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Defying Premier Kenney, two UCP MLAs join caucus opposing COVID restrictions

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Drew Barnes, Cypress-Medicine Hat UCP MLA and member of the 'End the Lockdowns National Caucus. 'Image: David J. Climenhaga

Two MLAs from Premier Jason Kenney's government caucus have joined a national coalition of elected and former politicians dedicated to the proposition that restrictions on social and commercial activities intended to slow the spread of COVID-19 must end.

Needless to say, centrifugal force is not a good look for a United Conservative Party that's starting to look a bit frayed around the edges, thanks to caucus dissatisfaction with its leader's apparent inability to get pretty much anything much right.

The identity of the rebellious pair won't come as a particular surprise to observers of Alberta politics. They're Drew Barnes, the would-be Alberta separatist from Cypress-Medicine Hat who expects an independent Albertastan could order British Columbia around as if it were East Prussia, and Angela Pitt, the MLA for Airdrie who recently mused about how maybe Alberta should become an "autonomous province" like South Tyrol.

But according to Pitt -- speaking with the Western Standard, online voice of Alberta's unhinged right fringe -- there are more UCP MLAs lurking in the COVID-skeptical caucus lockdown closet, waiting for the right moment to come out.

Pitt is, I kid you not, also the deputy speaker of the Alberta legislature.

The pair have joined the five-day-old "End the Lockdowns National Caucus," already populated by such fringy elected figures as Ontario MPP Randy Hillier, People's Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier, and Independent MP Derek Sloan.

Hillier was kicked out of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party by Premier Doug Ford in 2019 for making "disrespectful comments to parents of children with autism."

Sloan was turfed from the Conservative Party of Canada by leader Erin O'Toole last month for accepting a donation from a white nationalist, although he was already in bad odour for racist remarks and robocall shenanigans during his bid to lead the federal party.

For his part, Bernier quit the Conservatives and founded his own xenophobic splinter party after narrowly losing the 2017 race to become Canada's opposition leader to Andrew Scheer, O'Toole's predecessor.

Exit, stage far-right!

But the national caucus also has a passel of additional fringy Albertan members on board, including Paul Hinman, interim leader of the Wildrose Independence Party, former Western Canada Concept leader and Alberta MLA Gordon Kesler, and Derek Fildebrandt, once a rising star in the Wildrose Party and UCP before Kenney banished him from caucus supposedly for hunting on private land and fibbing about it.

Fildebrandt was later leader for a spell of the Freedom Conservative party, previously known as the Western Freedom Party, previously known as the Separation Party of Alberta, and previously known as the Alberta First Party. He is now the publisher of the Western Standard, mentioned above.

For its part, the End the Lockdowns National Caucus appears to be a spin-off of Liberty Coalition Canada, which got its start as Reopen Ontario's Churches.

So what's Kenney going to do about his two embarrassing MLAs?

Nothing, Barnes boldly predicts. "I'm not worried about disciplinary action," he told the Toronto Star. "As a government backbencher, I'm not a part of cabinet. I'm not part of the decision making. It's my job to speak up with what my constituents want."

Not that very many of Barnes's constituents really want to separate from Canada, but what he actually means -- if I may be so bold -- is that in his present straits Kenney doesn't have the intestinal fortitude to make him walk the plank, no matter how outrageously he acts. This is especially true if a couple of other MLAs like Pitt are willing to join the fun.

With the windchill, it's almost minus 40 outside now most mornings here in Wild Rose Country. It's just too early for spring break-up!

And anyway, breaking up is hard to do -- especially when you've already sent most of your reliable old Red Tory friends packing months ago because they were too cautious about the bull-in-a-china-shop speed at which you wanted to create the New Alberta.

Who's left but the base?

Kenney keeps telling Albertans they have to take COVID-19 seriously. Then, the instant he gets an excuse, his government does stuff like it did the day before yesterday -- weakening COVID-19 restrictions, allowing gyms and fitness studios to reopen, and letting restaurants resume sit-down service with essentially no rules.

It should take about two weeks for COVID-19 infection rates to start spiking again, probably helped along by more infectious coronavirus variants now circulating in Alberta.

The fact this is well understood suggests Barnes is likely right about what Kenney will do to control the defiant COVID deniers in his caucus.

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 credit: David J. Climenhaga

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