When Alberta went into lockdown in March of 2020, shortly after the World Health Organization declared the spread of COVID-19 a global pandemic, the future was more uncertain than ever before for most Albertans. Nobody knew what would happen, for how long, or what the fallout – short or long term – would be. We were walking blind and frightened, the looming prospect of an overwhelmed healthcare system threatening catastrophe, with many more questions than answers.
All citizens were affected by that first and subsequent lockdown and decisions: young and old, single people and families, healthy and sick, employed and unemployed, essential workers and the work-from-home crowd. While some suffered more than others, to be sure, nobody was spared from the harsh realities that lockdown and the ensuing pandemic response would pose.
To be Premier during this difficult time, responsible for making those decisions, was exceptionally challenging. Two years later, with the benefit of hindsight, Premier Jason Kenney sat down with us to reflect on the COVID-19 pandemic, his government’s response, the consequences of that response, and how Alberta can move forward, stronger, united and more resilient than ever.
How would he describe the last two years?
“It has been a roller coaster for everybody,” he says after pausing to find the right words. “A time of dislocation, uncertainty, hope and despair. For those of us in government, having to make these decisions has been impossibly difficult. There’s no textbook for how to do this, no place in the world has done it perfectly. There’s only bad choices and sometimes only catastrophically bad choices, so it’s been tough.”
The most difficult choices always involved imposing restrictions. “We knew that they were going to impact people’s lives, sometimes in profound ways,” he reflects. “Every time we faced a wave that was putting huge pressure on the hospitals and we had to look at some of these restrictions, there were more than a few tears shed around the COVID cabinet committee table, as people thought through the consequences of the decisions we were making.”
Not every decision caused torment though, and there are some Kenney is in fact very proud of. One is the launch of Alberta’s Recovery Plan in June 2020. This was especially important given the economic downturn the province had experienced for the roughly five years leading up to the pandemic, followed by the global economic and energy price collapse which occurred in April 2020.
“We had multiple simultaneous crisis realized early on, in the Spring of 2020, that we had to really focus on the economic side,” Kenney explains. “When you’re looking at WTI at zero, 25 per cent unemployment, and not knowing how long this could last. Was it going to be the 1930s all over again? We didn’t know. So we put together, in record speed, the Recovery Plan.”
Focused on building, diversifying and creating jobs through targeted programs, investments and financial relief for Albertans, the Recovery Plan also outlined an investment and growth strategy to increase Alberta’s competitive advantage, improve the investment attraction ecosystem and raise Alberta’s reputation as an investment destination.
“We were way ahead of any government in Canada at putting together an economic strategy to deal with the economic consequences of COVID,” Kenney says proudly. “And I think we were ahead of the game, right across the government. It was strong leadership.”
Of the many decisions to be Monday-morning quarterbacked, Kenney admits regret when it came to imposing restrictions on kids. “We now see the evidence of the youth mental health crisis emerging from the past two years,” he says. “The learning loss, the social dislocation. I wish early on we’d had clearer data on how mild COVID is for kids, because I think that would have informed a lighter touch on restrictions affecting children.”
Another early mistake was only allowing retail stores that sold essential products (pharmacy products and food) to stay open. This meant big box stores, like Walmart and Costco, could remain open, while smaller retailers who sold the same stuff were shut down: “For several weeks or so there, we really treated those small mom and pop retail businesses very unfairly. That was a dumb mistake.”
A clearer understanding of the limits of the hospital system would have been very useful early on: “In March of 2020, Alberta Health Services told us that in an extreme scenario they could open up 1,080 ICU beds from a baseline of 173. In wave two in the fall of 2020, they said it was only 425 beds. And then in wave four last fall, they said they could only do 230. So we had some real problems in terms of having a direct line of sight on healthcare capacity for one of the most expensive systems in the world. Not acceptable.”
It’s why Kenney’s government is now focused on healthcare capacity – or lack thereof – which was the reason for all the restrictions. “We should have options other than restrictions,” he argues, “by having more healthcare capacity.” He notes that one of the reasons places like Florida and Texas avoided similar restrictions is because they have about three times more ICU beds than we do.
In Alberta, we have a baseline of 173 ICU beds in a non-COVID year, a number which gets exceeded in a bad flu season. “Throw at it a sustained huge pandemic and the system is not fit for purpose,” he laments. “But why isn’t it? In Alberta we have a lot of questions to ask. In 2019, according to the Canadian Institute of Health Information, Alberta had the lowest per capita number of ICU beds in Canada, but with the second highest health expenditures per capita. These are the questions I am demanding answers to.”
He adds that more money is not the only solution because if it were, Alberta would have the best healthcare system in Canada. We do not, in terms of surgical wait times, diagnostic wait times, per capital beds or other key outcomes.
“We’re not getting the bang for our buck that we deserve,” he says. “So that’s one of the reasons we’re bringing in the Alberta Surgical Initiative, which is to contract out about 40,000 more surgical procedures to privately run surgical clinics. Let’s use the ‘get it done’ attitude of the private sector, as opposed to being stuck in a complete government monopoly on delivery. As long as the government’s ensuring medically necessary service, that’s what people want. They don’t care where the procedure is performed.”
