This year, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney famously declared his province “open for summer” before later imposing vaccine passports and a wave of restrictions. The province’s pandemic response became a political punching bag for the media and left-wing parties in September’s federal election.

That election re-elected a Liberal government pursuing an agenda that jeopardizes Alberta’s oil and gas sector.

At the end of a critical year in Alberta politics, True North’s Andrew Lawton sat down with Kenney in Edmonton for a wide-ranging interview about Alberta’s pandemic response, the energy sector, as well as the schism within the United Conservative Party over Kenney’s leadership, jailed pastors, Joe Biden, and the “loony left.”

The interview is published here in full, edited only for clarity.

Andrew Lawton 

Premier, when we spoke last time in this forum – it was about a year ago – it was fairly grim in some ways. Alberta had just imposed a wave of restrictions. But, a little bit of hopefulness. I recall, you actually had to leave the interview early to go meet the first arrival of vaccine doses–

Jason Kenney 

Right.

Andrew Lawton 

Twelve months later, how are you feeling, generally, about where things are in the pandemic?

Jason Kenney 

Well, like everybody, I’m ticked off and frustrated as heck, that we’re still in this 21 months after it started. Who knew this would be disrupting our lives for so long and so profoundly? On the other hand, maybe because I’m an Albertan, I am optimistic. And I have good reason for optimism and hopefulness as an Albertan, because of a couple of things: We’ve got the fourth wave well under control, our vaccine rates are very high, and I think there are good reasons to believe we can stabilize the situation. But more importantly, Alberta’s economy has taken off like a rocket. We’re leading Canada in economic growth, in job growth. We’re projected to do it again in 2022. Our economy has finally recovered the ground that we lost over the past five, six years. We have billions of dollars of new job-creating investment coming here. Oil and gas is back in a big way. But diversification is happening right across our economy. Tech, petrochemicals, forestry, agriculture, agri-foods, film and television. There’s a lot of exciting things happening in the province right now. Never bet against Alberta. People are moving back here, our population is growing, and we’ve got all those fundamentals, and I’m excited about the future.

Andrew Lawton 

Alberta’s pandemic response became somewhat of a national punching bag. There was the vaunted ‘open for summer’ campaign, followed by the imposition of a vaccine passport, which you had previously said was just not going to happen, was a non-starter in Alberta. And I know looking back on it, you’ve already been asked ad nauseum about that… but, there is a trend that a lot of Canadians that are happy with lockdowns, have used Alberta as the example for why reopening shouldn’t happen.

Jason Kenney 

Unfortunately, there’s a certain segment of Canadian elite opinion – I’ll coin a phrase and call them the Laurentian elites – who often deride Alberta. It seems to be a pastime for some at the Toronto Star and elsewhere, which is really regrettable. I mean, the truth is, Alberta’s COVID death rate per capita is significantly lower than Canada’s, and, you know, much lower than Quebec’s, but I don’t hear Quebec being used as a COVID punching bag in the same circles. We made mistakes. Every jurisdiction in the world made mistakes. Every government has been trying, imperfectly through trial and error, to find the best balance between lives and livelihoods, between protecting the health care systems and avoiding – well at least in Alberta, we’ve been very intentional, very deliberate about trying to avoid – the damaging effects of restrictions and so-called lockdowns. We have come to restrictions as a last and limited resort. I truly was opposed to the principle of so-called vaccine passports. To be fair, all other nine Canadian premiers were, and the prime minister. But we found ourselves in a situation in September where we were a couple of weeks from completely blowing out the maximum capacity of our healthcare system. I would have had to sign off on pulling life support from people and turning others away from our hospitals for critical care. For me, that would be morally indefensible. Now whatever people may think about the Canadian healthcare system, at the end of the day, the government owns it and runs it and is responsible for it, and you can’t let that happen. So circumstances have changed. We’ve changed with the circumstances, because we don’t get to pick our own reality in COVID. We just have to deal with the cards that were dealt.

Andrew Lawton 

Does this not undermine what a lot of conservatives have been pushing for for years, which is an approach that relies on individuals making their own choices and government not doing that? Have you had to reevaluate your outlook on a lot of things philosophically because of the pandemic?

