MS Word’s auto-correct function. Misfiring fingers are the bane of any blogger, and his readers, too!

        Reply
    • Abs

      May 18th, 2021

      “Come on down to Alber-duh for asstounding May Madness deals” said the carnie. “Red Light Special on Quick Covid tests, provenance unknown. Could be they were bought with your tax dollars, then sold at rock-bottom prices or donated to a corporation that will sell them back to you at a significant mark-up. Who knows? Step right up, folks….”

      Sometimes I spell things the way I think them;: “bored meeting”, for example. It happens.

      Reply
  5. Jeff in Grande Prairie

    May 18th, 2021

    Good article, Dave.

    I realize I’m about to enter the shaky ground of semantics, but part of the problem is how our politicians (and, I suppose, the media) throw around the labels “urban” and “rural.” In the context of this story, “urban” is Edmonton and Calgary. “Rural” is everyone else.

    I think that’s problematic, because we’re basically allowing politicians to lump in Lethbridge, Red Deer, Grande Prairie, Medicine Hat and Fort Mac – cities with more than 60,000 people living them – with the smaller towns and counties and municipal districts and hamlets in the truly “rural” areas. In reality, Alberta’s small cities have far more in common with Edmonton and Calgary in terms of the diversity of their populations, their programs and services, and the challenges they have to keep the pandemic under control.

    If you treat Medicine Hat like it’s more like Oyen than Edmonton, that’s a problem. If you treat Grande Prairie like it’s Grouard, that’s a problem. If you allow the citizenry in Alberta’s smaller cities to think they’re somehow insulated from the pandemic because they’re not Edmonton or Calgary, that’s a big problem. And the labels help make it a problem.

    And yes, I know why the UCP applies the labels that way. It has to do with their political base. But, the pandemic doesn’t care about any of the “bases,” left, right or centre. Nor does it care about the “urban” or “rural” labels which, in (begrudging) fairness to the UCP, have been in use for far longer than the UCP has been in place.

    The pandemic has brought a lot of things to light in Alberta over the last 18 months and one of them is that the “urban” and “rural” doesn’t mean what we think it means anymore. There are cities and urban areas and suburban areas sitting hundreds of kilometres from Edmonton and Calgary and the folks who live there can’t be treated like they’re the ignorant country cousins anymore.

    Reply
    • jerrymacgp

      May 19th, 2021

      Well said, Sir. In addition, let me point out that in the City of Grande Prairie, only 28% of residents have been immunized — & 30% in the County — when the provincial average is 43% having had at least their first dose. GP has been a “hot zone” for a few months, when way back at the beginning of the pandemic, indeed for most of 2020, we had remarkably few cases.

      It’s true that Alberta’s small cities are dwarfed by the two metropolitan centres of Cowtown & Edmunchuk. (I used to say you could put every man, woman & child in GP into Commonwealth Stadium & still have a few empty seats, but that’s no longer true). But let me tell you, many truly rural residents are intimidated by driving in the city even when that city is “tiny” Grande Prairie; I get clients in my Nursing practice telling me that on a regular basis.

      We need a more nuanced notion of what is “urban” & what is “rural”.

      Reply
  6. Keith McClary

    May 18th, 2021

    “regions that are showing the highest rates of COVID-19 per capita are outside the bigger cities … astounded by this discovery”

    A while ago we spent some time scouring the AB website for per capita numbers for smaller centres. The information is there, but you must do some do some arithmetic. It almost seems deliberately obfuscated (but, never attribute to malice what can be explained by incompetence).

    Reply
  7. Dave

    May 18th, 2021

    Yes, it is good to finally acknowledge that COVID is everywhere and not just an urban problem. However, I do not understand why it took so long for the Premier to deliver this message. It might have actually helped his most recent political problems, which are significantly based on the myth that there COVID is not a problem in rural areas so restrictions should be eased.

