Contemplating what’s at stake tomorrow – 14 minute read

This post originally appeared in my weekly newsletter, “The Missive” on Nov. 19, 2021. Subscribe for free at: https://jodymacpherson.substack.com/ or access background info and special content with a paid subscription.

It’s the eve of another election. My nerves are a bit frayed thinking about the possible impacts to me following tomorrow’s vote.

But it’s not about the precariousness of any one person, the whole province is on the precipice in so many ways.

Tomorrow’s outcome could help maintain some voices of reason in Alberta reeling from the election of a UCP majority. The provincial government has been hell-bent on bringing us to our knees with one blow after another, weakening us into submission.

First it was the passage of Bill 1, the Critical Infrastructure Defence Act, an action some legal experts have called “an unjustifiable violation of at least five different fundamental rights and freedoms.”

In a two-part series on the University of Calgary’s award-winning legal blog, the authors also consider whether the bill treads on federal criminal law powers and raise questions as to whether it was passed “contrary to Aboriginal and Treaty rights.” This legal analysis is thorough, the provisions of the law are disturbing, and the conclusions of the legal scholars are stunning:

“What we see in Bill 1 is an attempt by the government of Alberta to penalize all protests that are group activities, and perhaps individual entry onto essential infrastructure too.”

While numerous anti-mask and anti-vaccine protesters are vocally claiming rights violations because of vaccination requirements, they have not been speaking up about Bill 1. Nor has the government been enforcing it for these groups, which raises the question of who is this legislation truly aiming to silence?

Embarrassing us on the world stage is just par for the course with Kenney

Next it was the creation of the public inquiry into “anti-Alberta energy campaigns.” That inquiry received three extensions of its original deadline and $1 million more in funding for a total of $3.5 million. The report was delivered on July 30, 2021 and must be released by October 28, 2021.

The inquiry resulted in a thoroughly damning rebuke from Amnesty International. In an open letter addressed to Premier Jason Kenney, the organization took issue with the inquiry and the energy “war room” saying they risk violating human rights.

“Amnesty International is deeply concerned that these initiatives undermine and violate a range of Alberta’s human rights obligations, under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and international law, including freedom of expression, freedom of association, the rights of Indigenous peoples and gender equality. The Fight Back Strategy also risks setting back the province’s responsibility to advance comprehensive action to address the human rights impacts of the global climate crisis.”  

The respected human rights organization also expressed concerns the inquiry “feeds into a worsening climate of hostility towards human rights defenders – particularly Indigenous, women, and environmental human rights defenders – exposing them to intimidation and threats, including threats of violence.”

Indeed, the Alberta government’s creation of the Canadian Energy Centre with an original budget annually of $30 million was the beginning of a state-sponsored propaganda war on critics.

Not only did the war room set out to run expensive advertising campaigns on behalf of the fossil fuel industry, including most recently purchasing huge billboards in New York City’s Times Square to promote “friendly energy,” the government has unleashed a legion of taxpayer-funded press secretaries and issues managers to publicly harass, bully and threaten citizens who disagree with their masters in the UCP caucus.

There has been an unprecedented and unrelenting attack on private citizens, academics, professionals and unions using social media. Some of the attacks have even involved reporting people to their employers as a way of pressuring them to back down. This is unquestionably authoritarian behaviour.

The war room also went after an animated children’s movie about Big Foot, launching a petition to have Netflix remove the movie from its line-up. The war room took offence because the cartoon depicted a fossil fuel company as villainous.

If it wasn’t such an off-the-rails abuse of power, it might be hilariously funny. If this is “friendly energy,” I’d hate to see what unfriendly looks like.

Friendly to large profitable corporations but not so much to regular Albertans

Of course, friendliness is a good description of the government’s approach to the fossil fuel industry as Kenney quickly lowered corporate taxes to become the lowest in Canada, giving up an estimated $4.7 billion in revenues.

In contrast, individuals will pay more in taxes due to the decoupling of personal income taxes from inflation. This change to the tax code has been criticized by the Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation which called it a “sneaky type of income tax hike known as bracket creep.”

And these are only a few of the biggest destabilizing moves by the UCP government since it was elected in 2019.

The disastrous COVID-19 pandemic response may be the most serious and devastating event in the province’s history. Not only have Albertans been dying at close to three times the rate of anywhere else in Canada (except Saskatchewan), the government shows no sign of acknowledging the basic science of the disease, which was long ago proven to be airborne.

Public health orders have not kept up with the latest developments and instead continue to blindly focus on droplet transmission, which is not the main source of COVID spread. Schools remain fully open with little or no recognition of the inherent risks. And little or no attempt at making schools safer environments for kids. The government cut back on testing, tracing and even downplayed isolating as a way of reducing the spread.

Best summer ever leads to worst pandemic wave yet

The lowest point in this crisis came in August, when the premier, the chief medical officer of health and the entire cabinet was either on vacation or prevented from speaking publicly for almost a full month while the fourth wave spiralled out of control.

The government resisted proven vaccination incentives like passports until the situation became extremely dire. They instead gave away cash and gift cards, expensive and wasteful methods shown to be mostly ineffective by others who tried them previously.

So, where does all of this leave us?

The next provincial election won’t be held until the spring of 2023. Tomorrow’s municipal election and the accompanying provincial referendum questions may give us an indication of where Albertans stand on the UCP and Kenney’s record so far.

The first indicator may be the big city mayoralty races. In Edmonton, former Liberal cabinet minister Amarjeet Sohi is the frontrunner, with far right-leaning conservative Mike Nickel trailing him in recent polls.

