(Mis)truths and consequences in Alberta

Observers of Alberta politics, both casual and serious, would be forgiven for feeling a bit off kilter these days. It's hard to find solid footing. But what is actually happening and what could that mean for the government or the province?

The political ground feels particularly shaky these days and that could spell trouble for the UCP

A small group of activists opposed to the UCP government's plans to allow coal mining in some parts of the Eastern Slopes of the Rockies gathered at the monolith sculpture in Maycroft, Alta., on March 14, 2021. (Lorraine Hjalte)

Observers of Alberta politics, both casual and serious, would be forgiven for feeling a bit off kilter these days. It's hard to find solid footing. 

Will open pit coal mines emerge on the eastern slopes? What about water rights? Is the government divesting of provincial parks and possibly selling the land? Did the government always intend to keep an opioid program going, despite fighting it in court? How much will we lose on the Keystone XL pipeline expansion or crude-by-rail?

Solid answers to these questions and more are hard to come by. Critics would say that's by design. 

Given what's happened south of the border for the past four-plus years, it's understandable if people are a bit twitchy when it comes to post-truth politics in this province and it raises the question of whether there are indeed parallels here.

There very well may be, but there are also vital differences, not only in the character of the politics and politicians, but also the character of the place. What passes for an effective sideshow in the states required a specific set of circumstances that currently do not exist in Alberta. 

It's not to say there hasn't been an effort to create them, or a chance the ground here will fertilize with time.

What's happening?

There is a growing list of issues that have come up in Alberta since 2019 that have left people feeling bewildered and, in some cases, angry. 

In just one example, on the Friday of a long weekend, the government sent out a news release saying it was rescinding a coal policy dating back to 1976. The perfect headline at the perfect time to avoid scrutiny. 

But it didn't work. People noticed. And although it took some time to build, anger eventually boiled over from too many Alberta factions for the government to ignore — including singers in cowboy hats and constituencies in the UCP's rural heartland. But it still tried. 

Kenney said the policy was dead and wouldn't come back. His environment and energy ministers said not much had changed. When news of changes to water allocations surfaced, the government said it was nothing. Still does. 

Eventually the government backed down, but only sort of. New exploration activity is already underway and new open pit mines could still open. There will be consultations. 

It was a rare defeat for the government, but still just a partial reversal. Denials about its impact continue.  

It reflects a pattern of defensiveness and deflection on many issues that leaves many observers, including UCP insiders, strategists, columnists and disaffected constituency association members, questioning the honesty of the party. 

There is a sort of gaslighting from the government that leaves many bewildered, according to Zain Velji, a political strategist who's quick to point out his progressive leanings when offering his insight (he worked for both Naheed Nenshi and Rachel Notley's campaigns). 

We never intended to increase coal mining, they might say, or we never intended to sell parks. The court challenge to retain access for clients to the injectable opioid agonist treatment program wasn't necessary because they were never going to cancel those treatments. The election commissioner was fired for efficiency and had nothing to do with an ongoing investigation into the UCP. 

Sean Holman, a professor of journalism at Mount Royal University who specializes in access to information, says the party "isn't operating in accordance with the evidence."

"They're operating according to what they want the world to be, as opposed to what the world actually is," Holman says. 

A man in a black suit stands at a podium. He is flanked by a large crowd of men and women in business attire.
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney announces the launch of the Canadian Energy Centre, also known as the war room, on Dec. 11, 2019. The war room is shielded from access to information laws. (Greg Fulmes/The Canadian Press)

He adds that, while most governments are secretive, Alberta governments tend to be moreso, and the UCP is more secretive still. 

The government has commissioned reports that critics say serve to justify predetermined outcomes, instigated an inquiry into environmental groups decried as a political witch hunt, and inaugurated an energy war room shielded from public scrutiny but funded by public dollars.

It has been ripping through new, and wide-ranging legislation and decrees at a feverish pace — pandemic be damned.