    If the Premier took a moment or two in his past news conferences to consistently highlight COVID rates between various urban and rural areas, instead of delivering rambling political lectures, perhaps this message would have gotten through by now. Certain politicians have been referred to as great communicators, perhaps Kenney will be called the great miscommunicator.

    It is pretty clear that Mr. Loewen’s concerns about Kenney go beyond his handling of COVID. It is not as clear with Mr. Barnes. However, both might actually have respected Kenney more, if he was more forthright about the COVID situation from the start, instead of treating it as a political game, which has now come back to bite him.

    It is unfortunate, Kenney tried to avoid the perceived political problems associated with increasing restrictions, by avoiding the truth for so long. Perhaps he never read this Mark Twain quote. “When in doubt tell the truth. It will confound your enemies and astound your friends.”

    Reply
    • Mike J Danysh

      May 19th, 2021

      Telling the truth also makes it easier to keep your story straight–there’s only one version.

      However, being truthful also requires being responsible for your mistakes. This may be Jason Kenney’s biggest weakness.

      Reply
  8. Just Me

    May 18th, 2021

    At this point, with open rebellion bursting out among the UCP rural riding associations, it is becoming apparent that Premier Crying & Angry isn’t done crying and screaming by a long shot.

    Of course, he’s now telling his rural base (AKA the Hill People) that they are the cause and they need to be responsible, after months and months of coddling them as better and smarter than those urban slickers. And at some point, Kenney will go back to declaring that rural Alberta is ‘God’s Country’ and all those who live within its environs are the Chosen. Will they believe him now after he’s lied to them for so long? I believe the consensus is that Kenney has joined the ‘Deep State’ and he’s PMJT’s little buddy, which would explain Kenney’s sudden and spectacular failures with pipelines recently. He’s the Globalist’s mole and that’s all there is to it.

    Gaslighting is fine, until the gaslit realize they have been gaslighted. (In an ugly way, this kind of makes sense.)

    Reply
    • Mike J Danysh

      May 19th, 2021

      This might be Jason Kenney’s “Look in the mirror” moment. Telling the Base it’s their fault is NOT a safe option in any polity, least of all in Oilberduh.

      Reply
      • David Climenhaga

        May 19th, 2021

        I don’t think picking “FOLLOW THE RULES” as a key talking point really works very well for the UCP’s base either. DJC

        Reply
  9. Former Albertan

    May 18th, 2021

    As a famous Calgary journalist, Eye Opener Bob, and editor observed at the turn of the 20th century: (and I paraphrase to the best of my memory). We have something for everybody in our newspaper – including mistakes.

    Reply
  10. Scotty on Denman

    May 18th, 2021

    Governments take accumulation of political baggage into account because gravity never sleeps. That’s why they do unpopular stuff first, sweeten the pot and juggle partisan distractions as the re-election bid nears, and pray for divine winds to sublimate voter-memory and lighten the load in time for the vote. It’s a presumed form of “trickle-down.”

    However, in Kenney’s Alberta, the mostly rural, Wild Rosy faction of his UCP government has calcified into a compacted layer impervious to the weight of the party’s Covid baggage, causing it to back up and spill across a plane of obstinance, constraining political response to seep along horizontally rather than percolate gravitationally through the tilth of electoral contentment. Despite its thinness, this stratum needs a big detour— like trying to get around a flat earth: resident flat-earthers are sure to consider any attempt as ‘over-the-edge.‘ Meanwhile, baggage scuds along in flash floods of partisan outrage, its flotsam stranding in muddy debris, littering dry washes and stewing in stagnant ponds under the endless blue sky.

    Some Wild Rosers are probably giving Kenney’s party-unity plea serious consideration—maybe even thinking how prudent it might be right now to just put a sock in it and go back to their ploughs (prob’ly safer, too, but nuthin to be said about that). But for K-Boy to deploy scientific rationale to frighten them into compliance with Covid protocols might itself rile their rugged irritability, and does seem a risk he’s been forced to undertake, likely not without some trepidation.

