The third-place winner in an Alberta government essay contest shouldn’t be what people are talking about. After all, we’re a world grappling with high inflation, climate change and energy shortages, new waves of dangerous disease, exhausted health care workers, a rising tide of geopolitical aggression, and an America whose democratic institutions are at risk of crumbling into the ocean outside Mar-a-Lago’s walls.
But here we are in Alberta, in 2022, picking apart racist and sexist themes in one of the selections in a competition that called for politically-minded women aged 17-25 to outline how they “as a future parliamentarian” could have the biggest effect on the greater good.
Why? Because Premier Jason Kenney’s governing United Conservative Party can’t run an essay contest, and it appears rudderless, again, with no one focused on ending this summer controversy.
Recounting the details is painful. The Alberta legislature awarded a prize to an essay this year that emphasized women’s unique ability to give birth, and how you shouldn’t wait too long to have kids. But the corollary arguments rely on the premise that we are importing “foreigners to replace ourselves.” The essay writer also argues that when women break into careers traditionally dominated by men, it’s “misguided and harmful,” because it gets in the way of having babies. The paper goes on to suggest financial rewards and medals for women who have two or more children to bolster Alberta’s population and “pass along their way of life.”
The only answers we have received on how the essay came to be selected have come in brief statements from the two MLAs who we know acted as judges on the contest, Jackie Armstrong-Homeniuk, Alberta’s associate minister of status of women and a longtime Kenney loyalist, and Jackie Lovely.
Ms. Armstrong-Homeniuk – the head of the judging panel – has said that “it’s clear that the process failed, and I apologize for my role in that.” And from Ms. Lovely: “I regret that this essay was chosen and I apologize for my role in that.”
I have empathy for every public official who has struggled with the complexity and workload of governing during these pandemic years. But despite that, MLAs had a responsibility to care about the contents of the essays they selected. As the grownups in the room, they had a responsibility not to pick the paper that revered women’s roles as a baby creators above all else, and the dark nativist undertones of equating immigration to “cultural suicide.”
Based on some degree of goodwill, the no-one-read-it theory still could be the answer to how this essay was selected. That’s what some of the UCP leadership candidates suggested this week.
Todd Loewen said some of the contents of the essay were “beyond the pale,” and either the judges didn’t read the essay or weren’t paying close attention. Leela Aheer said she believed it was some kind of joke when she first heard such an essay had won a government contest. She’s stunned the judges “who have literally broken every barrier to be in the job that they’re in could select something so contradictory to everything they live, breath, eat and sleep … or they didn’t read it.”
But these essays were not a long read – 500 words, max. Another candidate, Danielle Smith, said: “I don’t know how they let that get through, honestly. There’s no justification.”
The essay contest is also an issue because in the back of many Albertans’ minds, there’s a lingering worry about the effect of such controversies – that they reinforce stereotypes about the province. Based on the messages I get, some in the rest of Canada have ideas about Alberta that were formed decades ago and never changed.
But this essay-contest tempest raises the question about whether the same can be said about members of this UCP government. The Premier is leaving all communications to Ms. Armstrong-Homeniuk’s office, with its lack of clarity about how this happened.
This fits in with other incidents where his government has taken far too long to take some responsibility. A key example is the working dinner and drinks in 2021, where it took the Premier more than a week of relentless negative feedback for him to acknowledge that he and his inner circle – photographed together at the top of an Edmonton government building nicknamed the “Sky Palace” – weren’t following COVID-19 health rules to the letter.
Now, three days into the latest controversy, NDP critic Rakhi Pancholi is calling on Ms. Lovely and Ms. Armstrong-Homeniuk to resign: “They have both displayed a horrendous lack of good judgment and an inability to take seriously the work required to advance and protect the interests of women in this province,” Ms. Pancholi said.
Ultimately, a premier decides who’s in their cabinet. And in some fashion, Mr. Kenney now needs to make clear this essay isn’t representative of the best and brightest in the province.
And unlike August, 2021, when a fourth wave of COVID-19 cases were threatening to overwhelm the province’s hospitals, Mr. Kenney is not on vacation away from the province at the moment. In a response to a question on what work he’s doing this week, his spokesperson, Justin Brattinga, said “the Premier has always been focused on fulfilling our election platform and he continues to be while he is Premier.”
Mr. Kenney might want to leave such headaches for whoever becomes the next UCP leader and premier in October. But the essay story is not going away without a better resolution.
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