As Coutts anti-mandate blockade continues, Alberta government plans to drop vaccine passports
Without admitting it's bowing to truckers' demands, province seems to be bowing to truckers' demands
This column is an opinion from Graham Thomson, an award-winning journalist who has covered Alberta politics for more than 30 years. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.
Sow the wind, reap the whirlwind.
Or in this case, sow the conflict, reap the cross-border blockade.
On January 22, Premier Jason Kenney declared in a tweet that "Ottawa's trucker vaccine mandate has to go."
Days later, a truck convoy of protesters angry at the vaccine mandate began tying up an Alberta-Montana border crossing.
That's not to say Kenney was actively encouraging unruly demonstrators to lay siege to the Coutts crossing as a protest against the federal government. But Kenney knew about the anger building among a minority of truckers who had chosen to be unvaccinated and therefore unable to freely travel across the border.
He has supported truckers' right to protest whether in Ottawa or in Coutts as long as they "do it in a way that's respectful."
But Kenney made it sound as if those Freedom Convoys had a legitimate chance of forcing the Canadian government to reverse the vaccine mandate on cross-border truckers, just as he made it sound like his trip to Washington D.C. last weekend could help convince the American government to reverse its own identical vaccine mandate on cross-border truckers.
Watch| Kenney says province ready to lift restrictions soon
Neither tactic had any chance of success. The cross-border mandate was an international agreement not open to cancellation by a convoy of dissenters representing a minority of Canada's trucking industry.
But the convoys remain: one making life miserable for people in downtown Ottawa and another making life miserable for people at the Coutts border crossing.
The protesters might be comforted to know that Kenney shares in their misery, at least when it comes to their actions at the Montana border.
Alberta's blockaders have turned their ire toward the Kenney government and its pandemic mandates, most notably the province's vaccine passport, or as Kenney euphemistically named it last September, the Restrictions Exemption Program (REP).
Some truckers have claimed they've been in unofficial, backdoor negotiations with the Alberta government the past few days to lift the REP in exchange for an end to the blockade.
The government has denied any such talks.
However, it would seem the government is suddenly in a rush to end the REP.
In a Facebook live appearance Thursday night, Kenney announced that "early next week, Alberta will announce a firm date to end the REP."
That's a rapid change from his position just last week when he said the REP might be lifted by the end of March. On Tuesday this week, as the Coutts blockade remained firm, Kenney said he might scrap the REP by the end of February.
On Wednesday, as the police proved unable to end the blockade, the chair of the UCP caucus issued a statement saying the REP would be lifted "likely within days."
On Thursday, with a second blockade popping up near Coutts, the government began to organize internal opposition to its own REP by circulating an email to its MLAs giving them approved talking points to speak out against vaccine passports.
This opened a rhetorical dam and allowed a coterie of rural MLAs who have been itching to speak out against vaccine mandates the freedom to shout their opposition from the rooftops.
Among them were Environment Minister and government House leader Jason Nixon, who issued a statement Thursday afternoon, saying, "I have been making it clear to the Premier and my colleagues that I oppose the continued use of the Restrictions Exemptions Program."
Scrapping the program, though, will create a number of problems for Kenney.
Placate the base
Most damaging is the appearance he is caving in to the truckers and their illegal blockade, not just because he wants to clear the Coutts crossing but because he is once again desperate to placate his conservative base in rural Alberta as he faces a leadership review by United Conservative Party members on April 9.
Another is the apparent hypocrisy of a government that talked tough against anti-pipeline blockades by First Nations protesters in 2020 — sparking the introduction of the Critical Infrastructure Defence Act — but sounded much less aggressive this week when dealing with anti-vaccine-mandate truckers.
Then there are the warnings from health-care professionals worried that lifting the vaccine passport system will lead to a spike in COVID cases. And municipal politicians, including Edmonton Mayor Amarjeet Sohi, are looking at crafting their own pandemic measures if Kenney acts "too soon and too fast."
But Kenney isn't focused on Edmonton these days. It's all about Coutts and angry truckers and a Conservative base in rural areas that he's counting on to support him during that leadership vote.
Once again he seems to be playing both arsonist and firefighter.
If he inadvertently helped inflame the truckers' rebellion on the Montana border, he is no doubt hoping he can now help extinguish the flames by tossing the Restrictions Exemption Program into the fire.
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