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.”

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.

Has Alberta's Christian right turned on Jason Kenney for good? @NatObserver columnist @maxfawcett weighs in on the caucus revolt over #COVID restrictions. #ableg

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.

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While I'm not a lawyer, I'm pretty sure snake-handling might be permissible under the Charter. Provided the snakes are only biting you.

If I were a religious leader even remotely associated with a church flouting public health rules designed to protect all of us, frankly, I'd be ashamed.. but that's just me.

I think this religious leader's behaviour reflects his true colours - not so much related to his belief in religion as his belief in power and attention.

Religion + politics = fire + kindling.

Perhaps this is an opportune moment to have that long overdue discussion of religious freedom and social responsibility. In Canada, we have the freedom to believe what we believe, but maybe we need to come to some clarity about the limits of belief. In short, we have faith because for many religious beliefs, we don't have proof.

Faith holds us to our beliefs when evidence, facts, certainty is lacking. Therefore, there is no way to argue that religious faith should be substituted for public policies based on evidence. A pandemic is not necessarily a sourge sent by God...it's more likely a disease which can be addressed and hopefully defeated by good science.

When we muddle our religious beliefs with secular facts....and imagine there is some kind of war going on between them, we come up with congregations like the one flaunting a certainty they do not possess, in the Alberta church. And that kind of totalitarian faith based thinking is dangerous for the society at large. It creates double standards........where sometimes the least informed end up with more 'freedom' than the public health experts. It creates pockets of pandemic outbreak where innocent 'non-believers' pay the ultimate price of sanctimonious know it alls.

In Alberta, it has created a comedy of ideologies, where right wing politicians who've catered to the fundamentalist wing of their party, are caught in their own dog whistles, and dependencies.

The egg on Kenney's face is real. It's also a direct result of his own 'faith based' decisions to endorse a double standard, that grants unlimited freedoms to some, while ignoring the very real needs of many others. I'm rather glad its finally out there, in the open.

Going forward, are fanatics of one stripe or another, going to call the shots in Alberta?

Some may kneel, pray, wail in tongues, rub beads, cross themselves, wave their arms high in the air and dance in the pews hoping that another Wildrose Party comes out of this godly conundrum and splits the right. Again. Betcha Rachel wears a Cheshire cat smile with that thought.

It won't settle the puddle mud in BC over Trans Mountain, though. We still don't want the damned pipe no matter which of the twins is in power, even if Jason's Suncor trust fund is bigger than Rachel's.

What's more, you should have the right to refuse it. Unfortunately, fossil capitalism trumps land claims, or the will of the people who live where our export driven pipe dreams wish to prevail.

"Refuse to believe the science" is an interesting statement. When you actually look at the science this would not be deemed a Pandemic. The numbers are so small it is pathetic the media is pushing the lockdown agenda. Using todays numbers for Canada (Population 37996000) the current active cases today 66400 or 0.17% of the population. Total number of Deaths this year 23238 or .06%. Total cases for the year 1050000 or 2.7%.
Keep in mind the total deaths is people WITH Covid and not death FROM Covid.
Another fact is the average age is in the mid 80s.
Another fact is the huge majority of deaths is with comorbidities. So the question is how much of a risk is this truly to the huge majority of people? Protect the vulnerable for sure. This should be no different for vulnerable people on a normal day.
(My apologies to all who have lost a loved one through this. My intent is not to offend anyone but to discuss some facts.)
The basis for the lockdowns is to not overload the healthcare system but what sort of changes are being made in that system to deal with this? Are more people being hired? There suddenly seems to be an abundance of money from the Government and some can be used to hire more staff. Have personally heard of a graduated nursing class that has had 7 out 40 students hired and the ones hired working 16 hour days. Also have seen a news story about 23000 foreign healthcare workers looking for work yet only a couple hundred being placed. Are the current Health system resources being used wisely? There seems to be some evidence it could be improved. A local story here about the Experimental Vaccine injection site was able to double the injections of any other site in this Province by rearranging the process and have an aide complete the paperwork instead of the Nurse, giving the Nurse more time to do actual injections. Are we sure the resources being used wisely?
Another personal experience that makes me question how infectious is this really? Know of several couples where one person is positive and their partner does not get it even after intimate contact. I have been in direct contact with 2 positive people and have not contracted it either. (Yes I did the proper testing and isolation).
The numbers do not support the reaction that is being implemented but any opposition is deemed "selfish stupidity" . Time will tell who is left looking stupid.