Calgary’s race is a closer battle between the Manning Foundation candidate Jeromy Farkas consistently leading until recently. Former Councillor Jyoti Gondek has been showing signs of gaining momentum in the last weeks of the lengthy campaign.

The choice of mayors in Alberta’s urban centres has frequently provided a balance for the provincial government in power, especially during the 40+ years of conservative rule. A one-term win by the NDP disrupted the balancing act slightly but was hardly enough time to see any lasting change in the urban-rural dynamic.

A win by even one of the right-leaning candidates in Calgary or Edmonton could be a big setback for Alberta overall. Urban municipalities have made some progress on issues such as transit development and economic diversification, but even that would be at risk under either Farkas or Nickel. Farkas has consistently expressed his support for Kenney and shown a reluctance to do or say anything locally that might upset the premier.

Farkas has a lot of forces aligning against him. There are campaigns pointing out his contrarian approach to council decisions. He votes “no” to many proposals from city administration. He often joins with other former councillors (both running for re-election) Joe Magliocca and Sean Chu in opposition stances compared to the rest of council.

It’s unclear whether Farkas will be negatively impacted by the fraud charges against Magliocca and recent revelations about a discreditable conduct disciplinary action against Chu for his past behaviour with an underage girl while serving as a police officer.

Farkas has recently tried to re-brand himself as a person who says “yes” to change, to counter the negative reputation he has held for the last four years. There has been a lot of strife between Farkas and his fellow councillors, not the best record when you are vying for the job of mayor, a bridge-building position by nature.

Will there be a rural backlash for coal and conservation missteps?

Of keen interest in this election is what happens outside of the urban areas. There have been signs of discontent with Kenney’s brand of conservatism in rural communities. It began with plans to sell or convert land use in provincial parks and recreation areas. Then things exploded with the rescinding of the coal policy (since reinstated). 

Defenders of the Eastern Slopes have been keeping the government on pins and needles as powerful landowner groups, recreational user groups and others usually on the conservative side of the equation, have joined with Indigenous groups and environmental/conservation organizations to great effect. It will be interesting to see the impact of the anti-coal forces on town councils, county representation and other municipal officials when the votes are counted tomorrow.

Even more interesting has been what’s been going on with the school board trustee elections, normally a relatively quiet affair. With the racist, inappropriate K-6 draft curriculum thrust at unwilling school divisions by Education Minister Adriana LaGrange, a major effort has been underway behind the scenes to elect trustees who are opposed to the curriculum.

Similarly, the UCP has encouraged a number of their own picks for trustee positions to enter the running for school boards across the province. There’s no public polling I can see for trustee elections so it’s anyone’s guess how this is going to turn out. I’ll be watching the outcome quite closely though, to see how grassroots, bi-partisan organizing will impact the UCP’s preferred candidates at a school board level.

Kenney polls his support via a bogus equalization referendum

That leaves us with the equalization referendum question, a truly dishonest question from a truly dishonest premier.

The question asks Albertans whether equalization – a program that binds Canada together as a nation by establishing some common standards or quality of life – should be removed.

It’s absolutely clear that the principle is what is being voted on here. The question is whether when one province is doing well, it should help the others out who are not doing as well.

Why would anyone vote against this principle?

The formula itself was last adjusted by Stephen Harper and will likely continue to be tinkered with in the future. But any changes are subject to multiple conditions outside of provincial control.

No one province has the ability to change or certainly not to eliminate it. And most importantly, no provincial referendum is needed to enter into discussions about the formula.

We’re left with a hugely embarrassing question, which we’re told by Kenney is actually not the real question, even though we can all read the words on the ballot ourselves.

He says it is a question of wanting a “fair deal” but those words are not written anywhere in the question. If he really wanted a fair deal, why did he leave that phrase out of the question then?

Kenney says he is following Quebec’s lead, but nothing could be further from the truth. This referendum question is nothing like Quebec’s referendum where a clear question was always insisted upon and a clear majority would have been required for the province to leave Canada.

This is a muddled question, further confused by Kenney’s campaign to tell Albertans the question is something other than what is written on the ballot. He claims it is about sending a message of dissatisfaction to Ottawa but won’t say whether a clear majority will be required. All indications are that it will be a close vote.

He’s undoubtedly trying to demonstrate he has the support of Albertans when his approval rating in the polls is the lowest of any premier in Canada. Could this purely be about Kenney trying to buy himself some leverage as he heads into a leadership review in the spring?

Meanwhile, when I asked my friends and followers of this issue on Twitter their reasons for voting no, the results came back as you would expect.

Those who voted no did so for multiple reasons. These reasons include:

·      the fact the question was misleading;

·      they don’t trust Kenney or the UCP; and

·      they agree with the principle of equalization.

Almost 70% of poll respondents said it was “all of the above” (not a scientific or statistically significant poll of 55 people on Twitter).

My endorsements for the record

I voted in the advance polls last week and my choice for mayor is Jyoti Gondek. I also voted for youth, diversity and the fresh perspective represented by candidate Courtney Walcott in my ward. And I voted for Susan Vukadinovic for public school board trustee.

Of course, I voted no for removing equalization, no for switching to permanent Daylight Savings Time and yes to restore fluoridation. If there had been a question about free dental care, I would have been ecstatic to vote for that instead, but fluoridation is the next best thing.

There is a lot at stake in tomorrow’s election. If you haven’t voted yet, please make it a priority.

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