The last couple of days have not been our brightest moments in the fight against COVID-19. Ontario Premier Doug Ford finally brought in a stay-at-home order, after refusing to do so just a week ago. That lack of action last week led to scene of people stuffing malls and piled around the corners of Ikea stores, doing shopping and activities that were clearly not essential. It all flew in the face of what Ford had said he was trying to stop last week, but also highlighted that his weak, non-measures from last week were just avoiding the obvious; we need an actual lockdown.
As we see variants of COVID spike and continue to bring more illness, death and stress on our healthcare system, we’ve seen the calls rise from across the board for provincial governments to do their damn jobs and take this seriously. That has pushed Canada’s Premiers, who are mostly conservatives these days, to act in ways that they have simply pushed back against. They have resisted doing what public health and the science demands, to protect the lives of their constituents. While Ontario’s late action yesterday could be seen as “a day late and a dollar short”, Alberta has been the slowest and least willing to listen to the science or medical experts. Premier Jason Kenney’s COVID response has been shambolic and has brought his UCP government to new lows of public support.
Kenney’s ideological instinct to “do nothing” has not served him well and has helped to lead to Alberta’s lacking COVID response. Yet despite that, even Kenney himself moved on Tuesday to implement stronger restrictions, similar to what Ford did yesterday. He did that to avoid Alberta’s health care system from being swamped by COVID cases, finally recognizing the problem for his government. But while doing that on Tuesday, he gave us another tell as to why his government has been so slow and unwilling to act, while also foreshadowing something to come. He spoke about how some in his caucus didn’t support these measures. Given the outspoken nature of a few UCP caucus members who have public spoken against COVID measures, that didn’t come as a shock in of itself. No, that shock came yesterday when this happened, and raised many eyebrows:
15 UCP MLA’s telling their government and Premier to ignore science and the medical experts. A full quarter of his caucus, publicly telling Kenney to get stuffed. And these aren’t all 15 anonymous backbenchers of no importance or usual malcontents. On that list includes the Speaker of the Alberta Legislature Nathan Cooper, Deputy Speaker Angela Pitt and disgraced Hawaii travelling former minister Tracy Allard. These irresponsible MLA’s called Kenney’s moves “a step backwards” and called on the Premier to “defend their livelihoods and freedoms”, as if COVID gives a rats ass about what these MLA’s think. You’d think that after a year of going through COVID that these elected people would realize that COVID isn’t fair, doesn’t work on a political calendar, can’t be reasoned with and surely not with ideological political rhetoric. Yet here we are, these MLAs being as irresponsible as ever.
But what was as shocking about the public, loud declarations of these MLAs was the total silence and downright acquiescence of Premier Kenney to them. Seriously, a quarter of his caucus are telling him to basically let innocent people die so that they can remain ideologically pure and true, and he says nothing to push back against them. No, instead on Tuesday he told everyone that his party “respects the views of others”. Of course, Kenney giving that deference to his anti-public health MLAs to cover his own political ass undercuts the power and authority of the public health measures that he just announced. How exactly are people supposed to believe that his government will actually uphold these measures when his own government members are openly opposing them?
In most cases you would have seen some of the usual malcontents, like MLAs Drew Barnes and Angela Pitt, be tossed from the caucus long before this point, mostly to drive home the point of getting everyone on the same page. But Kenney has long resisted doing anything like that, and now he has 15 of his caucus members publicly coming out to contradict his governments public health measures in such an important moment. Also you can add a 16th to that list, as Calgary Herald columnist Don Braid also pointed out today that UCP MLA Dan Williams is also now speaking out publicly against the government forcing a church that has flaunted public health measures for months to comply. This all just boggles the mind.
But when it comes to conservative circles, that mindboggling isn’t confined to the Alberta Legislature. In Ontario two former members of Doug Ford’s caucus have been constantly against public health measures, including MPP Roman Baber who Ford rightly tossed from his caucus for that opposition. Kenney might be able to take a lesson from Ford there, but when you see what’s happening in Alberta you have to wonder how many other PC MPPs might feel the same way as Baber.
