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Alberta spends up to $20K touting medical mask giveaway on Facebook to build social licence for pipelines

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A screenshot of the Facebook ad library showing the Alberta government's ads promoting the shipment of 750,000 N95 medical masks to other provinces. Image: Facebook

The Alberta government spent between $14,000 and $20,000 on Facebook advertisements promoting Premier Jason Kenney's announcement Alberta would donate 750,000 N95 medical masks and other personal protective equipment to Ontario, Quebec and B.C., political blogger Dave Cournoyer revealed in a tweet yesterday afternoon.

The heaviest promotion was in Ontario, Cournoyer discovered when he peeked into the Facebook ad library, with the targeted message also pushed in British Columbia and, in French, in Quebec.

"We are all in this together," chirped the all-caps header on the English-language version of the ad. "To help battle COVID-19, Alberta is sending supplies to British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec to help address unprecedented demand in those provinces for PPE and ventilators," it continued.

"Based on current modelling, with current stockpiles and more shipments on the way, Alberta can safely send N95 masks, procedural masks, gloves and goggles while maintaining an adequate supply," the ad said.

Unlike Kenney's press conference on Saturday in Edmonton when he announced the gift, the Facebook ads that ran on Saturday and Sunday did not explicitly connect the idea of pipelines in return for PPE donations. Still, the timing of the large buy strongly suggests building social licence for Alberta's fossil-fuel-infrastructure wish list was the goal behind both the donation and the two-day social media campaign.

Facebook's records imply the government didn't even think to bill it to the apparently furloughed Alberta energy war room!

The response to the revelation by the premier's $200,000-per-year "issues management" director also appeared to confirm winning social licence for pipelines was the goal of the giveaway.

"If we learned nothing else in recent years, Alberta needs allies," tweeted Matt Wolf, who is often disparaged as the premier's personal social media troll, in injured tones. "When Alberta steps up to help the rest of Canada, best to let the rest of Canada know."

Wolf's whiny comment, accompanied by the hashtag #OutrageDeJour, continued defensively: "Also note that these ads a [sic] promote Alberta, not the Premier."

Well, we've come a long way from the days when Wolfe and the UCP's echo chamber in the media used to repeatedly damn the former NDP government for "clinging to the myth of 'social licence'," as a prominent right-wing columnist was still putting it even after the UCP election victory.

When Kenney's United Conservative Party was elected one year ago today, they promised us we'd be sitting pretty by now, open for business and adding new jobs by the thousands.

Instead, all on their own they'd managed to eliminate something like 70,000 jobs by the time the COVID-19 tsunami struck Canada -- and the first thing they did in response to that was lay off 26,000 public education workers in a single day!

Now, with confirmed Alberta COVID-19 cases within spitting distance of 2,000 (they'll surpass that total today after reaching 1,996 yesterday) and oil prices still in the bargain basement despite a deal of sorts between Russia and Saudi Arabia to tighten supply a little, instead of living the dream, we're living the nightmare.

Indeed, here in Wild Rose Country, things look positively apocalyptic. Frightened health-care workers are wondering whether there's a shortage of N95 masks or not. A lot of them sure aren't feeling as if we're all in this together, and for many it seems as if their safety and that of their patients has been compromised by a cynical effort to build social licence for more pipelines.

Before Kenney's announcement of Alberta's gift, Albertans were told a shortage of medical PPE was looming.

On Saturday, however, they were told the supply was secure. "I assure Albertans that we will have ample supply," Health Minister Tyler Shandro promised.

At the same news conference, Kenney said: "We are absolutely confident that these contributions will in no way undermine our capacity to provide critical protective equipment and ventilators to Alberta's medical professionals, to other associated front-line workers, and to care for those in need of it. We would not contribute if it would in any way impair our ability to provide for our own health care needs."

Yet just yesterday, the CBC reported used N95 masks from intensive care units in Edmonton and Calgary are being collected for sterilization and possible reuse. Alberta Health Services officials insisted the action is merely a "contingency plan" in the "unlikely event" the province runs out of respirators. The used-mask collection started Tuesday.

"We are stuck with cheap, low quality product while Kenny sends the better equipment East for a little PR," a health care worker commented bitterly on social media last night, a fairly typical sentiment on the front lines of health care.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on his blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Image: Screenshot from Facebook ad library.

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