We Albertans are patient and fair minded, but we have had enough of your campaign of defamation and double standards. Today, we begin to stand up for ourselves, for our jobs, for our future. Today we begin to fight back.
~ Premier Jason Kenney on election night, April 16, 2019
For as long as Alberta has dealt with the inevitable boom-and-bust cycle of export-driven economies, political leaders have responded to economic downturns by identifying an enemy, placing the blame for Albertans’ economic woes on that enemy, and rallying Albertans in opposition to it. William Aberhart ranted against the banks and “the 50 big shots in the east,” whom he accused of “causing” 1930s poverty in Alberta. Decades later, Peter Lougheed would place the collapse of oil prices in the 1980s at the feet of Pierre Elliot Trudeau’s National Energy Program. Then who can forget Ralph Klein, who as mayor of Calgary urged Albertans to “let the eastern bastards freeze in the dark” as a response to Alberta’s struggling economy.
Yes, Alberta has a long tradition of presenting itself as victim. So it should not come as a surprise to anyone that Jason Kenney chose to exploit this tactic in his quest to become Alberta’s premier, and that he will continue to exploit that tactic throughout his term. More interesting, perhaps, is the scale of the project. True to his reputation as an overachiever, Kenney did not settle on just one enemy to rally Albertans against. Upon his return to Alberta in 2016, and throughout his journey to become leader of the Alberta PCs and, eventually, of the United Conservative Party (UCP), Kenney laid the groundwork for directing Albertans’ anger and frustration with the struggling economy at a rogue’s gallery of alleged miscreants.
His first declared enemy was (big surprise) Rachel Notley. Kenney worked hard to establish the frame that Notley’s minimum wage increases, her close ties the province’s labour unions, her changes to the tax regime (including the carbon tax), and changes to the province’s labour code were all responsible for the struggling economy and the job losses that many Albertans were experiencing. He also found a way to blame Notley for persistent low oil prices and dropping investment in Alberta’s oil and gas industry. In doing so, Kenney laid the foundation for branding another villain as equally responsible for Alberta’s plight: Justin Trudeau.
Kenney rarely spoke about the carbon tax and the failure to get pipelines built without referencing the “Trudeau-Notley alliance.” This useful tool helped him aim Alberta’s long-standing dislike and distrust of federal Liberals directly at Notley. The narrative was fairly straightforward: Notley and Trudeau both support carbon taxes and climate action; this makes them allies; Trudeau is not doing anything to get pipelines built; Notley will not go to war against her ally; therefore, Notley and Trudeau are both enemies of Alberta. Notley herself seemed to reinforce this narrative by repeatedly asserting that a lack of new pipelines was costing Alberta millions of dollars and tens of thousands of jobs every day. In that way, the NDP government helped establish the pipelines-equal-prosperity frame that Kenney exploited to put Notley and Trudeau at the top of the enemies list.
Past Alberta leaders would have been content with an enemies list of two, but not Kenney. B.C. Premier John Horgan quickly climbed to the top of the list as a result of his efforts to block the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. Quebec also made the list, not only because the province steadfastly refused to endorse the Energy East pipeline, but also as alleged hypocrites for receiving equalization payments funded by Alberta bitumen wealth while refusing to allow that same bitumen to flow through the province. That particular frame was successful in helping Kenney set up the entire equalization program as an enemy of Alberta, despite the fact that he himself had signed off on it while a federal cabinet minister.
When HSBC announced in 2018 that, as part of its commitment to energy transition and sustainability, it would no longer finance new coal-fired power plants, arctic drilling or oilsands projects, including pipelines, the bank also quickly found itself on the Alberta enemies list. It didn’t matter that HSBC, Europe’s largest bank, maintains 17 local branches employing 330 people in the province, and has lent over $14 billion to Alberta businesses, including in the energy sector. To Kenney, they were yet another enemy of the province’s workers and prosperity.
By this point the Alberta-as-victim frame had gained such traction that Postmedia columnists, industry front groups and other oilsands advocates not only began doing Kenney’s research for him, but their mainstream and social media reach was such that they could facilitate an almost instant online mob against anybody they identified as an enemy. This dynamic was perhaps most evident when the University of Alberta decided to award an honorary degree to David Suzuki.
Kenney said giving the degree to Suzuki, who “makes millions defaming the livelihood of hundreds of thousands of Albertans,” was an insult to Albertans. Prominent donors vowed to end their support of the university, the dean of engineering posted a scathing letter online, and even then premier Notley called the decision “a bit tone deaf.” Kenney’s strategy had clearly taken hold, and Albertans from all walks of life were helping it succeed.