I think the facts you presented need to be checked by an epidemiologist. Your presentation alone is so like doubter / denier technique of cluttering a central issue with clouds of extraneous info. In this case, COVID is a deadly enough disease that underestimating it and the emerging variants is dangerous to the public, especially those who are immune-compromised.

Moreover, the variants, especially P.1. (Brazilian), are on a different plane of spreadability and are still emerging. They are too new to have sufficient facts collected to derive firm conclusions, and the doctors are clearly, rightfully and responsibly erring on the side of caution. Assuming the efficacy of COVID variants to infect, kill and cause long-term damage is not worthy of action to contain the virus is dangerous and risks great harm to the populace. Clearly, younger folks are now equally as susceptible to infection, as seen in the FACT that ICUs in the two most populous provinces are nearing capacity with patients of all age groups (except children) very quickly in just a matter of a few days in this third wave.

Agreed. Two words sum it up really: exponential growth.

I am not an epidemiologist, but ..

Say we ignore it, or minimize it, and instead as some of Mr. Trump's advisors had reportedly suggested just "let 'er rip" .. The reproduction factor for the original version of COVID is conservatively a bit more than two, with variants being even more infectious.

So to keep things simple let's go with a low, low number, say two. In other words say, left unchecked anyone getting COVID will spread it to two people. So one case spawns two more. And, for arguments sake, let's say it takes about 5 days for those two folks to themselves be capable of spreading it. So the doubling period is roughly 5 .. it's not that, but keeping it simple for illustration.

After 25 days that 1 case has spawned 2^5 (32) new cases, not too bad, right Mr. Trump?
After 50 days that 1 case has spawned 2^10 (1024) new cases, okay slightly worrying, but under control
After 100 days that 1 case has spawned 2^20 (1048576) new cases, no we'll never let it get this bad
After 120 days that 1 case has spawned 2^24 (16,777,216) new cases, what just happened

And that is why, in a nutshell, we need to go hard to keep this thing at or near zero, because if we don't the cases explode, the healthcare system collapse regardless of how many people we hire or how much money we throw at it, followed shortly by many of society's other systems that we all depend on. It's not hyperbole, it's exponential growth.

Keeping the virus 'on simmer' and occasionally 'pulling the emergency brake' as some provincial leaders seem to like to do in my humble opinion is literally like playing with fire. There is no "balancing act" possible when toying with something that grows this explosively fast. If you can't lock down and take the numbers to zero and keep them there, you end up facing repeated surges of sickness and death. And if you're 'plateauing' at the beginning of a surge like the US is at 65000 new cases per day then that is your starting point - not one, not two, not four, but 65000, from there things can get very out of hand, very, very quickly.

It's easy to minimize this by cherry-picking percentages, but when you do you are making the mistake of thinking about COVID in a linear way, and in doing so completely missing the point, which is, I repeat: exponential growth.

Well said.

Fact: We listen to our public health experts and our medical personnel. Your ideas about what constitutes a pandemic aren't relevant...and would only hold water in a world where the experts are all on the take, and an evil conspiracy cabal had taken over government.

Sorry, but even in Alberta....that is just not the case.

Well Ray, the trend in Covid deaths is downward in a couple of provinces - downward meaning much lower age groups are now dying, while cases are rising.

As for religious zealots - they're asking for a Middle Ages solution to the spread of plague - banishment and isolation to die on their own - might seem heartless, but they clearly don't give a damn about anyone else.

Since "banishment and isolation to die on their own" is exactly what the "Health care Professional Leaders" did with seniors in old age homes I guess it is safe to assume they don't care about anyone else either? Did you not hear all the stories of lifelong couples torn apart and die alone in the name of safety? What is your name for those people?
At least the "zealots" are fighting for our freedom. Some people are under the impression they have control over when they will pass away.

COVID sucks. It really, really, really sucks.

More spread leads to more needless sickness and more needless death.

We need a Canadian Shield strategy to get the numbers to zero so that no one else needs to bear the tragedy and pain of a loved one’s remote loss.

COVID is our common enemy. Let’s not lose sight of that.