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Jason Kenney defends 'charter rights' of anti-maskers months after blasting Wet'suwet'en land defenders

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Alberta Premier Jason Kenney. Image: Alberta Newsroom/Flickr

What a difference a year makes!

Not even a year: 10 months in the life of Jason Kenney.

Ten months ago, blockades in support of opposition by members of the Wet'suwet'en First Nation to pipeline construction on ancestral lands in northern British Columbia were springing up here and there in Canada.

There weren't actually all that many, but to hear Conservatives like Alberta Premier Jason Kenney tell it at the time, mere anarchy was loosed upon the world, the national economy imperiled.

To attribute this to Kenney is not hyperbole. Here are some of his actual words: "Reconciliation doesn't mean allowing a couple of people to shut down the national economy," he said when a few supporters of the Wet'suwet'en briefly blocked a rail line on the west side of Edmonton.

"What is happening here is anarchy," he went on. "Extended illegal protests contrary to the orders of the courts, shutting down large parts of the Canadian economy, and ultimately will imperil public safety and health." (Emphasis added above.)

Nor was Kenney particularly concerned about the fundamental rights of protesters to block infrastructure like rail lines, roads and bridges.

Indeed, while it may seem like a distant memory now, Conservatives everywhere were howling at Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for his careful approach to human rights and reconciliation, demanding immediate intervention by the army to dismantle the blockades. The phrase "the rule of law" was in every Conservative meme and press release.

"Enough is enough," the Trudeau government should "empower all federal law enforcement agencies, and if necessary the military, to uphold the rule of law," Derek Burney, once chief of staff to Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney, bloviated in the pages of the National Post.

The protesters in Edmonton, said Kenney, "are thumbing their nose at the rule of law."

"Our focus is very much on resolving this peacefully for the long term," the prime minister said. "I do not think it is ever appropriate to send in the military against Canadian citizens." (And, as, readers with long memories will recall, Trudeau was describing what his own father did in 1970, a decision that has repercussions to this day in Quebec. Moreover, his strategy worked, addressing the problem without violence.)

But at the time, Conservatives heaped scorn on the PM for refusing to bust heads.

In the case of the Edmonton blockade, Kenney told a press conference that since it was within city limits, "it's our expectation that police services will … enforce the orders of our courts."

Kenney's United Conservative Party government used the blockades to justify the signature bill of the 2020 legislative session. The tendentiously named Critical Infrastructure Defence Act is sweeping and unconstitutional legislation allowing government to declare any street, road or sidewalk "critical infrastructure," order protesters to leave, and slap them with crippling fines and even jail terms if they don’t.

The bill became law on June 17. Constitutional challenges are pending.

Now, fast forward to the present, the final weeks of 2020. A deadly global pandemic continues to rage worldwide. It literally threatens the economy of the entire planet, not just Canada. It has killed 733 Albertans, 15 of them in the 24 hours before yesterday.

Throughout Canada, 13,553 people have been killed by COVID-19. If this many Canadians had died in a terrorist attack, Canada would be at war.

And yet in Alberta's major cities, the far right fringe of the UCP base organizes regular "freedom rallies" against common-sense public health measures like wearing non-medical masks, temporary restrictions on some businesses and public and private gatherings.

The weekend marches, each a potential super-spreader event that endangers anyone in the vicinity, are held in defiance of public health regulations.

But Kenney has suddenly discovered he's a champion of freedom and human rights!

Whereas "the rule of law" was on every Canadian Conservative’s lips 10 months ago, now the phrase of the day is "constitutional rights" -- those things Bill 1 was written explicitly to deny.

"I certainly didn’t go into public service, nor did any of the people sitting around our cabinet table, in order to impose restrictions on how people live their lives," Kenney piously said last month.

"Have we forgotten about the Charter of Rights and Freedoms?" he asked at a mid-November COVID-19 news conference. "Since when should governments start with an impairment of fundamental, charter-protected, rights and freedoms, rather than engaging such an impairment as a last and final resort?"

"The charter jurisprudence is very clear about this," he continued, "that if governments are to impair charter rights, it must be a minimal impairment to achieve a policy goal." Numerous constitutional experts demolished this pish-posh within minutes.

Yet we have heard plenty more of this from Kenney and the UCP's army of paid social media trolls since, so there's no need to belabour the point.

As regular anti-mask demonstrations continue in major cities, police appear to have been instructed to stand by and hand out as few tickets as possible for this ongoing defiance of the rule of law.

So what's the scoop? What's inspired Premier Jason Kenney's new scruples about constitutional and civil rights?

Knowing Kenney as we do, it seems extremely unlikely our premier has experienced a road-to-Damascus moment. No, something else must be afoot.

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.

Image: Alberta Newsroom/Flickr

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