Before he even took office, Alberta premier Jason Kenney had made it clear that he has a penchant for conspiracy theories about fantastic, powerful enemies. In the run-up to his election victory in April 2019, Kenney and his United Conservative Party (UCP) vowed to fight the “green left” and blamed the bitumen-rich province’s ills on foreign-funded environmentalists.
But Kenney’s investigation into these dark otherworldly forces has descended into farce, so he has now shifted to accusing Hollywood elites of corrupting the minds of young children. This latest tempest in a teapot involves the Netflix children’s feature Bigfoot Family.
The film tells the story of an oil tycoon who schemes to blow up an Alaskan nature reserve in order to get at the oil underneath. The UCP’s sensitivity about the movie may partly stem from a real-life Alberta parallel: in the 1950s, the province seriously considered nuking the oil sands in the boreal forest to extract oil.
Scapegoating Big Foot
A staffer at the Canadian Energy Centre (CEC) first detected Bigfoot Family’s apparently scandalous depiction of the oil industry. The CEC is a publicly funded but opaque public relations outfit that is widely known as Jason Kenney’s “war room.” Right-wing activists quickly set up a list-building email tool so outraged advocates of the fossil fuel industry could communicate their discontent to Netflix executives.
This fabricated outrage is typical of Kenney’s style. The UCP is desperate to direct public attention away from its dismal performance in government toward easy targets outside the province — Hollywood, the federal government, or the vast army of green-left spies and environmentalist conspirators that it depicts as lurking behind every corner.
Kenney’s approval rating has slid twenty points since he was elected, and multiple polls put the center-left New Democratic Party (NDP) ahead by several points. Alberta has the second-highest unemployment rate in Canada at 9.9 percent. There are five job seekers for every vacant position.
Kenney has torn up contracts signed by the previous NDP government, incurring losses of $2.1 billion. The UCP bet billions on the completion of the Keystone XL pipeline and was hoping for Donald Trump to win the US presidential election — that gamble didn’t pay off.
The Kenney government refused an offer of $675 million from the federal government to aid Albertan essential workers. After taking over teachers’ pensions, the government-run fund posted $2.1 billion in losses.
Weeks into the COVID-19 pandemic, Kenney announced the biggest layoff in the province’s history, cutting the jobs of twenty-six thousand educational assistants, bus drivers, and substitute teachers. With the pandemic still ranging, his government now plans to lay off eleven thousand health care workers.
The backdrop to the UCP’s slash-and-burn campaign is the consolidation of the crisis-prone fossil fuel industry vital to the Albertan economy. Sectors of the industry are merging, acquiring, and divesting, shedding their workforce in the process. All is not well in Canada’s wild rose province.
Dead Cats in Alberta
Canada’s conservative movement has long displayed a certain flair for distraction and manufactured outrage. Jason Kenney was a federal cabinet minister under Stephen Harper who made the unusual move of jumping from federal to provincial politics in 2016. He brought with him the kind of inflammatory and polarizing rhetoric in which Harper and his ministers had frequently indulged. The current UCP hysterics about the “green left” and foreign-funded environmentalists, for example, echoes the Harper government’s statements dating back to 2012.
In the 2015 election that finally brought down Harper, the Conservatives hired Australian strategist Lynton Crosby. Crosby is known for his use of the “dead cat” strategy, a term coined by his former client, Britain’s current prime minister, Boris Johnson. It involves shifting the conversation away from an issue that you consider damaging to a new, outrageous, and polarizing one that helps rally your base. Harper’s 2015 campaign was mired in scandal — and that’s where the use of polarizing smokescreens began.
First, Harper suggested that his government, once reelected, would consider passing a law banning the niqab from the federal public service. His opponents saw this as a crude attempt to foment anti-Muslim sentiment by politicizing an issue that involves a tiny segment of Canada’s population. Harper then moved to exploit the Syrian refugee crisis. Just days after the heartbreaking images of drowned Syrian toddler Alan Kurdi had circulated, Harper’s campaign shifted its focus to national security issues, stoking up anxieties about ISIS.
Finally, Harper pledged to establish a nationwide law enforcement tip line to combat “barbaric cultural practices.” This was purportedly an attempt to address the questions of polygamy and child marriage, but Harper and his allies were really trying to stir a moral panic against refugees, immigrants, and Muslims. Jason Kenney has clearly learned a few tricks from his old boss.
The NDP’s Record
In Alberta, however, it’s not just right-wing politicians who’ve been involved in this kind of cynical posturing. The Alberta NDP should think twice before getting on its high horse about Jason Kenney’s antics, since it has its own track record of similar behavior. While serving as Alberta premier from 2015 to 2019, NDP leader Rachel Notley also liked to stoke up populist panics against external enemies.
In 2018, Notley responded to British Columbia’s restrictions on bitumen shipments to the Pacific coast by initiating a province-wide boycott of BC wine. It was an especially bizarre incident, because BC and Alberta both had NDP governments at the time. The intraparty fight escalated to the point that Notley threatened to “turn off the taps” to British Columbia’s oil and gas supplies.
The logic behind Notley’s playacting was clear. In Alberta, it pays to style yourself as a no-nonsense, tough-talking leader who is prepared to defend the province’s interests, undeterred by those left-wing environmental radicals on the west coast (even if they belong to the same party as you). This posturing promoted the idea that Alberta’s “interests” are synonymous with the production and export of fossil fuels, contributing to the alarming rise of extractive populism in Canada while giving it a superficially “progressive” NDP sheen.
The UCP’s “dead cat” shenanigans are fully consistent with its approach to politics. Kenney and his allies can bamboozle the public and lower the standard of debate, because the last thing they want or need is an empowered citizenry. But that kind of behavior is corrosive for would-be progressive forces, cutting the ground from underneath their own feet. The only proper way to respond when figures like Kenney stoke up a panic about Bigfoot or the other monsters of the week is with a bold and honest left-wing agenda that clears away this fog of nonsense.