Jason Kenney 

No, actually. Not me. Maybe some other conservatives have been challenged by that. But my conservatism doesn’t end with personal liberty, which is an important principle. But as a conservative, I believe in our obligations to one another, I believe in the common good, I believe in our obligation to protect the vulnerable. And I understand that in COVID, personal actions have social consequences. You can’t completely privatize your actions. If you’re unvaccinated, you’re not doing anything to reduce the chance of viral spread. Well, guess what? You could end up taking up an ICU bed. You can force the cancellation of someone’s surgery. You could infect an elderly person. So, I believe conservatism, properly understood, at least for a conservative like me, isn’t just about sloganeering on, like, radical personal autonomy. Because we do have obligations towards one another. And you know, I’m a person of faith. I’ve always been publicly pro-life. I can’t understand, with that pro-life ethic, how I could be indifferent to potentially thousands more deaths. People say to me – the kind of folks you’re alluding to – “Why couldn’t you be like Ron DeSantis? Or be like Texas?” Sure, it’s great seeing those folks being able to walk around without masks and have no restrictions. Their per capita death rate – three to four times higher than Alberta’s, I would never be able for the rest of my life to look myself in the mirror, if we had had, at this point, 12,000 COVID deaths rather than 3,000. So, you know, I think part of the problem on the right, in the COVID debate, has been a tendency to reduce this whole thing to slogans, rather than taking on board the really hard realities and choices that folks in government have to address.

Andrew Lawton 

At the same time, though, that doesn’t seem to be universally shared, even within your caucus. You’ve had MLAs that have called for your resignation over pandemic response, you’ve had presidents of electoral district associations that have called for your ousting as leader and I know that UCP members will get the chance to weigh in in April. But how much of your effort right now is focusing on retaining people that are supposed to be on your side? Forget about outside of the conservative movement.

Jason Kenney 

That is a fair question. And it’s absolutely true. That has been a real challenge for us. Because in Alberta, we have, thank gosh, a larger share of our public and certainly on the conservative side of politics, people who are jealous about protecting their liberties and are skeptical about government overreach. I think that’s a good thing. That’s part of what makes Alberta Alberta. But when it comes to a crisis like this, I can’t allow slogans or internal political pressure to drive the government to irresponsible policies that could lead to thousands more deaths or a complete cratering of the healthcare system. I said this to our party AGM recently. I said that we had to make these decisions to avoid catastrophe – pulling life support from people. And I said we could never accept that. We could never let that happen. And I got a huge standing ovation from our party delegates. I believe the vast majority understand this. They know it’s been hard. They know we’ve made mistakes. And they can, as I can, critique individual policies that we’ve made along the way. But the, like, almost the caricature of the libertarian “let ‘er rip” attitude, I think is actually a very small percentage of Alberta. Although it has certainly– The pressure has been difficult for our conservative coalition. There’s no hiding that. But I don’t get distracted by that. I can’t. I’m too busy dealing with multiple crises. Not just the public health crisis, the global recession, last year’s energy price collapse, we inherited a fiscal crisis. We’ve got a hostile federal government, we’re trying to implement 372 platform commitments in an ambitious conservative reform agenda. I’m too busy to get obsessed with internal politics.

Andrew Lawton 

Premier, you mentioned earlier being a man of faith. And I have to ask you about this while we’re on the topic of the pandemic. You are the premier in a province that has put, by my count, three pastors behind bars for COVID violations. This is not what you signed up for when you ran for office. And I know it’s not something that people are celebrating. But how do you account for that?

Jason Kenney 

Well, I’ve been, always, a champion of religious liberty, but also the rule of law. And no one is above the law, not a politician, not a pastor. The three individuals you refer to were in contempt of court and we’re detained on the orders of judges. Obviously, we don’t want to live in a society where an elected political leader picks up the phone and calls a judge and says “I disagree with your decision. You have to release this pastor, this person, this individual for having violated a court order.” So listen Andrew, we have 10,000, roughly, clergy in this province. About 10,000 of them who were following and respected the public health measures because they believe, as people of faith, in the sanctity of human life, and the ethic of caring for the vulnerable. Regrettably, there was a tiny number who flagrantly and repeatedly refused any effort to cooperate with even minimal public health measures. And ultimately, they were subject to court orders. I have to respect the judicial process, the independence of the judiciary, and the basic principle of the rule of law that no one is above the law.

Andrew Lawton 

But the restrictions that led to those orders came from your government.

