Dissent in the time of COVID

New bills that give extraordinary power to cabinet ministers, rushed budget approvals and lashing out at critics show dissent is critical in the midst of a crisis.

As Alberta tries to contain pandemic, it's crucial to protect dissent and democracy

Protesters in downtown Calgary marched in February in response to budget cuts announced by the provincial government. (Helen Pike/CBC)

In Alberta, the legislature continues to sit and follow its mostly normal course amidst the current pandemic. Democracy, it seems, is functioning despite the challenges and limitations.

But if you look harder, you see that the MLAs sitting at their desks is a veneer that masks the challenges to democracy in the coronavirus crisis, from remarkable new powers for cabinet ministers to lashing out at critics at a time when dissent is more important than ever.

Paradoxically, sitting in the legislature can demonstrate rigidity to the performance of democracy, rather than the required flexibility and collaboration that is its true hallmark. Anyone can sit at a desk and watch a majority government pass its own bills, even controversial ones, with above average speed.

In a crisis like this pandemic, however, openness and a willingness to bend in the face of new information, new ideas, new developments, is critical.

Dissent, too often disparaged as shrill partisanship in Alberta — and by the Alberta government — is fundamental.

Alberta's democratic deficit

Concerns over the state of democracy in Alberta certainly didn't arrive with the first case of COVID-19, nor with the UCP government, but there are some recent developments that have raised alarms.

Bill 10 recently sailed through the legislature with a speed beyond what's normally enjoyed by a majority government. It gave new and broad powers to Alberta cabinet ministers to craft new laws at what amounts to decree.

John Carpay, the head of the conservative Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, calls the bill an "affront to the law" in a National Post column, pointing to the fact that it was rushed through the legislature in less than 48 hours.

The most recent budget was also hurried through, even though there were howls of opposition due to its woefully outdated oil revenue and fiscal projections.

The Alberta Legislature in Edmonton, as pictured on Feb. 27, 2020. (Juris Graney/CBC)

In a time of crisis, the rapidly passed legislation demonstrates a government that continues to press its majority advantage, even as most eyes are elsewhere.

"I honestly think any government that wants to pass that kind of legislation with that speed really needs to have a really good reason to do it," said Melanee Thomas, a political scientist from the University of Calgary, who was singled out by the premier in the legislature for her criticism of previous legislation.

"And if they don't, then the question is, 'so what are you afraid of?'"

That question could be answered by looking at the values that Albertans hold and the disregard for dissent within the province, even without a crisis unfolding at alarming speed.

Albertans drawn to 'strong leadership'

A recent survey conducted for CBC News shows that 55 per cent of Albertans agree with the statement "strong leadership is more important than debate and deliberation," while 41 per cent disagreed. Fully 27 per cent of respondents strongly agreed with the sentiment, while only 16 per cent strongly disagreed.

It is part of our political culture, fomented in a place that really does prefer to do one thing at a time and elect one party during that time.

We had agriculture and it dominated. We had the Socreds, and they, too, dominated.

Then we had oil and the PCs emerged and ruled for 44 years.

Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro confronted a doctor at his home after the doctor posted a meme attacking Shandro. (Dave Bajer/CBC )

If anything, we prefer to push our discontent and dissent outward — traditionally toward the Laurentian Elites of Eastern Canada, and now also the foreign-funded radical environmentalists, even if they might be our not-so-foreign-funded neighbours.

"Authoritarianism as a value, it's usually defined as a preference for conformity, and in the enforcement of social conformity over individual autonomy, particularly when individual autonomy threatens or is perceived to threaten social cohesion," said John Santos, a data scientist with Janet Brown Opinion Research, which conducted the survey for CBC News.

This sort of thing needs an enemy, and the current government has proven itself skilled at reflecting back our values.

The current state of dissent in Alberta

Premier Jason Kenney has taken a more diplomatic stance since the price of oil first cratered and has largely maintained that as the virus descended on Alberta. But the government over which he maintains tight control continues to attack critics with potent ferocity.

Doctors concerned about their pay and additional stress during a pandemic are ignored, or worse, confronted in person by the health minister.

Cuts to education were announced on a Saturday afternoon, days after the minister of education said funding would be maintained. The ensuing outrage was shrugged off.

Peter Lougheed led the PCs to victory over the long-ruling Social Credit government in 1971. (The Canadian Press)

On social media, the premier's executive director of issues management, Matt Wolf, is a regular figure attacking those who levy criticism at the government, including Prof. Thomas.

