It’s safe to say Alberta is in crisis.
Partly because the coronavirus pandemic is battering global economies, shuttering businesses and institutions, and decimating the price of oil, Alberta’s most precious revenue driver. But it’s also partly through a number of self-inflicted political wounds that predate the pandemic, including picking fights with doctors and teachers and making cuts to social programs.
Since the United Conservative Party was first elected last April with a respectable 55 percent of the popular vote, Premier Jason Kenney has heralded strict conservatism and fiscal restraint—through lowering corporate taxes and cuts to public spending—and a zealous faith in oil and gas as means to create thousands of jobs and “send Albertans back to work.”
Fast forward a year and his team is watching a dramatically different outcome unfold. In April, Kenney released grim economic projections that estimated unemployment could hit 25 percent—or worse—in Alberta by the end of the pandemic. He has also said the province is facing a deficit triple the size originally budgeted at almost $20 billion instead of $7 billion. A few weeks later, crude oil became cheaper than a happy hour beer.
The economic downturn, which started well before COVID-19 hit, has also resulted in a rise in the provincial suicide rate, with 17 more Albertans dying by suicide with every 1 percent increase in unemployment.
Research Co. and Glacier Media are tracking reactions to political COVID-19 responses across Canada, and Alberta is the only province where approval ratings for political leaders have fallen. According to results, more than half of Albertan respondents said they believe Alberta NDP leader Rachel Notley would have done a better job handling COVID-19.
Minister of Health Tyler Shandro’s poor relationship with doctors likely isn’t helping the government get support, either, considering the almost universal appreciation for medical workers right now.
17 more Albertans die by suicide with every 1 percent increase in unemployment.
But the pandemic clearly isn’t the sole cause of Kenney’s popularity drop; support for him and his government was slipping months before. The findings note that 56 percent of Albertans thought “things would be better with a different premier” in December 2019, a sentiment echoed in numerous polls at that time.
Results suggested Kenney’s affinity for public spending cuts, including the elimination of thousands of public sector jobs and spending freezes in healthcare and education, as well as fears about job loss were the catalysts.
So even without the pandemic in the mix, including Canada’s largest COVID-19 outbreak—at a southern Alberta slaughterhouse—the stories coming out of the province make you think: Will Alberta be OK?
Alberta’s uncertain future
Alberta used to generate tens of billions of dollars of revenue from selling oil, a forecast based on prices of oil hovering at $81 CAD (US$58) per barrel. But after Russia and Saudi Arabia entered a price war and flooded the market with cheap oil, and the demand for oil plummeted as a result of the pandemic, supply outstripped demand. A barrel is currently worth less than $28 CAD (US$20). At one point, Western Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude, the benchmark for North American prices, even dropped below zero.
The excess oil is sitting idly in international reserves as people are staying put and travelling less to stave off COVID-19.
Instead of shifting Alberta away from its reliance on oil, Kenney doubled down on his commitment to the industry. At the end of March, he pledged more than $1 billion more of public money to fund the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, even though some of the world’s largest banks were pulling out of large-scale fossil fuel projects, citing risks involved in investing in high carbon fuels as the world fights climate change, according to the National Observer.
When a local reporter asked recently if Kenney would touch the Green New Deal, proposed U.S. legislation that aims to tackle climate change and create sustainable jobs, Kenney didn’t just reject the idea, he feigned shock: “That kind of question, in the middle of an economic crisis, from a Calgary-based media outlet—really frankly throws me for a loop,” Kenney said.
VICE reached out to Kenney for an interview, but did not receive a response by the time of publication.
The premier is unlikely to talk about radical alternatives to Alberta’s energy sector right now, experts say.
“I get the impression that he doesn't want to talk about diversifying the economy now because of the pandemic—and because of what’s going to be an economic recession,” University of Alberta economics professor Dana Andersen said.
Kenney is betting oil prices will eventually surge, Andersen said.
Yet several economists and industry professionals say that is not a likely scenario, at least not anytime soon.
“Let’s say demand does come back—it probably won’t come back until at least the end of summer, which is optimistic—it’s still going to take a long time because we’re going to have all of this oil in reserves that will be cheap for a long time,” Andersen said.
In the meantime, Kenney has repeatedly requested an industry bailout from the federal government during the pandemic. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced $1.7 billion to help Alberta, British Columbia, and Saskatchewan clean up orphan oil wells, as well as $750 million for companies to help reduce emissions.
Trudeau said an estimated 5,200 energy sector jobs in Alberta alone will be maintained thanks to the money.
University of Alberta political science professor, Laurie Adkin, is concerned Kenney and his “cabal of ministers” won’t diversify the economy “because of their ideological fixation with oil.”
“They are so inconsistent,” Adkin said. “They are all against government ownership, public ownership, subsidies for the renewable sector, but when it comes to oil, somehow all of those principles go out the window and they start calling for all these subsidies.”
The Ministry of Energy did not respond when asked whether Kenney’s government has plans to rethink Alberta’s reliance on oil and gas. Instead, spokesperson Kavi Bal said the government is already pursuing renewables like wind and solar, but “there’s no denying the role that the energy sector has played in our economic prosperity.”
