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A truck convoy of vaccine mandate protesters block the highway at the busy U.S. border crossing in Coutts, Alta., on Feb. 2, 2022.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

Jason Kenney acknowledges he “reflected on” the optics of announcing an easing of pandemic health measures in Alberta, and whether it would look like kowtowing to Coutts protesters who want all COVID-19 mandates dropped immediately.

But he insists, as he did earlier this week, the decision had nothing to do with the truckers blockading the border.

“It’s not pandering to an extreme,” the Premier said in an interview with The Globe and Mail, responding to criticism from the province’s NDP and others. He and his COVID-19 cabinet committee made the decision to push ahead because “we’re not going to allow pressure from an illegal activity to inform policy one way or another – on the side of stringency or openness.”

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The Alberta Premier, who has gained a pandemic reputation for lifting restrictions too fast and enacting health mandates too slowly – all the while facing immense pressure from the anti-mandate parts of his political base – expressed confidence this plan is the right decision.

In fact, Mr. Kenney argues, the province isn’t an outlier in ending its vaccine passport system and mask mandates for children. Alberta’s “right and prudent course” is part of a larger global trend, and he believes other provinces will soon follow suit.

“Quite apart from the roadblocks and the protests, we have reached an inflection point in COVID fatigue.”

There are good reasons for skepticism about the public health directives coming from the United Conservative Party. The memory of last summer, when the government wishfully declared health restrictions done before a Delta-driven wave of hospitalizations and deaths, is still clear in the minds of Albertans. Mr. Kenney is facing a leadership review in two months, and many UCP members and MLAs are uneasy with or hostile to his leadership – with a few expressing support for the protesters. NDP Leader Rachel Notley has charged that this week’s policy changes were designed to pander to extremist views within the UCP, and those “engaged in an illegal blockade a Coutts.”

And even with the reported number of COVID-19 cases declining in the province, hospitals are still full. “The system has no give. It has no tank of gas for that final push, if something should happen,” Ms. Notley said this week.

Mr. Kenney’s contention that Alberta’s vaccination rate – more than 75 per cent of the total population has two doses – is unlikely to increase by much more, even with a proof-of-vaccine system in effect, could be correct. But the fact he announced on Tuesday evening that the vaccine passport would be done by midnight that very day seemed to me like a grand political gesture meant to attract the most attention possible instead of being thoughtful or gradual policy.

The Premier’s rebuttal is that if his government has clearly stated that it doesn’t believe the program is working any more, “who the heck is going to bother enforcing it? It will just create more friction as people are walking into the gym and saying, ‘Why the hell do I have to show you this thing? I’ve already deleted it from my phone.’” He noted his office has been flooded with messages from grateful restaurant owners.

And given that schools are struggling to have enough healthy teachers and substitutes on a daily basis to keep classes in person, it’s surprising and premature to many that as of next week, children do not have to be masked in schools.

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But on the other side, Mr. Kenney says: “I have been almost moved to tears with messages I received from parents – pictures of their smiling, unmasked kids thanking me.”

In the discussion about the protests, Mr. Kenney has been unlike many other federal conservatives such as Candice Bergen and Pierre Poilievre, and even MLAs within the UCP, in that he hasn’t expressed an allegiance with the protesters. He’s clearly against the federal vaccine mandate for truckers, but he has been consistent that the blockades aren’t lawful.

“We repeatedly underscore the expectation of the public that the law will be enforced, but we have to respect the delegated enforcement authority of the RCMP,” he said, adding that, “for most Albertans, even if they’re sympathetic to the general message, their patience is probably wearing thin.”

There is no doubt the self-described freedom convoy has made government decision-making on pandemic restrictions fraught. No government, federal or provincial, wants to appear as if they are reacting to the crippling disruptions in Ottawa, or Emerson, Man., or Coutts or Windsor, Ont. – lest they embolden the current protest or others.

Yet at the same time, there is movement toward health restrictions being eased, even beyond speedy Alberta and Saskatchewan. The governments in both Ontario and Manitoba suggested or announced late this week that they would adjust their timelines, based on numbers showing the Omicron peak has passed. And on Friday, Federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said changes to COVID-19 border measures will be announced next week.

Mr. Kenney argues that if his government was truly “calibrating our COVID policy to satisfy the road blockers, then we would have done what they demand, which is immediately lifting all public health measures.”

Since that is not what happened, the protesters immediately doubled down after the Premier’s Tuesday announcement on the easing of health rules. Instead of letting some vehicles flow north-south, they blocked the whole highway.

That, Mr. Kenney argues, was predictable. “This was not in any way designed to appeal to folks whose views I think are generally outside the mainstream.”

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