Graham Thomson is an award-winning journalist who has covered Alberta politics for more than 30 years. This column is an opinion. For more information about our commentary section, please read our FAQ.
He is our own harbinger of doom.
When Premier Jason Kenney turns up at one of Dr. Deena Hinshaw's regular pandemic updates nowadays, we know we're in trouble.
On Friday, for the first time in many weeks, Kenney shared the podium with Alberta's chief medical officer of health to discuss the rising number of COVID-19 cases in the province.
When the pandemic first hit in the spring, Kenney was a regular at the briefings but his appearances dropped as the crisis dragged on. He popped up now and again during the summer when there was relatively good news to announce such as a program to distribute free masks or plans to reopen the economy or to start the new school year.
But he has studiously avoided taking part in the daily news conferences, unlike other premiers such as Ontario's Doug Ford who is literally front and centre at his province's regular briefings.
So, when Kenney's office announced he would be at Friday's briefing to discuss the province's alarming number of new COVID cases that hit 800 on Wednesday and topped 600 on Thursday, we expected him to announce the kind of lockdown we're seeing in other provinces.
That's not what happened.
After telling Albertans that "we must take this seriously," Kenney made a point of saying he will not follow the lead of other provinces that are enacting restrictions such as closing casinos and ending in-person dining in restaurants and bars.
"We've seen other jurisdictions implement sweeping lockdowns, indiscriminately violating people's rights and destroying livelihoods," said Kenney, in a statement that sounded more like a political speech than a health update. "Nobody wants that to happen here in Alberta."
It's certainly fair to say nobody wants their rights violated and their livelihoods destroyed but nobody wants the pandemic to run out of control and overwhelm our health care system.
That's where Kenney is walking a peculiarly Albertan tightrope trying to balance his government's laissez-faire philosophy with the need to limit personal freedoms during a pandemic.
It's a wobbly journey, made all the more unstable by Alberta's predicament as arguably the hardest hit province in Canada with the triple whammy of pandemic, recession and an oil price that went negative at one point.
WATCH | Jason Kenney tells Albertans told to stop having gatherings at home
Kenney's mantra since last year's election has been jobs, the economy and pipelines.
However, the province's unemployment rate is the second highest in the country, the economy continues to struggle and the Keystone XL pipeline expansion to the U.S. is in jeopardy after the outcome of the American presidential election.
Kenney is afraid that following the crackdown in other provinces would further weaken Alberta's economy. He's hoping Albertans will do the right thing and take "personal responsibility" to stop the spread of COVID by, among other things, wearing a mask indoors in public settings, practising social distancing and, as of Friday, voluntarily stop holding extended family gatherings at home.
"If we don't take these kinds of simple measures and make these sorts of modest sacrifices to social life, the cases will continue to grow to a point where they may grow out of control and where the only options we have will be far more impactful on people's lives and livelihoods," he said.
Kenney did announce one new restriction on Friday. He has extended the 15-person limit on public gatherings — that up until now applied to just Calgary and Edmonton — to any community on the province's watchlist. Kenney said some Edmontonians and Calgarians had been circumventing the cities' 15-person rule by driving to the bedroom communities to hold large public gatherings. It would seem some people just can't be trusted to take personal responsibility. Or perhaps they're confused.
Kenney himself might be adding to the confusion by sending out mixed signals.
"Let's put this in perspective," he said on Friday. "While we have to take the COVID threat very seriously, it is currently projected to be the 11th most common cause of death in Alberta this year. To date, we've lost approximately 340 lives sadly to COVID-19. In a typical year 16- to 17,000 people pass away in Alberta. And so currently this represents a tiny proportion of the deaths in our province."
This is the kind of misleading argument you see online from people who dismiss the dangers of COVID-19. COVID has overwhelmed hospitals in other parts of the world and could do so here.
In the past, Kenney has also called the virus "an influenza of this nature." Again, this is the language of those who diminish the hazard of COVID. It is not the flu but a novel coronavirus more contagious and more deadly than the flu. There is no vaccine. And people who are sick enough to end up in hospital but don't die might suffer lifelong health problems.
Kenney is no doubt hoping his appearance at Friday's COVID update will provide something of a verbal slap in the face to Albertans who have become inured to the daily monotony of pandemic updates. Let's hope so.
But it would help if he used his harbinger-of-doom appearances at those updates to impart a clear message about the dangers of COVID without also diluting the warning with apples-to-oranges statistics that only serve to diminish the dangers and confuse people.