Kenney’s camp is fighting healthcare—during a pandemic
Then, there are the uncertainties facing Alberta’s healthcare system.
Kenney passed his 2020 budget in March with a $500 million boost to the province’s front-line health care workers. He also said more money would flow if requested.
But Kenney has come under fire for his historically austere approach to healthcare. Before and during the pandemic, Kenney’s team was pushing for massive health care cuts, including eliminating front-line nurses and unilaterally changing the way doctors get paid (effectively paying them less) after negotiations failed.
The Alberta Medical Association (AMA) is now suing the province and demanding a new round of bargaining, citing “bad faith” negotiations.
Healthcare workers are, of course, consumed with the pandemic, and funding strains risk driving physicians out of the province at a time when they’re needed most, doctors say.
A spokesperson with Alberta’s Minister of Health, Steve Buick, said Kenney’s government has upheld its commitment to maintaining or increasing health spending.
“If the government wanted to make big changes to healthcare, they should have waited until after the pandemic,” said Calgary-based family physician, Dr. Mukarram Zaidi.
Zaidi has been outspoken about the need to protect Alberta’s healthcare system, which prompted Shandro to publicly berate Zaidi, a private citizen.
Zaidi said he was sitting in his Calgary home on a Saturday afternoon in March when Shandro showed up unannounced with his wife, demanding that Zaidi remove a meme from social media that calls out the minister’s alleged conflict of interest. Shandro said the meme resulted in death threats against him and his wife.
Shandro used to own shares in his wife’s company, which offers supplementary health benefits, before transferring them to a blind trust. (Alberta’s ethics commissioner ruled that it wasn’t a conflict of interest.)
"His minister is off leash and trying to completely destroy publicly funded healthcare."
NDP opposition and several physicians called for Shandro’s resignation following the incident, but Kenney stood by his health minister.
“Any Albertan would understand that a husband or wife will get passionate when their spouse is being attacked and even threatened, and certainly defamed,” Kenney said.
Zaidi said he never attacked, threatened, or defamed Shandro’s wife.
Zaidi added he is yet to receive an apology from Kenney’s team, even though he is a “proud” board member of the UCP.
“This shows Kenney’s inability to run the province: his minister is off leash and trying to completely destroy publicly funded healthcare,” Zaidi said. “Physicians will continue to fight for publicly funded healthcare.”
And then there’s COVID-19
Fortunately, compared to the rest of Canada, Alberta’s coronavirus case count and death toll have been relatively low when testing rates are factored in. As of Wednesday, Alberta had the third highest number of COVID-19 cases in the country (5,893), but the province has tested more people per capita than the hardest-hit provinces, Ontario and Quebec.
But then Cargill, a slaughterhouse in High River that provides about 40 percent of beef processing in Canada, was hit, with nearly half of its 2,000-plus workers testing positive for the virus. One worker, Hiep Bui, died, and at least another 1,500 community cases have been linked to the outbreak, including 15 at the nearby Stoney Nakoda Nation.
Even though a union survey of more than 600 workers revealed that a staggering 85 percent felt it was unsafe to return to work, Cargill reopened on Monday for one shift per day.
Kenney said he supports Cargill’s reopening because it’s an essential service, benefiting food security and food supply chains.
The situation has raised questions about how temporary foreign workers and permanent residents are treated in the province.
According to the CBC, 70 to 80 percent of Cargill’s workers are Filipino temporary foreign workers or permanent residents, and the Filipino community says it has been blamed for the outbreak.
The outbreak has also resulted in racism targeting Filipino communities in particular.
People are wrongfully blaming the communities for the virus because living arrangements often require several people to live in one household.
Cesar Cala, who leads the Filipino Emergency Response Task Force, told Global News that households are often crowded out of necessity—not choice—and harmful stereotyping should stop.
Alberta’s JBS facility near Brooks also reported an outbreak, with 156 infections and two deaths, and scaled back operations to one shift per day. Together, Cargill and JBS produce 75 percent of beef consumed in the country.
A third meat-processing plant, Harmony Beef, located north of Calgary, is also operating even though Alberta Health has connected 34 COVID-19 cases to the facility.
There are some things Kenney’s been lauded for during the pandemic: he’s frozen interest on student loans, introduced impressive coronavirus testing, and even sent personal protective equipment and ventilators to British Columbia, Ontario, and Quebec.
Yet he isn’t exactly seeing a surge in support.
In a recent survey, most Canadians said they’re happy with how their governments are lifting physical distancing.
But Albertans voiced the lowest rates of satisfaction with how quickly the province decided to open up, with 50 percent saying easing is happening too fast, too soon.
Alberta’s fragile political and economic makeup will undoubtedly continue to make headlines for weeks and months to come, especially if job losses and subsequent mental health costs continue, and Adkin said Kenney isn’t doing Albertans “any favours” if he continues down his current trajectory.
“We need leadership that is able to process a lot of information and knowledge about what’s happening ecologically and in terms of the global economy right now,” Adkin said.
“Kenney is not the leader Alberta needs.”
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