Jason Kenney 

You know, Andrew, this is the only province in Canada that never closed the doors of places of worship altogether. There are many provinces that had complete suspension of congregational worship all through the pandemic. This is the province that has had the least restrictive approach to places of worship. We made a very deliberate point of that. But at the same time, there were times in the pandemic where the choice was taking difficult decisions or potentially overwhelming our health care system, denying people critical care, pulling life support, turning people away from the hospitals, canceling thousands more surgeries, shipping ICU patients outside the province. I don’t think a Christian or any person of faith could choose to do those things.

Andrew Lawton 

You mentioned earlier the diversification that’s taking place in Alberta’s economy. At the end of the day though, oil and gas is still very critical here. We had, not long ago, an NDP policy resolution that was calling for the blockading of I think it was Coastal GasLink. And obviously, this doesn’t mean it’s something that the NDP is going to run on, but when that attitude is in the province, and that’s an opposition party that could be government theoretically, how do you even respond to that?

Jason Kenney 

The bottom line is the NDP said that they stand with illegal blockades to interrupt the Coastal GasLink project, which is supported by all 20 elected First Nations councils through which the pipeline passes, including the five clans of the Wet’suwet’en people. And this is outrageous. This is what I call environmental colonialism. Many of the so-called land defenders the NDP has endorsed are actually rich white people from southern, urban Canada, who go up there fortified by industrial quantities of pot, because they imagine that they’re somehow civil rights champions. All they are doing, all they are doing is blocking the economic aspirations and violating the rights and the governance of those First Nations communities. It is outrageous. And for the NDP to endorse that, I think that the mask has fallen. The Alberta NDP– part of its reason for being, its raison d’etre is that they are viscerally opposed to what they regard as the corrupting influence of oil and gas in Alberta’s economy and political culture. That’s what motivates people. The NDP MLAs went out and joined Greta Thunberg last year at a rally with Extinction Rebellion in front of the legislature. This is an organization that doesn’t just oppose oil and gas, they oppose nuclear. They oppose hydropower. They oppose all of the transitional green technologies, carbon capture. They’re lunatics. They want to basically turn off the entire industrial modern economy overnight, which would be devastating. This is the people that the NDP is associating with, and I can’t understand why the mainstream media give them a free pass as though they are a mainstream party in Alberta, when they hang out with and now have endorsed illegal activities by the loony left.

Andrew Lawton 

There was the report that came out looking at the foreign funding that was going into a lot of the radical environmental NGOs. And we’re talking about, I think it was $1.3 billion, which seems like a conservative estimate, because that’s what can be tracked and unearthed in this report. Even with that sunlight on that problem, it doesn’t change the flow of money. And in fact, it probably only aggravates the activists that do want to disrupt and dismantle the industry. So how do Albertans and how do you as an Alberta premier go up against that?

Jason Kenney 

Well, it’s not easy. We have described and our Allan Commission into foreign funding has confirmed that there has been a highly coordinated and largely foreign-funded campaign to landlock Alberta energy. And look at the results. Justin Trudeau canceling Northern Gateway, killing Energy East, endless delays on the Trans Mountain expansion, blockades of Coastal GasLink, efforts by a Democrat governor of Michigan just to decommission Line 5, the major source of energy for central Canada, Joe Biden vetoing Keystone XL pipeline. Let’s take that one thing. Joe Biden, who has lifted sanctions on Russia’s Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which will allow Putin’s corrupt oligarchs to dominate Western European energy markets. Joe Biden, who is effectively not enforcing oil sanctions against Iran, thereby enriching that theocratic dictatorship. Joe Biden, who is effectively lifting the US embargo on investment in offshore Venezuelan heavy crude. Joe Biden, who is importing 840,000 barrels a day of crude oil from Vladimir Putin’s Russia, blocks the opportunity to import 840,000 barrels a day of ethically-produced Canadian energy. This makes no sense. It makes no sense environmentally, politically, geopolitically or strategically. It doesn’t make sense in terms of human rights. And that’s why we are fighting back. That’s why we set up the Canadian Energy Centre. It’s why we’re running advocacy campaigns in the United States. It’s why we’re increasing Alberta’s diplomatic and advocacy presence in Washington, DC and across the United States. We have a lot of allies in the US and in other countries around the world who understand that if the choice is between Canadian energy, and OPEC or Russian energy, that Canada’s better every day of the week.

Andrew Lawton 

When all of these measures are coming in that are constricting and are landlocked in Alberta’s oil, I mean, if you’re an Alberta taxpayer, or you’re an oil and gas sector worker here, what do you have to show for those efforts?

