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Debate on Alberta's dismal COVID-19 record migrates to House of Commons

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Edmonton Strathcona MP Heather McPherson during yesterday's emergency debate on COVID-19 in Alberta. Image: Screenshot of House of Commons video

Not only is the Kenney government's response to the coronavirus pandemic a spectacular failure, its strategy for suppressing public awareness of just how bad things have become in Alberta dramatically unravelled yesterday.

Having used the wildfire spread of COVID-19 in Alberta as an excuse to unilaterally shut down debate in the Alberta legislature on Sunday, Premier Jason Kenney's strategic brain trust adopted a strategy of trying to look busy to distract from the fact Alberta now has the highest COVID infection rate in North America, 534 per 100,000 population, making U.S. hotspots like Michigan and Colorado look tame by comparison.

Obviously hoping to restore confidence in his government's dismal performance, Premier Kenney hosted daily news conferences this week. They propounded excuses about why Alberta is doing so badly (Monday), announced new short-term infection mitigation restrictions (Tuesday), and declared that, henceforth, every man, woman and child over 12 could sign up for a vaccine shot (yesterday).

Surely, UCP strategists must have concluded, yesterday's dramatic vaccine announcement would be enough to get people to forget the 2,271 new COVID cases reported the same day, or that it was the sixth anniversary of the election of an NDP government in Alberta, a historical event that's starting to look pretty good in the rear-view mirror.

No sooner had that happened, though, than Edmonton Strathcona NDP member of Parliament Heather McPherson persuaded her fellow federal MPs to participate in an emergency debate on Alberta's COVID-19 crisis.

The Canadian Press could not resist the irony, leading the story that will appear in media across Canada today, "Alberta's legislature may have been silenced but its partisan warfare relocated Wednesday to the House of Commons as MPs held an emergency debate on the province's soaring number of COVID-19 cases."

"If you want to know why it is so bad in Alberta, why other provinces have withstood the third wave better than my province, the answer is clear," McPherson told the House. "It is Jason Kenney."

"Thanks to the bumbling, stumbling joke that our provincial government has become, we have the single, greatest health crisis that Alberta has ever seen," she said, excoriating Kenney personally for his Donald Trump-style response to the disease.

Alberta has failed at both of Kenney's claimed priorities, she noted -- lives and livelihoods. "We have the worst infection rate, and we have the greatest impact on our economy!"

McPherson is the only non-Conservative MP from Alberta in the Commons. So some of the remaining 33 were forced to their feet to dream up unpersuasive excuses for Kenney's catastrophic performance or to try to make it appear as if this were somehow all Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's fault.

Well, props to them for gamely talking on this Sisyphean task!

Conservative Health Critic Michelle Rempel Garner, the Oklahoma-based MP for Calgary Nose Hill, tried to blame the state of the provincial economy for Kenney's lousy pandemic performance and called the Liberals "bourgeois" for not understanding the pressures on Alberta's working class. Next, one supposes, federal Conservatives will be hoisting the red banner of the proletariat and singing The Internationale.

Sherwood Park-Fort Saskatchewan MP Garnett Genuis, no genius, hilariously complained that Parliament should "leave the provincial debates to the provincial legislatures instead of using this seat to attack provincial politicians who aren't even here to defend themselves." Apparently he forgot Kenney wasn't in the Alberta legislature to defend himself either -- intentionally.

Given Premier Kenney's epic failure, McPherson called on the prime minister to help Albertans. "Alberta needs the federal government to step up to the plate," she said. "We need this government to work directly with Indigenous communities and Alberta municipalities to deliver the support they need to get through the third wave."

For his part, Trudeau said in a statement he called Kenney today and "offered the federal government's support to assist Alberta in responding to the rising number of COVID-19 cases in the province, including to help Indigenous communities."

Most Albertans understand Kenney is unlikely to accept such an offer from a government headed by a man he considers his arch-foe.

As for Kenney's announcement any Albertan could sign up for a COVID-19 vaccine -- after months of claiming there are vaccine shortages and blaming Trudeau -- it is not clear whether the province can deliver on its promise. Albertans should remember that being eligible for a vaccine is not the same as getting one.

Some will doubtless suspect Kenney is intentionally setting them up for disappointment and cancelled appointments so he can blame Ottawa.

Even with his characteristic intense partisanship, though, this seems unlikely. It would not be out of character, however, for the provincial announcement to have been premature, pushed out in a hurry to distract from the week's frightening statistics.

In fairness, Alberta's vaccination effort has gone quite well. The problem is the Kenney government's unwillingness to impose adequate COVID suppression measures while vaccinations proceed, keep them in place long enough to have meaningful effect, or enforce the ones we have.

In addition to the record 2,271 new cases yesterday, Alberta reported 24,156 active cases, 666 hospitalizations, 146 in intensive care, and three more deaths, bringing the total of COVID-19 deaths in the province to 2,102. Labs are so overwhelmed Alberta has stopped testing for variants of concern.

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: Screenshot of House of Commons video

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