On Monday, April 12, Alberta’s premier posted on social media his reaction to the protests that visited the steps of the Legislature and surrounded the proscribed ground of GraceLife Church (the premier’s words are posted here). Estimates put the crowd at the Legislature at around 2,000 Albertans, many of whom travelled from various parts of the province.
Those who know the premier would recognize his style and tone in the post. The post starts by referring to a racial slur and the damage caused to a vehicle on the First Nations reserve adjacent to GraceLife Church. At the Legislature, the protesters frustratedly chanted “lock her up,” referring to Alberta’s chief medical officer, who has been the most visible face of the health restrictions the government has chosen to implement. The premier also complained: “They also chanted ‘just say no’ to vaccines.” By implication, his post scorns the protesting Alberta citizens as racists, vandals, threatening thugs and anti-vaxxers.
If that was not enough of an effort to delegitimize those with opposing views at “these protests,” the premier expressed a most regrettable ad hominem attack: It is “increasingly clear,” his statement read, “that many involved…are unhinged conspiracy theorists.”
There is a need to re-emphasize that these are Alberta citizens expressing their frustrations with the COVID-19 restrictions the premier has put into place. One must also point out that it is base hyperbole to charge protesters with shades of making felony threats to a public official. Similarly, our culture makes fun of people who oppose vaccines, some of whom may be a little kooky. But it’s not yet unlawful to oppose vaccines and vaccination. What is more, many of those opposing vaccination do so as a matter of conscience. A wise statesman does not diminish the moral choices of the people he serves.
The wise also know insult is not a way to attract or retain votes. In September of 2016, then presidential candidate Hillary Clinton denigrated opposing voters for supposedly being “a basket of deplorables.” She later admitted this moment was one of the factors that cost her the election to Donald Trump.
One might forgive the premier for reacting to the personal nature of the chants, which also called on him to be “locked up,” but let’s recall his policies confined Albertans for months and they have recently locked up a Christian minister.
The protests may sting the more because among the protesters were once supporters, political allies and even personal friends. But statesmen do not personalize the process; theirs is the duty to safeguard the dignity of their office, for all of us and in the name of the monarch.
If personal dimension excused heated reactions, we ought to consider the consequences of government actions that have led protesters to the premier’s doorstep. However, the slogan would have us believe that the government is protecting “lives and livelihoods.” Those whose livelihoods are being ruined know better and feel insulted by the slogan.
When government claims to be saving lives but ruins in the process the lives of many others (pushing them not too indirectly to bankruptcy, unemployment, family abuse and violence, deterioration of mental health, drug abuse and death by overdose, among others), those whose lives are being ruined are legitimately entitled to be frustrated by the offending policy. The premier has modestly recognized that his policies are hurting people, but the damaging policies persist and increase. Was the premier expecting no reaction to the barricading of a church?
One would think that citizens whose lives are being hurt by their own government policies would receive sympathy and compassion. But instead, those suffering outside the medical tutelage of Alberta Health are disparaged as “unhinged conspiracy theorists.” That’s why such a smear is unacceptable.
The premier referred to the vilified protesters’ words as being “beyond the pale,” an expression that has come to mean something is outside acceptable norms. The expression goes back to the imperious Tsarina Catherine the Great of Russia at the end of the 18th century. At the time, by official proclamation, the Jewish community was confined to a territory, “the Pale,” which means a fence or palisade. Jews could only travel beyond the Pale with the tyranny’s indulgence. Given present restrictions, including the persecution of GraceLife and the erection of steel fencing to prevent their worship, Kenney’s use of the expression is painfully ironic. Kenney’s uncritical embrace of his medical bureaucrats’ restrictive advice is hurting citizens and forcing otherwise law-abiding Albertans beyond the fences he has erected.
Marco Navarro-Génie is a senior fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy and the President of the Haultain Research Institute. He is co-author, with Barry Cooper, of COVID-19: The Politics of a Pandemic Moral Panic (2020).