Alberta premier apologizes for controversial Sky Palace dinner

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney apologized on Monday for a controversial dinner that critics, including from his own caucus, say appeared to violate COVID-19 public health rules.

Kenney says it's important to lead by example and admits he hasn't always done so perfectly

Premier Jason Kenney, Environment and Parks Minister Jason Nixon, Finance Minister Travis Toews, Health Minister Tyler Shandro and a staff member were photographed without their knowledge while dining outdoors on a terrace of a building at the Alberta legislature grounds in Edmonton on June 1. (Submitted)

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney apologized on Monday for a controversial dinner that critics, including from his own caucus, say appeared to violate COVID-19 public health rules.

"I have tried hard to observe the public health rules," he said. "I thought it's important for me to lead by example, but I have to admit I haven't always done that perfectly."

Kenney, Health Minister Tyler Shandro, Environment and Parks Minister Jason Nixon, Finance Minister Travis Toews, interim chief of staff Larry Kaumeyer and deputy chief of staff Pam Livingston were photographed without their knowledge while dining outside.

Members of the group came under fire because some felt the group appeared to not be following Alberta's Stage 1 rules for outdoor social gatherings. The gathering took place at a government building on the Alberta legislative grounds, on the patio of a suite nicknamed the "Sky Palace" during a spending scandal involving former premier Alison Redford.

Alberta's Stage 1 reopening rules, which came into effect earlier the day of the dinner, allow outdoor social gatherings of up to 10 people, but they still must be physically distanced. The outdoor gatherings also must not have an indoor component. 

Kenney had insisted that all COVID-19 public health regulations were followed at that gathering, but critics questioned whether they were the mandatory two metres apart since none were wearing masks.

WATCH | Kenney's apology:

Premier Jason Kenney apologizes for dinner controversy

2 years ago
Duration 1:06
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney apologized for failing to observe social distancing measures during an evening meeting with cabinet ministers and staff members on Alberta legislature grounds.

On Monday, the premier said they tried to follow the rules, but admits some people were sitting too close and says he should "set a higher threshold of conduct."

"I want to sincerely to apologize to my colleagues and to Albertans for letting you down for not being more careful to scrupulously follow every aspect of the public health guidelines that we expect of everyone," he said.

Criticism from cabinet and caucus

The apology comes after a week of controversy after the photo of the gathering surfaced, including public criticism from two cabinet ministers and other members of the United Conservative Party (UCP) caucus. 

Leela Aheer, Alberta's minister of culture, multiculturalism and the status of women, was one of those taking issue with the dinner. She confirmed to CBC News that she had a call with the premier Sunday night.

"I think he understands the pain Albertans are feeling right now and the optics of that situation," she said.

Minister of Community and Social Services Rajan Sawhney, who is the member of the legislature for Calgary-North East, and two UCP backbenchers also publicly criticized the dinner. 

Legislative deputy speaker Angela Pitt, who represents Airdrie-East, said she thought it seemed clear that health restrictions were violated and accused senior officials of "hypocrisy." 

"I think that response could have been right away. 'I'm sorry, I screwed up, please forgive me, I'll do better in the future.' It should have happened immediately," Pitt said Monday. "Rather, it was public pressure that prompted the premier to respond."

And Richard Gotfried, the representative for Calgary-Fish Creek, posted a statement to Facebook Sunday that called on all elected representatives at all levels of government across the province to show leadership and act responsibly.

On Monday, UCP legislative member David Hanson, who represents Bonnyville-Cold Lake-St. Paul, said the apology came days late — and that he's losing confidence in the direction the government is going.

"I'm expecting now that they've admitted some wrongdoing we'll have to look and see what the consequences are for those involved," he said.

Pitt agreed that there needs to be "some sort of accountability."

"The premier clearly laid out the rules for members of his caucus who violate health measures," she said.

    Alberta pollster and political commentator Janet Brown said it appears that, after a quieter stretch, the cracks within the United Conservative Party are growing again.

    "When the premier introduced the last series of lockdown measures, kicked a couple of contentious members out of caucus, things seemed to quiet down, and we weren't really seeing any dissension from caucus," Brown said Sunday. 

    "It looked like things were calming down and we wondered whether Jason Kenney had sort of regrouped after the last caucus uprising. But no, it would seem like the cracks have re-emerged."

    Cancel culture

    Aheer has also taken issue with Kenney's "cancel culture" comments in the debate about changing school names that refer to architects of the residential school system and the premier's defence of Sir John A. Macdonald's legacy in light of preliminary findings from a survey of the grounds at a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C., that indicate the remains of 215 children could be buried at the site.

    Kenney said efforts to remove statues and change the names of buildings, including schools, was part of an effort to cancel the country's first prime minister

    "These deplorable acts are not to be debated. Sir John A. Macdonald and Hector-Louis Langevin, among others, were architects of the residential schools where children died because of disease, neglect, and beatings," Aheer said on Saturday. 

    On Monday, she reiterated that critique and said "there's a tone that needs to be struck" when talking about dead children and that tone needs to be appropriate in discussions going forward."

    Kenney called residential schools a "terrible evil" on Monday, but said that should not "lead us to erase most of our history."

    Hanson said the premier's comments should have focused on the children, not on the perpetrators. He said the province has worked hard at reconciliation.

    "All of that work and effort can be destroyed by a few insensitive comments," he said.

    With files from the CBC's Elise von Scheel, Thandiwe Konguavi and Sarah Rieger