ATHABASCA, ALTA – Two weeks before members of the United Conservative Party vote on whether Alberta Premier Jason Kenney should remain leader of their party and the province, he was in Athabasca making an announcement about the future of Athabasca University and ouched on several other topics including the competition within his own party, vaccine mandates for healthcare workers and the war in Ukraine.
Athabasca-Barrhead-Westlock MLA Glenn van Dijken introduced the premier to more than 300 people, including students from two local schools, current and former dignitaries of the three local municipalities and members of the public who crowded into the upper level of the Athabasca Regional Multiplex March 24.
The premier was joined by Minister of Advanced Education Demetrios Nicolaides and Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Rural Economic Development Nate Horner to tell the assembled crowd their voices had been heard and that the Alberta government was taking a number of steps to maintain Athabasca University’s physical presence in the community as the institution moves forward with its “near-virtual” plan that many in the community opposed.
“A post-secondary institution is a community, and it needs a heart. It needs to be able to have a culture and you can’t replicate that virtually online,” Kenney said. “Yes, you can provide lots of services to reach the world, to reach learners across the world through the Internet, but you still need to be grounded somewhere and the vision of this institution is always to be grounded and rooted in the community of Athabasca.”
Athabasca University Act will be amended to include a directive that ensures permanent representation from the community on the AU Board of Governors. The board of governors was also directed to work toward expanding AU’s footprint in Athabasca and Northern Alberta in general by “consolidating executive and senior administration offices in Athabasca at the earliest possible opportunity.”
Last, the board will “develop and implement a comprehensive talent development, attraction and retention strategy, by June 30 of this year, to maintain and grow a broad range of employees in Athabasca, and to develop and implement a reopening strategy for the Athabasca campus to resume most employees working onsite, and to allow public access to services like registries, student support and specialized services,” Kenney said.
A divided party
Kenney answered questions from several students and from a few other community members, with other issues on their minds.
One Edwin Parr Composite student asked the premier for his take on the competition for his job at the top of the UCP and how he plans to maintain that position.
“You sound like the media, what's going on here?” Kenney responded in jest.
He went on to say that like many families, businesses and communities in Alberta, the UCP has been divided on many issues surrounding COVID policy, which has led to some of the acrimony being seen as the vote on his leadership approaches.
“That's been reflected in our party and partly because we had to bring in some public health measures to prevent a collapse in our hospitals and to avoid large scale loss of life, you know, and that's ticked off some conservative Albertans who are freedom loving, as I am,” he said. “I never came into office to use government powers to restrict people's social or economic activity. And the whole process of the past two years has been incredibly painful and difficult and that's being reflected now in an internal debate in the party that I lead.”
The party has a process, he said, and it is one he is happy to follow, regardless of the result.
“It's a lot harder to lead through multiple historic crises than to criticize from the sidelines,” he said. “And it's a lot harder to build up than to tear down and I believe most Albertans want to unite to build and to lead our way into renewed prosperity.”
A woman in the crowd later asked the premier how healthcare workers who left their jobs, because they were not vaccinated against COVID-19, were going to be compensated.
Kenney pointed out in reply that Alberta Health Services is just one public health agency around the world that mandates various vaccinations for those working within the healthcare system.
“It's a standard condition of employment that people in the health system are used to that long predates the existence of AHS and goes way back to when we had independent hospital authorities,” he said, adding that with the number of those exposed to the Delta variant late last year AHS was prompted to implement a proof of vaccination policy.
He also clarified there was an option for those who chose to leave their jobs to instead provide a periodic negative COVID test, and that policy has now been dropped.
“Where we're at now, as I understand it, is that 99.8 per cent of Alberta's 10,000 physicians are fully vaccinated and 98.7 per cent of Alberta nurses. Now in the wake of Omicron, which is much more transmissible and so vaccinated people are quite able to transmit it, AHS has revised the policy and they've actually pulled back on that policy. And so, there's no longer a proof of vaccination or negative test requirement. So, nobody who was unvaccinated was required to leave work, they were given an option of a negative test.”
The war in Ukraine
Another Edwin Parr Composite student asked what Alberta can do to aid those affected by the war in Ukraine.
Kenney started with an anecdote about his time as Minister of National Defense.
"I actually deployed the Canadian Army for the first time ever, to Ukraine in 2015, in Operation Unifier, to help train their military and I visited Ukrainian military bases on two or three occasions and saw the brilliant work that our Canadian Armed Forces have been doing to significantly improve the Ukraine's military effectiveness," he said, adding that while provinces have no role in determining foreign policy, there were significant ways Alberta could show its support for Ukraine and help put a stop to further aggressions by hostile states.
In addition to providing $11 million in humanitarian funds, and contributing to groups helping to supply defensive military equipment like flak jackets, helmets and night vision goggles. The government has also pulled Russian-produced products off Albertan liquor shelves. The Alberta Investment Management Corporation AHS also divested $165 million in Russian assets.
"Now, those are all largely symbolic steps, but the single biggest thing that the the world can do to fight Putin is two things, first of all, a total, hard embargo on his energy exports, that is what fuels his war machine," he said. What can Alberta do in a big, meaningful way? Well, we have we have the third largest oil reserves on Earth, the fifth largest natural gas reserves ... President Biden has brought in a embargo on Russian oil imports to the US. Okay, good. That that was 900,000 barrels a day, Keystone XL would have displaced that with 900,000 barrels a day of Alberta energy. We need as a matter of national and international urgency to get energy infrastructure built out of Canada, so we can compete with and displace not just oil and gas from Putin's Russia, but Biden's now going to Venezuela, Iran and Saudi Arabia asking them, not Canada, but those OPEC dictatorships, asking them to replace the Russian oil supply. This makes no sense"