"You've got people who are being formally paid as important government actors, public-facing government actors, to say this substantive criticism is just partisan bitterness — this is literally us using tax dollars to erode democratic norms," Thomas said.

Wolf did not respond to an interview request.

That confrontational style is something Kenney relished before his oil crash and pandemic transformation, often lashing out at the so-called foreign-funded urban elite environmental radicals who were trying to undermine Alberta. 

Even now Kenney sometimes finds his old footing. On the weekend, he attacked Canada's top health official, accusing her of toeing the party line for China and reacting too slowly to the crisis. He also said his government might bypass Health Canada to get drugs and tests into the province more quickly.

This is, in short, a government that does not look favourably upon dissent, and does not appear willing to listen to other solutions.

And it knows how to monkey-wrench public sentiment against any dissent.

The paradox of dissent

Because the thing about the current state of contemporary dissent, born from the counterculture uprisings of the 1960s, is that it initiated a sort of arms race. Dissent rises, is co-opted by the mainstream, which forces a new sort of countercultural reaction and on and on and on.

"The result is that we now have trouble distinguishing between the dissenters to whom we need to listen, on the one hand, and the criminals and cranks, the irrational or morally bankrupt on the other," wrote Andrew Potter in an essay on dissent in the Literary Review of Canada, echoing his earlier work in The Rebel Sell.

This sort of muddying of the waters through a constant cycle of co-optation and radicalization has made it easier for the politically savvy to discount dissent as the mad ramblings of a conspiracist or the shrill cry of a partisan.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has softened his rhetoric in the face of the pandemic, but still finds his old aggressive footing even in the midst of the crisis. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

Dissent, in this view, can lead to its own demise, allowing governments and those who support them to push for a clampdown.

It's also evident in the tight position Alberta's Official Opposition finds itself, where criticism of the government in a crisis, even if valid, can be perceived as sour grapes, or worse.

The government, then, can push through its agenda. The more voracious and antagonistic it is in doing so, and the more criticism that engenders from the opposition, will only lead to an increased perception that the opposition is the real problem and needs to quiet down.

All of this can have troubling consequences.

What's at stake

It might have been Winston Churchill who first said "never let a good crisis go to waste," and it was definitely Milton Friedman who said "there is nothing so permanent as a temporary government program."

Regardless of the veracity of the attributions, both quotes highlight the need for greater public scrutiny in this current maelstrom.

The federal government is considering introducing legislation to make it an offence to knowingly spread what it deems misinformation that could harm people, while in Alberta, Kenney has said his government is considering tracking Albertans through smartphone apps to fight the spread of the virus.

The Alberta government has said it might track citizens through their smartphones as part of its pandemic response. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Those are just two examples of the kind of laws that can be passed during a crisis that would be unthinkable in more normal times.

"Once the laws go on the books, lawmakers and bureaucrats go on to more important matters of the day and forget about what's already on the books, which is why the Criminal Code of Canada has expanded from a svelte 1,115 pages in 1985 to 2,320 pages in 2014," said Sharon Polsky, with the Rocky Mountain Civil Liberties Association.

No libertarians in a health crisis

Just as there's often a dearth of atheists in foxholes, so, too, is it difficult to find a libertarian in the midst of a public health crisis. It means that all of us are more vulnerable to the power grabs that can ensue.

Just because some dissent is well and truly the ramblings of confused minds, and we can confidently say that 5G networks operated by Bill Gates did not spawn COVID-19, doesn't mean we should completely put our faith in government to tell us what is and isn't true.

We certainly can't use that kind of extreme example as an avenue to discount important and relevant critiques.

"What is permissible and not permissible is protected according to the views of whoever is setting the standard," said Polsky.

"So you think your opinion is valid? I think mine is valid and we both might think the others are crackpots with totally useless opinions or dangerous opinions. What happens when one of us is the person making the laws and declares that anybody who disagrees with our viewpoint should be stifled, jailed, re-educated?"

Methodology of the CBC News survey:

The random survey of 1,200 Albertans was conducted using a hybrid method between March 2 and March 18, 2020, by Edmonton-based Trend Research under the direction of Janet Brown Opinion Research. The sample is representative along regional, age and gender factors. The margin of error is +/- 2.8 percentage points, 19 times out of 20. For subsets, the margin of error is larger.


Drew Anderson

Former CBC digital journalist

Drew Anderson was a digital journalist with CBC Calgary from 2015 to 2021 and is a third-generation Calgarian.