In his two-plus years as premier, Jason Kenney has been called plenty of mean things by people who oppose his policies and politics. But even he is probably caught off guard by the new nickname that some people have for him: traitor. After all, it’s coming from the same conservative Christian community he’s courted assiduously throughout his political career.
That name-calling grew louder this week. On Tuesday, Kenney announced new restrictions in an attempt to head off the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. A day later, local RCMP officers and Alberta Health Services officials erected a fence around the GraceLife Church in Spruce Grove after it repeatedly refused to follow public health guidelines and restrict the number of in-person worshippers. In response, 16 members of his own caucus put their names on a letter demanding he roll back the recent restrictions and open up the economy.
It’s possible this is all an elaborate act of political kabuki, and that Kenney’s rebelling MLAs are simply trying to give voice to the growing frustration with public health restrictions and find him some cover to do what’s needed. This would be a bit like trying to extinguish a brush fire with gasoline, but the longer-term partisan political ramifications here may be secondary to the more existential threat coming from Kenney’s conservative Christian base and the scofflaw church that has captured its attention.
GraceLife’s pastor, James Coates, has become something of a celebrity among the conspiratorial Christian right, where his refusal to comply with public health guidelines is seen as a brave act of civil disobedience rather than a dangerous form of selfish stupidity. After defying the province’s public health orders for weeks, his church was ordered to close in January. But it continued to hold services with attendance well in excess of mandated capacity limits until Coates was finally arrested in February.
The province has since dropped most of the charges against him, while its premier continued to treat him and his supporters with the softest of kid gloves. “Alberta’s government will always respect and protect the fundamental freedoms of religion and worship, period,” Kenney said during a Facebook Live after the pastor’s arrest.
But this approach doesn’t seem to be working. Christian conservatives have been holding increasingly noisy rallies in Calgary, Edmonton and other cities across the province opposing mask mandates and other public health measures. And they have rallied even more vocally online, on Twitter and Facebook, against a premier who they increasingly describe as a traitor to their values and beliefs. Of all the criticisms he’s received in his political career, this one must surely hit Kenney the hardest.
This week’s physical closure of the GraceLife Church brought these simmering grievances to a rolling boil. Ontario Conservative MP Derek Sloan was almost immediately on the scene, filming a video that detailed his opposition to the move. “This is tyrannical government overreach,” he tweeted, “and is a direct violation of Canadian Charter rights.”
Former Canadian Alliance leader and Alberta cabinet minister Stockwell Day joined the fray, tweeting: “The visual of the Alberta Govt+ armed police encircling a church and building a fence is a first in Canadian history+has gone globally viral. Whichever side of the fence you are on just imagine the gleeful howls from emboldened dictatorships who imprison+persecute people of faith.” And all of this is before the church’s worshippers try to attend this Sunday’s service, which is still scheduled on its website — and will almost certainly provoke a confrontation with the RCMP.
The church, for its part, shows no signs of backing down. In a statement that greets visitors to its website, it says: “We are gravely concerned that COVID-19 is being used to fundamentally alter society and strip us all of our civil liberties. By the time the so-called ‘pandemic’ is over, if it is ever permitted to be over, Albertans will be utterly reliant on government, instead of free, prosperous, and independent.”
Has Alberta's Christian right turned on Jason Kenney for good? @NatObserver columnist @maxfawcett weighs in on the caucus revolt over #COVID restrictions. #ableg
Putting scare quotes around the word pandemic is a telling choice, but it’s not the only one their statement makes. “We believe they should responsibly return to their lives,” it says. “Churches should open, businesses should open, families and friends should come together around meals, and people should begin to exercise their civil liberties again. Otherwise we may not get them back.”
These don’t sound like the words of people who are about to comply with any government orders, regardless of whom they come from. And they speak to the central flaw in Kenney’s approach to dealing with COVID-19 skeptics, religiously motivated or otherwise. When you are constantly talking up your belief in freedom and personal responsibility, some people are going to take you seriously — and hold you to account for those words. And when you’re dealing with those who are attracted to the idea of being victims, even common-sense public policy will be treated like an intolerable imposition.
Kenney, who understands how Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms works better than most, now has to exemplify one of its most important sections. As Section 1 makes clear, nobody’s rights are absolute, and all of them have to be balanced against the rights and freedoms of others. After months of bending over backwards to accommodate those who refuse to believe the science on COVID-19, it’s time for him to stand up for everyone else.