In the past, when a government wanted to dissuade prying eyes, it would lock down information.

That tradition is still alive and well in Alberta and beyond, but it is increasingly overshadowed by a newer technique in obfuscation: information overload. What Donald Trump advisor Steve Bannon referred to as "flooding the zone with shit."

John Santos, a data scientist with Janet Brown Opinion Research, likens it to going to a Chinese buffet that has so many options you could walk away without ever really eating any Chinese food. 

"When there is this much information out there, it's like you can assemble your own worldview from a menu that on the whole is incoherent, but has enough variation in the content there that you can craft any kind of coherent narrative out of it. And it will make sense to you," he says. 

That sort of thing shouldn't come as a surprise. 

The truth about post-truth

Much has been said about the rise of post-truth politics and populism, particularly in light of the last four years of the Trump presidency, Brexit and the erosion of democratic norms in countries from Europe to Asia. 

The mix of an angry population and a complete disregard for the truth can be damningly effective. 

Part of that is tapping into real grievances left in the wake of a world reshaped by money and power. Too many are left behind and too many feel ignored. Incomes gaps in the United States are vast and entire swaths of the country once buoyed by blue collar union jobs are long since rusted. 

The crucial ingredient, it seems, is this sense of being left behind by the wider world. Not necessarily pushed down, but forgotten. While that feeling is starting to bubble up in Alberta, it's not quite there. 

Trump, seen at a campaign stop in 2020. He managed to get away with his lies in part by being himself. (Tom Brenner/Reuters)

It is easy, in that context, to point to the elites running the show from boardrooms and the halls of power and paint them as the enemy. It's just as easy to paint those who would bring them down a notch as the saviours — no matter the harm. 

The followers of these charismatic leaders seem, to an outsider, incapable of realizing the lies behind them. Their belief is pure and unbending in many cases. 

That sort of thing can be tempting to tap into. And besides, a little truth manipulation has always been part of a politician's arsenal. It can work. 

But it needs more than simply a will to deceive. 

Why it's different here

Santos thinks the kind of populism that exists in Alberta, and has existed in many forms since its birth, is different from what we see elsewhere, where it's a socio-economic battle — the elites and the people. 

"I'm not saying that doesn't exist in Alberta," says Santos.

"But I think the larger element of populism in Alberta, especially historically, has defined the elite in geographical terms, i.e. central Canada, Ottawa, but also, you know, Ontario and Quebec more generally. And they've defined the elite in terms of institutional relations — so the federal government."

Alberta oil executive? One of us. Quebec-raised Prime Minister (named Trudeau!)? Definitely one of them.

There is no doubt there was a groundswell of anger across large chunks of the province when the NDP was in power and when Trudeau was re-elected, with many viewing both those governments as enemies of the energy industry — another defining factor of the political character of the province. 

The UCP was effective in channeling that frustration, and hammering home a message of cozy relations between Rachel Notley and Trudeau. 

But that message and that anger has faltered. The jobs that were promised never returned. The bluster and the fighting didn't seem to bring any results. The pandemic struck and the federal government seemed an important friend to have. 

There's also the question of leadership. 

Keystone XL didn’t look like a sure thing even before a Democrat won the White House. Now the pipeline is effectively dead, leaving Alberta with roughly $1.5 billion in lost investment, more people out of work, and fewer job prospects. Not a great start to 2021 for Alberta’s Premier, and it’s only January. Kathleen Petty looks at how Jason Kenney is handling this latest calamity, with independent columnist Graham Thomson, the Globe and Mail’s Kelly Cryderman and Jason Markusoff of Macleans.

In order to truly pull off a post-truth populist revolt and rush through a sweeping ideological agenda, the voters have to believe in the authenticity of the leader. It can allow you a kind of get-out-of-jail-free card when you get into trouble. 

Former Alberta premier Ralph Klein was famous for being inappropriate, apologizing, and getting away with it because he was Ralph. 

