Jason Kenney had barely decided what to do about his United Conservative Party's dissident COVID-denial caucus when a mob of three or four hundred anti-vaxxers turned up on the steps of the Alberta legislature yesterday and started yelling that Chief Medical Officer of Health Deena Hinshaw ought to be locked up.
People's Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier was even on hand to egg on the unmasked crowd, coronavirus be damned, obviously hoping to resuscitate his faltering far-right political career by jumping on the anti-lockdown bandwagon.
To be fair, there's no evidence Bernier was among those crying for Hinshaw to be locked up. He just called on the mob to defend "our way of life and our western civilization values," a pretty obvious dog-whistle to supporters of his views on immigration.
It's startling to think how close that man came to becoming leader of the official Opposition in Ottawa!
This was just before it was revealed that Pastor James Coates, the self-styled martyr of GraceLife Church, held secret Sunday services at an undisclosed location while members of another crowd of 300 or so COVID deniers tried to tear down the fence around his rolled-steel cathedral southwest of Edmonton.
So maybe it was true there weren't very many of his congregants in the mob on Range Road 262, just like the church's lawyers said! Were Pastor Coats's covert COVID congregants praying to the Almighty to inspire new ways to torment Premier Kenney? Or just trying to figure out a safer way to make their message go viral? You can't rule any of it out!
Yesterday was a cold Alberta spring day, just like the one seven years ago, the last time an Alberta premier was overthrown by her own party, and you couldn't make this stuff up if it wasn't all happening and being reported in real time on social media.
About five and a half years ago a crowd of basically the same people was on the steps of the legislature screaming "lock 'er up" about Rachel Notley and demanding an immediate #Kudatah against her NDP government. Now they're back with signs calling for Hinshaw to be locked up for locking up GraceLife Church after weeks of Sabbath defiance of the chief medical officer of health's COVID-19 suppression measures.
What's different is that Premier Kenney spent at least the last three years empowering this group, peddling the conspiracy theories they thrive on, and welcoming them to the bosom of the UCP, the Frankenparty he helped create. As a result, they are considerably less marginalized than they were in 2016.
Now they've turned on their premier because he's not throwing the doors completely open to the coronavirus, while he lectures them on Twitter that "spreading misinformation, conspiracy theories, and making threats is beyond the pale."
"It is increasingly clear that many involved in these protests are unhinged conspiracy theorists," the premier said. "Their words and actions are unacceptable."
Well, it's hard to disagree with Kenney about that, although it's illuminating to consider his own role in nurturing them over the past few years.
Meanwhile, new members of the UCP's turbulent anti-lockdown caucus continue to be discovered, with 18 MLAs now known to have either signed the original letter damning their own government's efforts to restrict social or business activities to stop the virus or posted their own versions of the same thing on social media.
The latest to come to light is Jackie Lovely, MLA for Camrose, who described the return to tighter restrictions on April 6 as "a profound disappointment to rural Albertans" in an April 7 post on Facebook.
With more than a quarter of his caucus publicly opposing the government's COVID-19 policy, Kenney had to do something more than threaten to call a snap election the UCP was sure to lose to save his skin and get his dissident MLAs back into line. With so many of them, he could hardly boot them all out of caucus.
The target he picked pour encourager les autres was Olds-Didsbury MLA and Speaker Nathan Cooper, who unwisely signed the letter despite the tradition that Speakers must hold themselves above all partisanship.
It was a shrewd choice by the premier. First elected for the Wildrose Party, Cooper was interim leader of the UCP before Kenney had a seat in the legislature and is rumoured to still harbour ambitions to lead the party should the premier decide for any reason to move along.
Early yesterday, therefore, Kenney ripped the Speaker, telling a reporter, "the long-standing convention, of course, is for Speakers to scrupulously maintain their neutrality and in my 24 years as a parliamentarian, I cannot ever recall the Speaker having violated that until last week."
Later in the day in the legislature, Cooper publicly apologized.
"In haste, I engaged on a matter of political discourse that may have raised questions about the impartiality of the chair. Upon quiet reflection, and given the benefit of time, I have regret for my error in judgment," he said. "I apologize to each and every one of you for crossing a line that the Speaker ought not cross."
Notwithstanding his grovelling tone, sometimes in politics you can eat your cake and have it too. Presumably Cooper's original message was heard and acknowledged by his rural voters, and he is unlikely to suffer much permanent damage once his knuckles stop stinging.
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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