It Ottawa we have seen outbursts of this language with former Conservative MP Derek Sloan. After finally being tossed from the O’Toole Conservative caucus, this has been one of his hobby horses with Sloan even playing the role of political ambulance chaser as he rushed out to that church mentioned to shoot a video outside. But he is really just a side show of little importance.
Of greater importance and worry can a much more notable example of opposition to Alberta’s public health measures. None other than Conservative MP for Calgary Nose Hill and Erin O’Toole’s Health Critic Michelle Rempel Garner joined in with the letter-writing 15 MLAs in their opposition. The Western Standard reports that she has joined them, raising a lot of other serious questions for the already beleaguered and battered leadership of O’Toole. Rempel Garner is not some anonymous backbencher. She is a serious leader within the Conservative Party and one of their best-known MPs. Being named Health Critic during a global pandemic speaks to that, as you don’t put someone of that level and ability in such an important role at such an important time. Yet if you come out and take the side of these 15 MLAs, that raises serious, legitimate questions about your judgement or views about actually tackling the problem at hand. It also raises another serious question; if Rempel Garner is publicly saying what she is, how many other Conservative MPs feel the same way as she and other 15 MLAs do? And how is that influencing the approach being taken and proposed by Mr. O’Toole himself. Not only is that politically dangerous for the Conservatives, but it’s also dangerous for our efforts to fight this disease.
And for me, that’s the bottom line is trying to save lives and the public health measures that will bring that about. COVID has changed with these variants and we are learning more about the longer-term effects of this disease. The variants are affecting younger and healthier people. Almost the entire roster of the Vancouver Canucks has now caught COVID, many getting the P1 Brazilian variant that is so dangerous. That team isn’t made up of octogenarians and retirees collecting their old age security. It’s made up of some of the healthiest and best conditioned athletes on the planet, and they are being hurt now. On top of that, CNN reported yesterday about the results of a study on the effects of COVID that showed that “34% of Covid-19 survivors received a diagnosis for a neurological or psychological condition within six months of their infection”. If you look at patients who were hospitalized, the rate of those with neurological conditions rose to 39%. The more that we are learning about COVID, the more that we are finding that if you “recover” from it, you can have some serious long term health issues that could create more problems down the road.
The fact remains that those elected officials who ignore those facts in the pursuit of being pure to their ideology are being derelict in their duties. They are committing political malpractice when they spout buzzwords about “freedom” when they are basically talking about selfishness. They are willing to let people die or get seriously ill who don’t need to in order to not bother them as much. That’s crass, selfish behaviour that runs counter to basic decency and looking out for each other.
The Bible told us to look out for each other, to “be thy brothers’ keeper” and to “do onto others as you would have them do onto you”. Yet for these MLAs and MPPs, their message is more like “get off my lawn, leave me alone and I don’t care at all what happens to you”. That’s the message they are sending to those who are getting sick. That’s the message that they are sending to health care workers who are burned out, yet are still putting their lives on the line every day to save their fellow citizens. That’s the message that they are to the public at large.
If leaders like Jason Kenney and Erin O’Toole let that malignant behaviour stand and continue to live within their caucuses, that forces us all to question what that says about their commitment to saving the lives of others. Respecting the opinions of others is not more important than the lives of innocent citizens. The virus doesn’t give a damn about those opinions and this is one of those rare moments when a true leader acts realizing that. In this moment, if you feel that your opinions are more important than others staying alive, you don’t belong in anyone’s caucus. There are rare, serious moments when “respectfully disagreeing” isn’t alright. This is one of them and has been for the past year. None of us like having to take these steps, but we are putting our own wishes and comfort aside for the betterment of others. If those elected people can’t do the same, then they are clearly in the wrong line of work. Freedom is only for the living, and we have to live through this to enjoy freedom. If they can’t understand that they need to step down and let someone else who understands that to take their places.