Jason Kenney, premier ministre de l’Alberta (Sean Kilpatrick La Presse canadienne)
By Hélène Lequitte, Initiative de journalisme local/Le Devoir
QUEBEC – The year 2020 will have been incredible in Alberta, marked by open conflict between the health sector and the Kenney government, in the midst of the pandemic. The province also saw the emergence of a new political movement, the Maverick Party (formerly Wexit), largely inspired by the Quebec model.
“The government had to deal with the epidemic when it was already in open conflict with the entire province’s medical profession,” said Duane Bratt, professor of political science at Mount Royal University in Calgary. At the end of February, Alberta was in such a precarious financial situation that the government of Jason Kenney wanted to make sweeping cuts to health and post-secondary education. These decisions were based on recommendations from former Saskatchewan finance minister Janice MacKinnon. The province was deemed too spendthrift.
The announcement from Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro fell like a cleaver just before the pandemic. It contained the revision of the funding model for physicians, the abolition of 16,000 public service posts, including 500 nursing posts, the cancellation of contracts for many radiologists as well as a clear political orientation towards privatization of the healthcare sector.
Health care services
According to Frédéric Boily, professor of political science at Campus Saint-Jean, this budgetary challenge is not new:
“The oil crisis has been there since about 2015. There is a structural problem in Alberta that cannot be attributed to strictly to the NDP government (which was in office from 2015 to 2019), even though the budget has grown with them. It goes beyond political parties, ”he analyzes.
A budget in search of balance
Balancing the budget is part of the mandate of the provincial government today. But at what cost?
“Alberta is heading for the next eight difficult years,” said Frédéric Boily.
While the Alberta government was taken aback by the COVID-19 pandemic earlier this year, this did not prevent Tyler Shandro in October from continuing to overwhelm health care services, cutting more than 11,000 jobs. A harbinger of what awaits the post-COVID-19 province.
“When the vaccine is administered and we start to come out of COVID, the situation will be worse,” said Duane Bratt.
“The province has already planned to lay off nursing staff,” he continues.
Political divisions exacerbated by the crisis
The situation only accentuates political divisions that are already very strong in the province.
“Before the pandemic, during and during the second wave, we saw a democratic opposition which is capable of making its point,” notes Frédéric Boily.
The latest decisions by Jason Kenney’s government have brought political gain for the NDP. When the United Conservative Party (UCP) entered into open conflict with the doctors in the province, when it was slow to put in place effective health restrictions to flatten the infection curve, these were all decisions that undermined the confidence of a majority of Albertans. “In Quebec too, there have been problems with the health system, but François Legault’s ability to back down is infinitely greater than that of Jason Kenney,” said Boily.
Some criticize the Premier of Alberta’s lack of empathy, driven by a concern not to displease his constituency. “Some people can see how they react to COVID-19 and how they do in other areas,” said Duane Bratt.
The crisis has left so much doubt that some conservative voters have deserted the UCP camp to found a new party, Wexit, which this year became the Maverick Party.
Quebec is, despite itself, a source of beliefs, but also of inspiration for the citizens of Alberta who see, with this new party, a means of obtaining more money like the province of ballast.
“Quebec has all these advantages, all this extra money, Alberta should do the same,” said Duane Bratt of comments usually heard in Alberta.
Frédéric Boily evokes in Jason Kenney a feeling less known to the general public, the fact that Quebec would be more successful in getting out of the game.
“While criticizing Quebec, he seeks to be inspired by and to copy it. The Bloc Québécois is successful in suggesting things for Quebec so let’s do the same on the Alberta side! He sees a pro-independence party as a way of instituting strategies, which, he thinks will pay off, ” said the professor.