Alberta Premier Jason Kenney at yesterday's COVID-19 briefing. Image credit: Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta via Alberta Newsroom/Flickr

It would be hard to find a purer example of gaslighting than Premier Jason Kenney’s straight-faced claim during yesterday’s COVID-19 news conference that the New Democratic Party opposition and other advocates of a more cautious approach to reopening Alberta have formed a “strange alliance” with anti-vaxxers to undermine public confidence in vaccines.

Gaslighting, an increasingly common term in Canadian political usage since it seems nowadays to make up a key part of the Conservative playbook, is defined as trying to undermine someone’s feelings of sanity by denying obvious facts.

Of course, no one in the opposition is going to actually doubt their sanity upon hearing Premier Kenney’s nonsense, but the premier’s rhetorical gymnastics nevertheless make you want to give your head a shake.

Consider the premier’s response to a sympathetic question by Calgary Sun political columnist Rick Bell during the tightly controlled media-questions portion of the news conference with Chief Medical Officer of Health Deena Hinshaw.

Bell had asked:

“What do you say to those people who keep insisting, no matter what you say, no matter what Dr. Hinshaw says, no matter what other people say, keep insisting that this plan is horrible, reckless, and will lead to all sorts of very horrific, uh, you know, a very horrific future?”

This softball gave the premier exactly what he needed to bloviate at length in his typical run-out-the-clock fashion.

“I’ll just go one step further on this, Rick,” Kenney said after rambling on for a while. “I find it peculiar as we kind of move to this hopefully last stage of the COVID debate, we see a kind of strange alliance coming together, of those on the two polarities of the debate, the two extremes of the debate.

“Because they’re both, now, questioning, or doubting, the efficacy of vaccines!

“Um, we have some, vaccine skeptics who, it’s just their reflected position, and are opposed to the government promoting vaccines.

“And on the other end of the spectrum, with those who support hard lockdowns, they’re essentially telling us that vaccines are not actually a way out of this regardless of the real lived experience in jurisdictions with high levels of population protection.

“So I would respectfully suggest to those folks that they are undermining public confidence in the protective effect of vaccines.” (Emphasis added.)

Needless to say, this is a gross misrepresentation of what Kenney’s opponents in the caution camp are saying.

No one calling for a more cautious re-opening is questioning the ability of COVID-19 vaccines to create immunity. They’re saying they need to be used correctly. As in, read the instructions on the bottle!

The issue is that many experts, although apparently not Hinshaw, argue that vaccinating 70 per cent of the population with one shot of a two-shot vaccine is not enough to create sufficient immunity to rapidly drop all COVID-mitigation measures, as the premier’s plan proposes.

Indeed, if 70 per cent vaccination is the gold standard for re-opening, and full vaccination requires two shots, 70 per cent of the population with one shot amounts to only 35 per cent of the vaccinations that need to be administered.

The claim that anyone opposing a recklessly fast re-opening is undermining public confidence in COVID vaccines is utter pish-posh, and Kenney certainly knows it perfectly well.

Other than gaslighting, what Kenney was even doing at the news conference is not entirely clear, unless he felt he had to be on hand to ensure Hinshaw stuck to her talking points.

Her defence of the government’s plan, naturally, was the focus of most media coverage of the newser. “My team and I were fully engaged in the development of this plan,” she said, quite possibly a response to a usually cooperative Postmedia columnist’s suggestion the day before she might not have been.

“I believe this plan is a prudent approach to re-opening, with Stage 1 prioritizing the easing of low-risk outdoor activities, and only proceeding to the next stage as thresholds are met and the two-week window ends,” Hinshaw went on, providing Kenney with the justification he needed.

While Hinshaw is certainly properly qualified to weigh in on this debate, that does not mean all experts in her field say the same thing.

A previous occupant of her job, for example, certainly holds a strikingly different view.

In an interview with Global News the day before yesterday, former chief medical officer of health James Talbot, who left the job in 2015 and is now co-chair of the Edmonton Zone Medical Staff Association’s COVID-19 committee, characterized the Kenney plan as “aggressive to the point of recklessness.”

“Virtually every other jurisdiction is doing a much slower, less aggressive reopening,” Talbot explained to Global’s reporter.

According to Kenney’s logic, Talbot can now be lumped in with the anti-vaxxers and the NDP as well.

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: Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta via Alberta Newsroom/Flickr

David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...