Canada’s oil-rich western province has the highest COVID-19 rates in North America per capita sharp increase.
The COVID-19 resurgence is stoking frustration towards United Conservative Party leader Kenney, who throughout the pandemic has tried to walk a fine line between urging people to follow official guidance, and assuring Albertans they are entitled to their rights and freedoms.
“It’s confusing, he’s trying to please everybody,” said Lorian Hardcastle, an associate professor at the University of Calgary specialising in health law and policy. “He’s trying to walk this middle ground but not doing public health or the economy any favours.”
Alberta’s economy shrank 8.1% in 2020, the biggest contraction among the provinces, according to Statistics Canada.
An Angus Reid poll from April shows 45% of Albertans said COVID-19 restrictions in the province go too far, while another 45% said they don’t go far enough. Three-quarters of Albertans polled said Kenney was doing a poor job of handling the pandemic.
Hardcastle said the premier’s public comments are fuelling non-compliance with health measures.
“His message will be that we have restrictions, and almost in the same breath he says people are not following them anyway. That just gives people justification to break rules,” Hardcastle said.
Kenney’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Cultural differences between Alberta and the rest of Canada are also contributing to resistance to pandemic restrictions. Canada’s energy heartland, which sometimes refers to itself as the Texas of the North, has a preference for a hands-off approach from government.
Rural communities pride themselves on a frontier spirit, which Kenney appealed to during his 2019 election campaign. That rural conservative base is the backbone of UCP support, but Kenney’s attempts to appease those voters while also introducing restrictions is backfiring.
A “no more lockdowns” rodeo took place in central Alberta last weekend, attracting an estimated 2,000 people. An Edmonton pastor on trial for breaking COVID-19 in his church services said he was encouraged by Kenney’s comments last year that the pandemic was a type of influenza.
Members of Kenney’s own caucus are also rebelling. Sixteen UCP lawmakers signed an open letter in April slamming restrictions.
“What Albertans need is a leader they can trust… who when they make decisions make them on the basis of evidence, of science, and not on their own political needs and challenges,” Rachel Notley, leader of the opposition NDP, told a news conference on Tuesday.
Voter dissatisfaction with the premier has been mounting since Christmas, when Kenney was slow to reprimand a UCP politician who ignored government advice and travelled abroad.
Alberta’s next election is not scheduled until spring 2023 but Lori Williams, a political scientist at Mount Royal University, said frustration over Kenney’s handling of the pandemic could linger.
“A lot of people are going to remember how angry they were during this time,” Williams said. “It looks like Jason Kenney is being driven not by health and economic concerns, but by concerns about his political future. That may be the most damaging thing of all.”