It is in this way that one of Kenney’s most successful victimization frames was given to him by pro-oil blogger and conspiracy theorist Vivian Krause. Krause is the person who came up with the theory that large U.S. foundations who derive their money from oil exploration and development have been funding Canadian activists to stop pipelines, as a way to lock-in Alberta bitumen and benefit U.S. oil. Her theories are mostly the stuff of conjecture and conspiracy, but facts rarely matter when trying to rile up an angry mob.
Kenney, Postmedia, Rebel Media, petro-turf groups all over the internet, and even the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) quickly began promoting Krause and her writings and providing further dissemination of her ideas. This narrative of Alberta as a victim of foreign-funded environmentalists gained so much traction in the province, and across the country, that it even came to occupy a place of prominence in Kenney’s election platform. Both Krause and her Postmedia cheerleader Licia Corbella are painted as heroes by the UCP. Tides Foundation and Tides Canada, the Pembina Institute, and Leadnow are also specifically named in the platform as some of the supposed perpetrators of this imaginary campaign of economic sabotage.
Not all of Jason Kenney’s enemies are external or connected to pipelines, however. Throughout the campaign Kenney repeatedly declared war on the province’s unions—particularly public sector unions, the Alberta Federation of Labour, and the Alberta Teachers’ Association—for investing significant amounts of money in third-party campaigns to alert their members to what a UCP government would mean for them, their rights, and public services they seek to provide. He specifically targeted the AFL for its formal affiliation with the NDP, and repeatedly asserted that the AFL was behind the NDP’s progressive changes to the Labour Relations Act, the Workers’ Compensation Board, Occupational Health and Safety, and employment standards. All of which, he claimed, hurt small business, employment, and overall investment in the province.
On election night, Kenney doubled down on the Albertans-under-attack narrative in his victory speech: “Albertans have decided that we will no longer passively accept the campaign of defamation against the industry that has helped us to create one of the most prosperous and generous societies on Earth.” He also used the speech to reinforce his role as Alberta’s savior:
To the unemployed, to those who have given up, to the small business owners barely hanging on, to the young people who got their degrees and diplomas but can’t put them to work, to those who have lost their homes and their hope after years of economic decline and stagnation. To them, tonight, we send this message: Help is on the way, and hope is on the horizon!
Kenney’s platform and legislative agenda lay out some the key initiatives (some of which have already been passed) that he will use to wage this battle against Alberta’s present and future enemies:
- Bring into force legislation that would allow Alberta to “turn off the taps” to stop exports of oil to any jurisdiction that opposes new pipelines.
- Repeal the Alberta carbon tax and challenge the federal carbon tax in the courts as soon as the Liberals move to impose it on Alberta.
- Set up a $30 million “war room” in Calgary to “proactively tell the truth about how we produce energy with the highest environmental, labour, and human rights standards on earth.” Postmedia has reportedly hired Kenney’s former chief of staff, Nick Koolsbergen, to work with the government on this campaign.
- Launch a public inquiry into the foreign sources of funds to Canadian organizations that have opposed pipeline development.
- Strip the Pembina Institute, an environmental think-tank, of any provincial funding.
- Boycott companies like HSBC who refuse to do business in the oilsands by denying them government contracts or business.
- Pass resolutions to actively oppose federal legislation to ban tanker traffic in northern B.C. (Bill C-48) and impose new impact assessment rules for energy projects (Bill C-69). Both these resolutions passed unanimously in the Alberta legislature.
- Hold a referendum on removing equalization from the Constitution Act if Bill C-69 passes and/or if a coastal pipeline does not move forward.
- Target the AFL by prohibiting groups affiliated with political parties from running third-party advertising campaigns.
- Prohibit unions from funding “political parties and causes” without explicit opt-in approval from members.
On a personal level, Kenney says he will do everything in his power to secure the electoral defeat of Trudeau in the fall election and has already been stumping for key Conservative candidates in Ontario. Kenney’s hope is that these antagonistic platform priorities and his public declarations will focus Albertans’ attention and anger on their many alleged enemies, reinforcing the premier’s position as the province’s great defender.
Otherwise, Albertans might want to talk about the government’s plans to cut spending by 14%, privatize provincial lab and laundry services, reduce the minimum wage for young workers, undo the modest progress made by the previous government on labour standards and occupational health and safety, eliminate the climate leadership plan, and reduce corporate taxes by one-third.
As the economy continues to flail deep into 2019, and Albertans begin to feel the impacts of the cuts in health care and education, the already well-established enemies will continue to provide an easy scapegoat for Kenney and his government. There are so many of them that even Trudeau’s potential defeat in the fall will not negatively impact the strategy. The next four years promise to be interesting and exhausting—for Albertans and their enemies.
Ricardo Acuña is Executive Director of the Parkland Institute at the University of Alberta and sits on the CCPA Member’s Council.