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Anti-mandate demonstrators gather as a truck convoy blocks the highway in Coutts, Alta., on Jan. 31.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

It’s hard not to fall into comparisons between what happened to Erin O’Toole this week and what could come to pass for Premier Jason Kenney.

Both conservative leaders were facing trucker blockades on their home turf. Both had a double-barrelled message on the protests – condemning instances of bad behaviour, but arguing that the U.S.-Canada trucker vaccine mandate was unnecessarily heavy handed and ill timed.

Both have low approval numbers among the wider public. Both have tried to keep the most true-blue members of their parties in their big tents but, as the Angus Reid Institute pointed to this week, are increasingly unable to appeal to conservatives who feel alienated from their own government. And for both, the momentum of the protests laid bare divisions between the leaders and their caucuses.

In Mr. O’Toole’s case, he was unceremoniously tossed as Conservative Party leader Wednesday by a majority of his MPs. Mr. Kenney won’t face a test of his leadership until party members vote in early April.

A key difference between the two is, of course, that the Premier leads a province that has had to enact two years of pandemic health restrictions. He and his government have become a target, even more than the federal government, of those who oppose COVID-19 health measures. And this has come in large extent from people who voted for the United Conservative Party in 2019.

The trucker blockade at Coutts, Alta., this week has galvanized UCP MLAs who want the province’s health restrictions and vaccine-passport system scrapped – many of whom are the same backbenchers who have long challenged Mr. Kenney’s leadership. In recent days, it appeared they were setting the agenda. And to that point, the plan to dismantle Alberta’s vaccine-passport system is now expected to be laid out early next week.

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Last weekend, the truckers’ protest at Coutts, a key border crossing three hours south of Calgary, began. Grant Hunter – the MLA for Taber-Warner, a riding that includes Coutts – showed up with his family to support the truckers. The former associate minister (now backbencher) later told reporters he’s against the illegal blockade, but that most Albertans are at their “wits’ end” with the provincial health measures.

On Monday, MLAs gathered for a virtual caucus meeting where many expressed their desire for the end of Alberta’s Restrictions Exemption Program (REP), which requires proof of vaccination or a negative test result to enter restaurants and other public places. A number of MLAs say they’ve been overwhelmed by messages from their constituents asking for the change. “There is a large amount of caucus that is in favour of removing the REP program, immediately,” Airdrie-Cochrane MLA Peter Guthrie said.

On Tuesday, Mr. Kenney held a news conference where he expressed concern about the aggressive actions of the protesters, and emphasized that the blockade was breaking the law. At the same time, he spoke of his recent trip to Washington to speak to lawmakers also against the U.S.-Canada trucker vaccine mandate. And he told reporters his government was likely to lift COVID-19 health measures – pending declining pressures on hospitals – by the end of February. This was different than what he had said one week earlier, when he explained the shift was likely to occur before the end of March.

But apparently that wasn’t fast enough for some. As the CBC reported, the Premier’s announcement contributed to a stream of angry emails from MLAs.

On Wednesday, he sent out two tweets stressing that health restrictions would soon be lifted.

That afternoon, the truckers, farmers and other supporters at the Coutts protest opened one lane of traffic in each direction. The crossing is key for massive movements of cattle, beef, produce and animal feed, and lawyers for the group said the protesters were clearing the way for the flow of trade. Martin Rejman, one of those lawyers, said the protesters made the concession after “backchannel” talks with MLAs and police.

Then, late Wednesday, UCP caucus chair Nathan Neudorf put out a statement addressing reports rural MLAs had negotiated a deal, saying “no such agreement has been authorized.” But he mentioned a new, sped-up timeline for removing pandemic mandates. “As the Premier has stated, Alberta will begin lifting restrictions very soon, likely within days, starting with the REP.”

Throughout the week, a number of MLAs made public posts saying the proof-of-vaccine system had to end. “Many of my colleagues, and myself, have been advocating for an end to public-health restrictions, and it looks like we have an exit strategy,” Shane Getson, the UCP MLA for Lac Ste. Anne-Parkland, boasted on a conservative news site.

Even House Leader and Environment Minister Jason Nixon, considered part of Mr. Kenney’s inner circle, said it’s “clear now that mandates like the Restrictions Exemption Program are not as effective against the current COVID-19 situation.”

Of course, not everyone in the province agrees.

Non-ICU hospitalizations for COVID-19 are still sky-high and the province’s health care system is stressed. Many are concerned it’s too early to signal that the worst of the Omicron wave is over, and that Alberta risks making some of the same mistakes it did during the disastrous fourth wave. The Opposition NDP argues that the Premier is caving to the most anti-vaccine and anti-science parts of his base.

On Thursday, during a late-evening Facebook Live chat, Mr. Kenney said that because of vaccine uptake, the rationale for proof-of-vaccination programs is not as strong as it was. Early next week, he said, he will lay out the plan to reduce public-heath measures, beginning with ending the proof-of-vaccination program – perhaps saving the QR code for international travel.

Later that day, a spokesman for the Premier’s office responded to my questions regarding the Neudorf timeline for the end of vaccine passports, and whether UCP MLAs were negotiating with blockade organizers. He mostly repeated key government messages, adding: “No responsible government makes policy by negotiating with people engaged in such unlawful conduct, period.”

The Premier might sound firm when speaking about the rule of law, but protesters and dissenting MLAs will be able to point to the shift in Mr. Kenney’s messaging on vaccine passports this week. And despite all of this, it’s still possible the Premier will suffer the same fate as Mr. O’Toole.

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