Kenney, for better or worse, is not Ralph Klein. Nor is he Trump. Or Boris. Or any of the other single-named populist agitators. 

"No one really knows who Jason Kenney is," says Velji. 

It's becoming increasingly possible that Kenney doesn't really know who Albertans are, either. 

Getting the story wrong

Do you remember Jason Kenney and his blue truck?

The premier-in-waiting showed up in Alberta after a long stint in Ottawa's halls of power with rolled up sleeves and at the wheel of that truck for his long drive to the province's top job. 

He signed grassroots guarantees. He drank coffee from Pyrex mugs in diners across the plains. He pitched himself as the Albertan his party envisioned and hoped to woo.

Jason Kenney drives his truck after meeting with reporters at the Blackfoot Diner and Truck Stop in 2018 as part of his campaign to be premier. (Dave Chidley/Canadian Press)

Since being elected, however, Kenney has surrounded himself with outsiders who insiders say don't know or understand Alberta. They think of this place in terms of stereotypes that don't apply and they're trying to use that stereotype in order to reshape the province. 

Calgary Sun columnist Rick Bell, speaking on the West of Centre podcast, wondered just who these people are who are surrounding the premier. And he says many insiders he's spoken to feel the same. 

Alberta’s premier ran on a promise to not back down. But public outcry over several issues from COVID restrictions to coal mines has caused Jason Kenney to pivot. His political adversaries say he should have gone much farther, while some UCP caucus members are openly critical. Guest host Jim Brown, in for Kathleen Petty, takes a look at Kenney’s strategy and his options, with pollster Marc Henry, president of ThinkHQ, conservative strategist Melissa Caouette of the Canadian Strategy Group and Calgary Sun columnist Rick Bell.

"This is the biggest complaint, it's this accusation of tone-deafness, that Kenney is pursuing his own world and it's not necessarily the world of Albertans as a whole, but also the 55 per cent of people who voted for him," Bell says. 

Velji puts it a slightly different way. He says Kenney and the UCP got their narrative wrong. They thought Alberta was something it's not and Albertans were something they aren't. All the decisions that have flowed from that initial error have been tainted.

He says he thinks Kenney is trying to sell Albertans a vision of the province they didn't know they wanted. Turns out, they might actually not want it. 

Instead of walking back or bending in the face of unpredictable and immense challenges and mounting resistance from Albertans, the government has, more often than not, doubled down. 

That could have consequences.

What's to come

The government finds itself in a tight spot, its narrative faltering and unable to channel hope or anger. A sort of misreading of the public, or at least the public mood, coupled with a lack of faith in the authenticity of the leader is hampering any ability for the struggling party to fight back. 

It seems on most days that the government is drowning in a sea of information, action and controversy of its own making. 

Velji, for one, thinks Kenney always intended to burn through his political capital in the first two years and thinks there's a chance he has a sales pitch up his sleeve that could entice believers and fence sitters back into the fold. 

But that plan would be more realistic in a four-year term unmarred by the challenges and uncertainty this government has faced (there is that pandemic going on). 

It's also increasingly clear that Kenney and the UCP will have to busy themselves fighting internal battles within their right-wing coalition in addition to wooing voters in the lead up to the next election. 

Kenney is deeply unpopular and the NDP appear to be tightening their grip on Alberta's political centre — where most Alberta voters are.

One point of light in the bad year for the UCP? If the NDP performs well and continues to gain popularity, it could pump support back into the current government. 

When the opposition becomes too popular, the incumbent can become the underdog, says Velji. 

If that happens, it will be time for Kenney to roll up his sleeves, get behind the wheel and pitch the voters anew. It could be a tough sell. 

"I think, aside from sort of the diehard partisans, who are either going to criticize this government regardless, or support this government regardless, I think the moderates, the underlying sort of soft partisans, will admit that this government made bad moves in putting forward some of those policies to begin with and were totally wrong, and they're just trying to cover their tracks now," says Santos.


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.