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Jason Kenney's glaring absence keeps Alberta's rumour mill churning

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Alberta Premier Jason Kenney -- walking into the sunset, or what? (Photo: Chris Schwarz, Government of Alberta).

Now and again, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un or some other foreign dictator disappears for a spell and international media spins up a whirlwind of wild speculation.

Academic experts think the leader's dead, or maybe just in "a vegetative state." Experts theorize he's hiding out from a coup attempt, or has been arrested by coup plotters.

Foreign leaders may step in and comment, reports from their national intelligence services in their shaking hands.

Here in Alberta, meanwhile, we're dealing with the disappearance of provincial leaders in the middle of a serious public health crisis and a national election campaign with considerably more aplomb.

Our provincial strongman, Jason Kenney, fell off the radar three weeks ago. His office said at the time he was on a two-week vacation and where was none of our business.

We're now in the fourth week since he was last seen. As of yesterday, there was still no sign of him.

The premier doesn't seem to have left anyone in charge as the Delta variant of the COVID-19 virus charges through the population. The province's chief medical officer of health is also on vacation, we're told, and the health minister is communicating only by tweet.

Kenney is tweeting, too, but unlike Health Minister Tyler Shandro, his are obviously composed by a tone-deaf flunky. "Alberta is a great place to live, and we are working to make it even better," someone purporting to be the premier tweeted unhelpfully yesterday.

In a Parliamentary democracy, this is unusual -- perhaps unprecedented. Kenney's disappearance is a potentially significant development in the political history of Alberta.

As on those occasions when Kim has vanished in North Korea, Kenney's disappearance has prompted many rumours -- he's in France, he's in Greece, he's in London, he's praying a Benedictine retreat in British Columbia, he's about to quit, Erin O'Toole will name him ambassador to Washington, he's keeping his head down till the federal election is over so as not to remind voters what Conservatives do in power, and so on.

The last time something like this happened in Alberta was in 1943, when Social Credit premier William Aberhart went to Vancouver for a short springtime visit with his adult daughters. He never returned -- although he had an excellent excuse. Aberhart dropped dead on May 23 that year. He has resided in a Burnaby graveyard ever since.

Ernest Manning became premier of Alberta, and the Social Credit dynasty Aberhart founded lasted 36 years, until this very day in 1971.

Little is known about Kenney's personal life. In some ways he is a man of mystery. So you'd think his dereliction of duty at a moment of genuine crisis in the province's history -- especially since he seems to have left no one in charge -- would be a matter of journalistic inquiry.

This is Alberta, though. So apparently not.

Today marks the 50th anniversary of Peter Lougheed's victory

As noted, on this day in 1971 Peter Lougheed's Progressive Conservatives knocked off the by-then sclerotic Social Credit government founded by Aberhart in 1935 and changed over the years by Manning from a radical economic reform movement to a stodgy conservative party.

The last Social Credit Premier, Harry Strom, was no match for Lougheed's youthful vigour, political blogger Dave Cournoyer observed today. "Lougheed was a builder," Cournoyer wrote. "Oil money sure helped, but so did having a vision for making this province a better place."

Still, 36 years is not a bad run for any party, even if the dynasty founded by Lougheed broke that record by a few years, lasting more than four decades until the NDP Victory in May 2015.

No COVID news conferences? No problem? Rebel docs will hold their own

With Kenney missing in action along with Chief Medical Office of Health Deena Hinshaw, and Health Minister Tyler Shandro communicating Oz-like from behind a tweet curtain, a group of Alberta physicians has resolved to fix the information gap by providing their own regular COVID-19 updates.

If they succeed at attracting media attention, this may not please the Kenney government. Calling their group "Protect Our Province," the doctors are unlikely to be very sympathetic to the government's passive approach to coronavirus disease.

At the centre of the plan is Calgary Emergency Room physician Joe Vipond, who has been a thorn in the UCP's side since the start of the pandemic a year and a half ago.

The government is "allowing this disease to run unmitigated through our unvaccinated population," Vipond said at the group's first briefing yesterday. While the physicians hope to inform Albertans about the spread of COVID and answer questions, he said, "maybe we'll also be successful in flushing the government out."

The first of the online news conferences, which the docs plan to hold on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, gently mocked the government by playing the same annoying royalty-free music as at official newsers.

Controversial lawyer who hired PI to follow judge is back on job

The controversial lawyer who hired a private gumshoe to follow a Manitoba judge is back on the job as president of the so-called Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms after less than two months on leave.

John Carpay, a long-time friend of Premier Kenney and founder of the legal advocacy group associated with right-wing causes, was welcomed back, the JCCF's board insisted in an otherwise rather uninformative statement yesterday. His return "recognizes that the organization needs to end the uncertainty that comes with temporary leadership," it said.

The statement thanked lawyer Lisa Bildy, who was the group's interim president for seven weeks, for her service. While she has left, she may still be involved with some cases, a JCCF board member told me yesterday.

The Toronto Star, however, reported there was a shakeup on the group's board, described the changes as a purge, and quoted a former board member who called Carpay's return "kind of a putsch."

The Winnipeg Police are said to be investigating the effort to follow Chief Justice Glenn Joyal, who was presiding over a case in which the JCCF was representing a group of churches challenging public health restrictions when the PI's investigations were discovered.

New party seeks signatures to form Alberta Buffalo wing

The Buffalo Party is trying to round up enough signatures to become a legal provincial party in Alberta.

The former Wexit Saskatchewan Party successfully rebranded itself as that province's Buffalo Party in the fall of 2020, and supporters on this side of the Al-Sask frontier have been struggling to get enough signatures form an Alberta Buffalo wing as well.

Many of the party's principles wouldn't be out of place in better known political groups, but it is distinguished by the view the Buffalo Region -- Alberta, Saskatchewan and parts of the Northwest Territories that territorial premier Frederick Haultain hoped would become a single province in the early 20th Century -- are "a culturally distinct region of North America."

They need 8,473 eligible signatures -- 0.3 per cent of the total number of electors in the 2019 general election -- by Jan. 31, 2022. And while they've managed to get 9,600 on paper, they're worried plenty won't be found acceptable by Elections Alberta, said St. Paul resident David Inscho.

Whatever happens to the Buffalo Party, there's lots of enthusiasm in Wild Rose Country for new fringe parties. Elections Alberta's website indicates that in addition to the Buffalonians, the Alberta Unity Party, Alberta Patriot Party, Tax Revolt Party of Alberta, Alberta National Party, Alberta Statehood Party, Blue Collar Movement of Alberta, and Unlock Party of Alberta are all gathering signatures.

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: Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta

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