The February budget allocates approximately $900 million for the Surgical Initiative to contract more than double the number of surgical procedures currently performed. “We want a lot more of what we call Charter Surgical Facilities,” Kenney explains. “Because unlike the government hospitals, they’re run by private sector operators. They use their capital much more efficiently. They can run surgeries around the clock and aren’t constrained by very restrictive government collective bargaining agreements.”
In 2019, a review of AHS done by Ernst & Young identified about $2 billion in savings which could be reinvested in frontline care. While Kenney’s government began implementing that plan it was sideswiped by the pandemic. “We are aiming to reduce by about 10 per cent, the number of senior managers at AHS, because it is, we believe, top heavy.”
While nothing is certain, Kenney is optimistic we’ve reached a point of endemicity with COVID, where we should be able to live with it. He hears those Albertans who worry that the blunt instruments of damaging restrictions are here to stay, and can be used in future emergencies at the whim of government.
“I understand the skepticism,” he says. “Last summer, I was so desperate to get out of this that I overpromised on it. I said ‘Open for Summer, Open for Good’ because I didn’t ever want to resort to damaging restrictions again. And then we got whacked by the Delta wave. We were within 10 days of having to pull life support on people in ICU and ship patients out of the province and rent freezer trucks for morgues. And I wasn’t going to preside over that. But I don’t see anything now that would lead us back to that situation. And I hope and believe that the population is more willing to live with COVID.”
He adds that a media less focused on promoting a degree of hysteria and the use of harsh and constant lockdowns (like in Australia, Ontario and Quebec) would also be helpful. “We cannot continue to live under that psychological pressure,” he laments. “And even if you wanted to, you cannot maintain widespread population compliance with fundamental impairments of freedoms and damage to people’s lives. Maybe you can bring things in like that for a short period of time to prevent a hospital catastrophe, but only when absolutely necessary.”
After two tough years, the ability to present a balanced budget in February was a high point for Kenney, who sees it as a reflection of both the province’s finances and recovery. It was achieved, he argues, through fiscal discipline and economic growth across all sectors of the economy. “While it would be easy to simply attribute it to high oil prices (which are certainly a huge part), under the NDP’s spending track, we would still have a $6 billion deficit on today’s oil prices,” he says.
During Rachel Notley’s NDP government, spending rose by four per cent, while Kenney’s government has kept program spending from rising by little more than two per cent annually, even with COVID-related spending.
“Revenues are growing across every aspect of the economy,” he says happily. “That’s a sign of diversification, corporate income tax revenues (not just oil and gas), personal income tax revenues, all revenues. And we would like to believe that has something to do with the government that has been obsessively focused on bringing investment, private sector growth, diversification, a one-third cut in corporate taxes, the 22 per cent cut in regulations, the Recovery Plan, incentives for petrochemicals, hydrogen, film and television, information technology, Agro food, forestry, you name it. The whole economy is expanding and the revenues are growing, so that’s why we got to balance.”
Alberta’s jobless rate now sits at the pre-pandemic rate of around seven per cent, but Kenney sees it dropping to below six per cent by the end of the year. “There were some major announcements last year – Amazon Web Services, Mphasis, Air Products, Dow Chemical Co. – that have shovels in the ground or are hiring this year and next. These announcements will have huge positive effect this year.”
He points out that some sectors have zero unemployment right now – Calgary’s tech sector, for example – which is why a major focus in the budget is the Alberta Work Initiative, which provides targeted training with employers for in-demand occupations. “Right across the economy we need to skate to where the puck is going, and that is labour and skills shortages,” he says.
Alberta’s energy sector remains key for Kenney, who has been a strong advocate across Canada and the world. The Russian invasion of Ukraine and spike in the price of oil has brought Alberta’s ethical oil into sharp focus, and the Premier is keen to highlight it. “The durable global demand for hydrocarbon energy is real, and our position has been validated,” he says. “If there’s one thing the world does to put Putin in a box, it’s got to be getting more Canadian energy to global markets. Because if it’s not us, it’s going to be OPEC.”
He notes with a minority parliament in Ottawa, anything is possible (even if it is wishful thinking): “I think that these new facts may help to bring some balance back to the national political discussion on Canada’s role as a responsible energy producer. I hope that your average suburban Ontario voter, maybe even your average suburban Quebec voter, will say ‘we shouldn’t be importing OPEC oil.’ I hope this changes the electoral calculus here to be more realistic about energy.”
With the worst of COVID in his rearview mirror (we all hope), Kenney is looking forward to continuing to strengthen Alberta’s economy and gain back the trust of those he governs, many within his own party. He will face party members on April 9 at a leadership review.
“This is a party made up of freedom loving people who hate all of these restrictions,” he admits. “They’ve been critical of me for bringing them in, it’s not much more complicated than that. But as we get past COVID, past these restrictions, we can get focused back on all we have done. We’ve delivered on 86 per cent of our platform commitments. We balanced the budget. The economy is leading the country. We’re building pipelines. We’re standing up to Justin Trudeau. We are doing what we said we would do. And I think that broadly our mainstream members appreciate that. I’m happy to be held accountable.”
Beyond the leadership review, Kenney will face Notley in a provincial election next year. Vital to staying in government will be the difficult task of uniting conservatives across Alberta, which remain fractured.
They say politics is not for the faint of heart; the past two years have proved this true. If Jason Kenney keeps his job, let’s hope his next two years are easier on everyone.