    I don’t expect there’s much risk that sometime in the future protesters will be toppling a statue of Jason Kenney rallying the charge against Covid as he cascades over the edge of his party’s plate tectonics. This isn’t the Alamo. Indeed, it appears he’s only at mid-narrative continuing to find its lowest path, as it must, no matter how detoured, towards the end of Covid. But at this point, Alberta has merely turned a chapter where rural infection rates have been increasing while urban ones might finally have started to plateau (it remains altogether pretty bad, if not the worst in Canada anymore—er, at least for now). The prospect that urban Albertans will be told they must continue restrictive protocols, despite dropping numbers, only because their country cousins are still cultivating threatening contagion is real. Would K-Boy dare relieve urban stricture but leave or even increase rural Covid restrictions? Experienced at political nuance, Kenney makes it very hard to tell if he’s warning his rural base of just that. Observers’ experience of the UCP is that it probably doesn’t matter. Kenney is simply adrift, being swept along by circumstance, much without a rudder and a potential mutiny on his hands.

    Wild Rose obstinance is creating a mess nearing an order magnitude akin to the cost of cleaning up abandoned gas and oil wells. No matter how thinly UCP Covid flotsam has been spread, diluted or buried in torrents of rugged resistance in the rural redoubt, the millstone of cost will weigh heavily on the UCP baggage train as it wends towards Election Day. Whomever leads the governing party will then have to present a war weary citizenry with the tab for its contracted services, replete with cuts to public services to pay for it all while recruiting them for an all out assault on our federation (which could well be governed by a Liberal majority by then) , with the promised prosperity of an independent state ruled by those responsible for ubiquitous evidence of catastrophe. For a train that’s littered so much of its cargo over so broad a plain, the baggage Kenney arrives with at the station of his comeuppance will be very heavy indeed.

    Until then, be safe, my Alberta friends!

    Reply
  11. David

    May 18th, 2021

    The editor in WordPress changes many typed comments for no good reason than it has its own suggestions.
    I try to catch the changes but since I Don’t think changes will be made I miss some. I think it is the same for all who post here.

    In regards to the actual topic. Communist China taught every government how to control covid-19. The best way is to have a full lockdown right from the beginning. Now western governments don’t like learning from another country that they are hostile toward.

    Reply
  12. jerrymacgp

    May 19th, 2021

    How many of his past statements is (are? not sure of the correct grammar here lol) Mr Kenney going to have to walk back? Didn’t he say, last year some time, that two farm guys working in a barn out in the country don’t need to wear masks?

    Reply
  13. Mike J Danysh

    May 19th, 2021

    I still think Kenney, the court jester of Calgary’s oil barons, got new marching orders in late April. Remember how cautious we were during the first wave a year ago? Looking at the graphs of daily case counts, the “first wave” now looks like a ripple. What a change for the worse a year can make.

    The third wave—thankfully receding—must have scared Calgary businessmen badly enough to lean on their designated front man. In my opinion (a.k.a. Conspiracy Theory # NNN, where NNN is a large number), Kenney was threatened from two directions. Drew Barnes and the Covid 18 threatened his position as Leader, and the businessmen threatened his chance of re-election because they’re scared of another hard lockdown.

    Hence the expulsion of Barnes and Loewen, and Kenney’s rumoured comments about finding a new base. I think Kenney was forced to choose between voters and financial support.

    The guest appearances by Deena Hinshaw and Verna You as “resident experts” were doubtless intended to put a gloss of respectability on the numbers and increased restrictions. However, I suspect both ladies firmly declined to make any statement remotely political. This is Jason Kenney’s mess. Let him own it.

    Reply
  14. Jimmy

    May 19th, 2021

    Thanks Caron.

    Your comments and the attachment are focused and relevant. Alberta is going down a very dark path in abandoning government by consent in favor of government by diktat.

    Reply

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