Two Alberta cabinet ministers are speaking out against Jason Kenney’s actions following the release of photos showing his appearance with other government officials at an outdoor gathering on the patio of a government office known as the “Sky Palace.” Many believe the meeting was in violation of the province’s COVID-19 health restrictions.
Culture, Multiculturalism and Status of Women Minister Leela Aheer is also taking issue with the Premier’s criticism of “cancel culture” at a time when the country is mourning after the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation in B.C. announced the discovery of the remains of 215 children at a former residential school site.
Ms. Aheer wants the Premier to apologize. She said she cares about the Premier, and she’s asking him “to look inside and find that compassion, and find that humility that we all need in leadership – to be able to acknowledge, ‘Maybe I didn’t get this right, and I’m really sorry.’ ”
The Chestermere-Rocky View MLA said in an interview she believes people would be forgiving, because they also make mistakes and get stuck, “and that happens to everybody.”
Rajan Sawhney, the Minister for Social Services, said in a radio interview that she has been trying to follow the COVID-19 rules and has kept her distance from her mother for safety.
“I would never have done [what they did] in the picture,’” Ms. Sawhney told Red-FM in Calgary on Friday. “I was in my chamber and as a representative of the [Calgary-North East constituency] I don’t feel good. I know what to do. I would say if they committed a mistake they must accept it openly. [The] photo clearly speaks.’'
Ms. Sawhney made her comments in Punjabi. An English translation was provided by Red-FM news director Rishi Nagar.
Mr. Kenney is facing low polling numbers and open criticism from a number of backbench MLAs. Two MLAs, Todd Loewen and Drew Barnes, were kicked out of caucus last month after Mr. Loewen publicly called for the Premier’s resignation and after numerous occasions in which Mr. Barnes attacked public health orders. On Friday, United Conservative Party member and Deputy Speaker Angela Pitt said it’s clear Mr. Kenney’s dinner party broke COVID-19 rules. UCP backbench member Dave Hanson endorsed Ms. Pitt’s comments.
However, this past weekend was the first time cabinet ministers in his UCP government have publicly censured him.
The Premier’s office wasn’t immediately available for comment.
In a Facebook post on Saturday afternoon, Ms. Aheer wrote that she wanted to apologize to “First Nations sisters and brothers for the historical wrongs, the death, despair, sexual assault, and destruction of their beautiful culture, traditions, and who they are as people at the hands of our governments, and our churches.”
She said Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, and Confederation-era cabinet minister Hector-Louis Langevin were “architects of the residential schools where children died because of disease, neglect and beatings. This must be part of the history taught.”
Mr. Kenney has repeatedly come to the defence of Mr. Macdonald and did so again last week, when the Premier said Canada “is an imperfect country, but it is still a great country, just as John Macdonald was an imperfect man but was still a great leader.”
The Premier was responding to a question about renaming schools named after Mr. Macdonald and Mr. Langevin.
“If we want to get into cancelling every figure in our history who took positions on issues at the time that we now judge harshly and rightly in historical retrospective – but if that’s the new standard, then I think almost the entire founding leadership of our country gets cancelled,” he said.
But Ms. Aheer wrote that changing the names of schools and educating people about “these atrocities is not ‘cancel culture.’ Cancel culture is what has happened to our First Nations by not acknowledging these atrocities and those responsible.”
In an interview, Ms. Aheer said if Mr. Kenney wanted “to get into the academia of this” to do it another time. Ms. Aheer said she has been emotionally overwhelmed in recent days with the thought of children being forcibly taken away from their parents.
Ms. Aheer also wrote she’s “confused” and “extremely hurt” about the photos of cabinet ministers, staff and the Premier having a meal together on the rooftop patio of a government building in Edmonton where Mr. Kenney has a temporary office. The building became known as the Sky Palace and came to symbolize government entitlement after former Progressive Conservative premier Alison Redford planned a series of renovations before her resignation.
In the images that were sent anonymously to various media outlets, Mr. Kenney is seated with key lieutenants, including Health Minister Tyler Shandro, House Leader Jason Nixon and Finance Minister Travis Toews.
It appears they were not following physical distancing and masking rules. However, the Premier has said the group made reasonable effort to comply with public health rules, which had changed the same day to allow outdoor gatherings of up to 10 people.
The opposition NDP and former members of Mr. Kenney’s United Conservative caucus said the event reinforces that the Premier and his caucus believe they are above COVID-19 rules. Mr. Kenney has also publicly promised to punish and even evict COVID-19 rule breakers from caucus.
While some UCP MLAs have openly been critical of the province’s health rules, Ms. Aheer said she has encouraged people to diligently follow COVID-19 health restrictions, which have closed gyms, restaurants and other public facilities at various times during the pandemic.
Ms. Aheer said at the same time she has seen friends and family who are small-business owners or front-line workers suffer financially as a result, and she can only imagine how disappointed people must be in seeing the Sky Palace images.
“My friends can’t make ends meet,” she said. “The dinner on the rooftop was just the clincher.”
With a report from The Canadian Press