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Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has emerged as an easy target for criticism about the province's response to COVID-19, but no government in Canada has had to deal with the level of public defiance that Kenney has.

JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

This past week was a good one if you live in British Columbia and have been unnerved by the toll the third wave of the pandemic has been taking.

The picture in Alberta, on the other hand, is far less rosy.

B.C. announced 694 new cases of the virus on Thursday, which was consistent with a downward trend of COVID-19 that has been recently playing out. The seven-day average continues to drop, as does the number of people in hospital and intensive care. In mid-April, the province was setting records with more than 1,200 new cases a day. But the restrictions that the government strengthened around that time appear to be working.

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This is decidedly not the case next door in Alberta, where the pandemic continues to rage and where Premier Jason Kenney is facing the greatest crisis of his administration. This has prompted some to ask why there is such a discrepancy between two provinces given they are dealing with the same main virus, the same variants, the same access to vaccines and the same virus-fighting tools at their disposal.

The popular answer is Jason Kenney. That he is the difference. And there is little question that his handling of the pandemic has resided somewhere between inadequate and abysmal. His deficiencies have been well catalogued, from initially downplaying the seriousness of the disease (which he compared to the flu) to mocking lockdown measures other provinces were implementing to belatedly introducing half measures that had little effect.

Which COVID-19 ‘variants of concern’ are in Canada?

Canada vaccine tracker: How many COVID-19 doses have been administered so far?

Consequently, he has become a pretty easy target for his political opponents, chief among them NDP Leader Rachel Notley. But he’s been skewered in the House of Commons too, with Edmonton NDP MP Heather McPherson recently calling the Alberta Premier an “unmitigated disaster,” who leads a “bumbling, stumbling joke” of a government.

One is tempted to leave criticism of Mr. Kenney and his government there. But that does not fully explain why B.C. has done such a superior job controlling the virus. A lot of it has to do with the jarring difference in public attitudes that exist in the two provinces.

In other words, yes, Mr. Kenney deserves a pile of blame for Alberta boasting the highest per capita COVID-19 numbers in North America. But the social and political culture inside his province plays a big part too.

While there has been some public opposition to the restrictions imposed by the B.C. government, it’s been nothing like what we’ve witnessed in Alberta. In fact, there isn’t a government in the country that has had to deal with what Mr. Kenney has – open defiance by broad swaths of the public, especially in rural parts of the province.

That defiance has also been represented in the Premier’s own caucus, where 18 United Conservative Party MLAs have openly voiced their displeasure with pandemic restrictions. There is not a provincial leader in the country who has faced the type of COVID-related rebellion inside his own party as Mr. Kenney.

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And, of course, that type of behaviour only emboldens the COVID-19 deniers and the freedom fighters.

A picture of a Nazi flag flying somewhere in Athabasca County was making the rounds on Twitter this week, a symbol, I suppose, of the state of ‘oppression’ under which Albertans now live. Mr. Kenney has also talked about people organizing rallies with Tiki torches, similar to the neo-Nazi marches witnessed in Virginia a few years ago. Thousands attended an anti-COVID rodeo last weekend. Meantime, hundreds have routinely attended a church in downtown Calgary in open defiance of public health orders. The RCMP recently drew attention to a Facebook post by someone calling for another Mayerthorpe, a reference to the four Mounties who were ambushed and murdered in 2005.

Mr. Kenney has gone public with the recent death threats that have been made against both him and his 83-year-old mother. “You will be executed for your crimes against humanity,” one note to the Premier said. “We know where your mother lives,” said another.

Don Braid, a long-time columnist with the Calgary Herald, said in a piece this week: “The atmosphere is as toxic and dangerous as I’ve ever seen it in Alberta.” A shocking indictment of the behaviour of far too many people who either don’t believe COVID-19 is worth being fearful of, or don’t really care.

The pandemic has challenged governments and the public they serve right across Canada. But there isn’t an administration in the country that is faced with the same level of public idiocy Jason Kenney is confronting.

That’s not to absolve him of blame, or dismiss the many ways he’s fumbled the province’s pandemic response. It’s just to put the broad scope of the test he’s faced in perspective.

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We have a weekly Western Canada newsletter written by our B.C. and Alberta bureau chiefs, providing a comprehensive package of the news you need to know about the region and its place in the issues facing Canada. Sign up today.

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