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As we approach the one-year anniversary of the anti-vaccine mandate occupation of Ottawa and nearly three years since the COVID-19 pandemic began in earnest, most Canadians are busy getting on with their lives. But there’s a tiny minority of the public that seems determined to spend the rest of their lives re-litigating the pandemic and the choices they made — or refused to make — during it. And Danielle Smith, the premier of Alberta, seems to be one of them.
It’s why she said unvaccinated people were the “most discriminated-against group in her lifetime,” a comment she has never fully backed away from. It’s why she promised those supporters she would pursue amnesty or pardons for COVID-19 rule breakers, even though she never actually had the power to do that as premier. And it’s why she said she had talked to prosecutors about reviewing cases associated with the Coutts border anti-mandate blockades — and why someone in her office is accused of having done the same.
Maybe she’s doing this because she feels beholden to the far-right anti-vaccine supporters in the United Conservative Party, the same ones who helped turf her predecessor and appear determined to do the same to one of his most loyal cabinet ministers. But as Mount Royal University professor Duane Bratt wrote back in November, “A better explanation for Smith's opposition to COVID restrictions and vaccines is that she firmly believes it. Her personal behaviour, radio show, newsletters, and social media posts — prior to her renewed political career — demonstrate that Smith is absolutely convinced that the experts have been misleading people about COVID.”
The recent news that Smith appointed none other than Preston Manning to chair an “expert panel” on how Alberta handled the COVID-19 pandemic, one that will pay him $253,000, certainly supports Bratt’s argument. After all, on this subject, Manning is hardly a neutral arbiter of the truth. Instead, he’s an active participant in the conversation around it, and his views about how COVID-19 was handled are abundantly — perhaps excessively — clear.
That’s not just because he was in the midst of raising money for a “National Citizen's Inquiry” into the pandemic, one that sought to “provide an opportunity for alternative scientific and medical narratives” on everything from mask wearing to public health restrictions (and one he’s stepped away from to do the premier’s work). It’s also because he’s already conducted a hypothetical “COVID Commission,” one whose contents were published by the Frontier Centre for Public Policy (yes, that Frontier Centre) last May.
In it, the commissioners included “several medical practitioners and scientists who had publicly expressed reservation concerning the health protection measures adopted by the Trudeau government and had been severely censured for doing so” and “civil libertarian lawyers who had challenged the constitutionality of those measures … and who had been threatened with disbarment by the Law Societies of their respective provinces.”
His dream team of COVID skeptics also included business owners who had suffered “massive job and income losses” and “several economists and financial experts who had been in the forefront of predicting and protesting the widespread negative economic consequences of those lockdowns.”
In other words, a totally impartial and unbiased bunch.
Their imaginary source material, meanwhile, included “alternative science and medical information,” which Manning describes as “legitimate scientific positions worthy of consideration and discussion by governmental authorities and the public rather than denunciation and cancellation.” The most (in)famous of those sources, the “Great Barrington Declaration”, was called out by Alberta’s chief medical officer of health in a lengthy blog post in October 2020.
The appointment of Preston Manning to lead a COVID-19 inquiry for Alberta is just the latest sign that its premier can't — or won't — let the pandemic go. Columnist @maxfawcett writes for @NatObserver
Also legitimate, it seems, were the efforts by a tiny handful of doctors (and, it should be pointed out, online commenters like … Danielle Smith) to promote bogus COVID-19 treatments like hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin. “Why did the federal government initially engage in what appeared to be a deliberate smear campaign to discredit the use of pharmaceutical interventions (i.e., drugs) to treat COVID-19 and its mutations,” Manning asks, “even prohibiting physicians from using them, when scientific evidence as to the safety and efficacy of such treatments was already available?”
Manning’s fantasy commission wrapped up with some entirely predictable conclusions, from the inadequacy of the federal government and the injustice of its policies (the role of provincial governments, which actually implemented most public health measures, is conveniently set aside) to the media “slavishly adhering to the federal government’s interpretation of the COVID crisis.”
Its recommendations catered to some of Manning’s favourite political hobby horses, from defunding the CBC and the “discredited Canadian Human Rights Commission” to “wholesale reform of Canada’s health-care system.”
The contents of Manning’s hypothetical commission offer some very heavy foreshadowing of what the real one he’ll lead for Smith will look like. It won’t revolve around identifying best practices and helping policymakers prepare for the next pandemic but rather addressing and inflaming the grievances of those who opposed the public health measures adopted by federal and provincial governments of all partisan stripes. It will empower cranks, feed conspiracy theories and attempt to undermine federal institutions and authority. And it will feed the culture of victimhood that has sprung up around the anti-vaccine movement, one that’s become a cottage industry for right-wing grifters and their political enablers (and vice versa).
It’s tempting to say Smith should know better here. But as she’s shown time and time again, she doesn’t know better. The question now is whether Albertans will choose to re-elect a premier who refuses to put the pandemic in the past or one who’s actually willing to look to the future.