Jason Kenney 

Well, first of all, we did get to see the completion of the Line 3 replacement with Enbridge, which is critically important and adds about 380,000 barrels a day of shipment capacity. That meant, Andrew, that last month, Alberta produced and exported more oil than at any time in our history. So, so much for the Laurentian elites who have been preaching the end of oil and that Alberta is married to a legacy industry. There’s no doubt that there’s going to be, in decades to come, a gradual transition in different forms of energy. And there is a need for us to embrace technologies that can reduce greenhouse gas emissions. We’re doing that. We’re leading the way on things like carbon capture, utilization and storage, hydrogen, and so much more. But Line 3 is done. Actually, Trans Mountain expansion is on schedule. And I am optimistic, despite the NDP-green-left blockade of Coastal GasLink that that project will get done and with it we’ll increase gas shipments to Asia, which will help to reduce global emissions by accelerating the conversion from high-emitting thermal coal power generation to low-emitting clean Canadian natural gas power generation.

Andrew Lawton 

We have the the new mayor of Calgary who has made it her first order of business to declare a climate emergency. We’ve got a reelected Liberal government that, as you’ve noted in the last few moments, has not been historically friendly to the energy sector in Canada. Why are Canadians endorsing this, do you think? Is it that they don’t understand? Is it that Alberta has not done a good enough job telling this story?

Jason Kenney 

Well, you know, I think this is just the Canadian green left. It’s what they’ve always– they’ve always been hostile to the energy sector. And that’s not surprising. It’s still regrettable, because I would say to those in the left, the greatest engine of social and economic progress in modern Canadian history has been the energy sector. Andrew, you know, lefties always talk about the Donald Trump phenomenon. And all these labor, you know, these former union members, former Democrat voters, blue collar, Midwestern Rust Belt states that went and voted for Donald Trump. That happened because their livelihoods were taken away from them. And the political elites weren’t listening. But in Canada, we’ve never had that kind of angry populism. Because the unemployed central Canadian manufacturing workers, the unemployed East Coast fishery workers, the unemployed BC lumber workers, they could go somewhere from unemployment or underemployment, they could go to Alberta, and often into six figure jobs and have a fresh start and opportunity. This province’s population doubled over the last 40 years, driven by Canadians moving from underemployment to prosperity here. This is a great engine of social progress and social mobility. Alberta has played it, and not to mention the hundreds of billions of dollars of government revenues that have been shared across the country to build schools and hospitals, pave roads and fund programs across the country. So I would say to those folks on the left, be careful what you ask for. If you kill the goose that lays the golden egg, how are you going to pay for all the social programs that you support? What are you going to do with all the unemployed blue collar workers who would be displaced permanently from the largest sector in the Canadian economy? It makes no sense.

Andrew Lawton 

As we look at the remainder of your term here, obviously the pandemic has sucked a huge amount of oxygen, and not just oxygen, but resources that you could deploy as the leader of government. What do you want to get done by the time of the next election?

Jason Kenney 

I want us to get done what we promised Albertans we would get done. Jobs, the economy and pipelines, while fighting for a fair deal for Alberta and making life better for Albertans. Those are the key commitments that we ran on. 372 specific platform commitments, not to manage a broken status quo but to do bold conservative reforms, we’ve already delivered on 85% of those commitments during COVID. You’re right. It’s been a huge time sink. A huge amount of resources have been sucked up by COVID, including our time as government and yet we still move forward. We sat more as a legislature than any in Canada – far more than the federal parliament – passing those bills to create the building blocks of our economic comeback story. That’s what’s happening now. So you ask where I want to be a year from now or when you go to the polls in May of 2023. I want to be able to look Albertans in the eye and say, “We did what we said we would do. We’ve created historic numbers of new jobs. We’ve led the country in economic growth. We got pipelines built. There’s a future for Canada’s energy industry. We are a stronger and more prosperous province in 2023 than we were by far in 2019.” We’re on track to do that, leading Canada in economic growth this year, projected to do so again next year, second fastest job growth, billions in new investment, diversification, strong energy sector. Alberta is coming back. Never count out this province.

Andrew Lawton 

Premier, thank you.

Jason Kenney 

Thanks, Andrew.

Author

  • Andrew Lawton

    A Canadian broadcaster and columnist, Andrew serves as a journalism fellow at True North and host of The Andrew Lawton Show.

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