Did the members of United Conservative Party caucus all accidentally leave their earplugs in the legislature building in their hurry to get out of Dodge when Premier Jason Kenney ordered them home for an extended COVID break a week ago?
With police finally showing signs of cracking down on open defiance of public health orders during the deadliest epidemic in Alberta in a century, you have to wonder how else the Kenney government found out a majority of Albertans were not happy about what determined COVID-19 super-spreaders were getting away with, encouraged by ideological enablers in the UCP caucus.
It’s possible the Kenney Conservatives have polling results that quantify what Albertans really think about the dangerous anti-social behaviour of a quarter of the UCP caucus, those openly opposing restrictions on the spread of the coronavirus.
Or it could be a matter of cluing into a less formal kind of polling — the number of callers to constituency offices furious at the government for not doing enough about COVID-19 compared with the number who are outraged because they still think COVID is just “an influenza,” as Kenney himself once put it, and we should all be allowed to get back to whatever we feel like doing.
Alternative theories about this are circulating on the internet as well, of course. One is that Kenney is still reluctant to see COVID-19 restrictions enforced, but police are stepping up enforcement to defy him for appearing to blame their advice for his government’s lackadaisical approach to enforcement.
Whatever prompted it, in the past couple of days we have been treated to video of Calgary Police arresting the Pawlowski brothers, Artur and Dawid, for organizing an illegal in-person gathering at their highly politicized church in Calgary, and Mounties in Central Alberta shutting down a greasy spoon café, arresting its owner for defying COVID restrictions and ticketing members of the small crowd that showed up to protest.
The latest arrests may not seem like much, but whatever the explanation they represent something of a sea change for the Kenney government and police, who hitherto benignly neglected such activities if they bothered to respond at all.
They were the first aggressive actions against serial defiance of public health orders since police and officials reluctantly fenced off GraceLife Church just outside Edmonton on April 7, prompting a huge brouhaha on right-wing media in the United States and among its imitators in Canada.
Naturally, many concerned Albertans attributed the serial defiance of the rules to the fact Kenney has nurtured Alberta’s conspiracy-minded far-right fringe since 2017 when he made the switch to provincial politics and saw a need to outflank Wild Rose Party leader Brian Jean on the right. But based on what he saw from his comfortable federal perch in Ottawa, he seems to have missed that Albertans aren’t exactly the monolithic far-right block the province’s federal electoral results suggest.
Still, Kenney did seem to experience a road-to-Damascus moment about the need for coronavirus restrictions during the pandemic’s increasingly ugly third wave — especially after it became apparent Alberta had the worst collective case of COVID-19 in North America, with infection rates higher than those found in some Third World countries.
How long the premier sticks with this, or whether it’s just another wild Jason Kenney flip-flop accompanied by his characteristic belligerent insistence he has in fact been completely consistent all along, remains to be seen.
It would not be out of character for the premier to talk tough while his government fails to do much more enforcement or quietly drops charges before hurrying back to another premature re-opening and into a potential fourth wave.
For now, Kenney’s foes on the Alberta right’s fringe are lumping him in with their other favourite imagined villains, such as Justin Trudeau and Bill Gates, for his apparent change of heart.
Chatter on the internet also suggested the COVID-18 — as the members of the UCP’s large COVID-19 denial caucus are coming to be known — have fallen silent.
This seems premature, though. After all, rebel UCP MLA Drew Barnes, putative leader of the COVID-18, was on national television yesterday insisting to the CBC’s Rosemary Barton that Alberta will suffer grave damage if private gyms aren’t allowed to re-open immediately and smirkingly refusing to say whether or not he’s been vaccinated.
Having let the genie out of the bottle, it will take Alberta more than a couple of high-profile arrests to put it back in.
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 YouTube video