Alberta Premier Jason Kenney is ignoring calls to step down following a federal election outcome that’s especially devastating for his United Conservative Party, all while the province suffers from a preventable fourth wave of COVID-19 driven by the Delta variant.
On Monday, Canadians reelected Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to lead a minority government—again—after Conservative Party Leader Erin O’Toole failed to secure more support for his party. For weeks leading up to voting day, many pundits speculated that Kenney’s COVID-19 track record would result in fewer votes for the federal Conservatives, and O’Toole even tried to distance himself from Kenney during his campaign’s final days.
In the end, the federal conservatives did lose votes in Alberta, and now, calls for Kenney’s resignation are growing.
“I can no longer support him, and indeed believe he must resign,” Joel Mullan, a United Conservative Party vice-president and former Kenney fan, wrote in an op-ed.
Alberta, typically a slam dunk for Conservatives, remains blue, but the federal Conservatives lost more than 14 percent of voters who voted for them during the last election in 2019. Across the province, at least three previous Conservative seats were forfeited to the Liberals and the left-leaning NDP, and there’s still a battle in Edmonton-Centre, where the Liberal and incumbent Conservative candidates are neck and neck. The far-right People’s Party of Canada also enjoyed a boost from Albertans after successfully courting the anti-lockdown and anti-vax crowd. (Alberta has one of the lowest vaccination rates in Canada.)
Kenney decided to keep his job and instead replaced his government’s Minister of Health on Tuesday. The post, previously held by Tyler Shandro, a man known for evading questions from reporters and berating a physician at his family home, will now be held by Jason Copping, the former minister of labour and immigration.
“It is time for a fresh start, and a new set of eyes on the largest department in the government, especially at a time such as this,” Kenney told reporters.
It’s unclear, however, whether the move will improve Kenney’s tenure as party leader. Two UCP MLAs told the Globe and Mail that Kenney may face a vote of confidence on Wednesday. UCP constituency groups are also thinking about pushing for an early UCP leadership review.
To understand why, turn to Alberta's frightening COVID-19 backdrop: As of Tuesday there were nearly 21,000 active cases in Alberta—nearly half of all total cases in Canada—and 2,574 deaths. (Since vaccines become more accessible, most deaths are among the unvaccinated.) The situation is so bad hundreds of surgeries, including cancer-related surgeries, have been cancelled, and Alberta’s ICUs have a record-breaking number of patients. Ontario has said it will step in and take some of Alberta’s ICU patients, if needed.
The fourth wave could have been mitigated with a more proactive approach to the pandemic and vaccines. But Kenney had declared the pandemic over at the start of the summer and announced the end to all COVID-related restrictions. Mask and physical distancing mandates were gone, and Kenney repeatedly promised the “best summer ever.” He also promised to not implement vaccine passports, something the anti-vax and anti-lockdown chunk of his base eschews.
Unsurprisingly, in the face of Alberta’s health care system collapsing, Kenney has had to walk back those promises and bring back masks and other strict public health measures. As of Monday, Albertans need to show proof of vaccination to frequent many businesses. It’s a decision that likely harmed O’Toole, who had previously praised Alberta’s pandemic response.
“Kenney’s communications has been disastrous. His planning in the pandemic is without a clear vision or flexibility. Time and again he appears unwilling to plan for more than one possibility with the virus… Instead he has chosen to paint himself into a corner on several occasions where the only way out is to make a liar out of himself,” Mullan wrote.
Kenney is a career politician who was serving as a high-profile federal MP until 2016, when he decided to return to Alberta and unite the province’s fragmented Conservative parties. Today, internal division within his party is as strong as ever, with some representatives mad over Kenney’s reluctance to do whatever it takes to combat COVID-19, while others are angry he ultimately implemented vaccine passports and other COVID rules after saying he wouldn’t.
University of Calgary political science professor Lisa Young told CBC News she doesn’t see things getting better for Kenney.
"I think the damage is too great… I think that his personal brand is ruined. The current situation is really quite disastrous and it's going to get worse before it gets better," Young said.
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