Alberta is in trouble. But it cleared a bar that Ontario couldn’t

OPINION: Alberta is facing the worst health-care crisis that any province has faced during the pandemic. Its premier acted too late — but at least he didn’t panic
By Matt Gurney - Published on Sep 16, 2021
Alberta premier Jason Kenney (right) and Ontario premier Doug Ford in Calgary on July 8, 2019. (Jeff McIntosh/CP)

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It was impossible to watch Alberta premier Jason Kenney’s press conference Wednesday night without having flashbacks to last spring in this province. 

In May, the Alberta government, with astonishing boldness and confidence (which included hats and other merchandise!) declared the pandemic over. Alberta was reopening — and reopening for good. Best. Summer. Ever. 

This has proven to be a complete disaster. A devastating fourth wave has swept the province. Alberta is now facing the most acute health-care-system crisis of any Canadian jurisdiction during this pandemic. Our friends there are in deep, deep trouble.

Ontario’s third wave was never as bad, adjusting for the different sizes of the provincial populations, as what Alberta is now facing. It’s important to be transparent about that. But there is a very real and obvious comparison to be made: both governments allowed the crisis to get very badly out of control, in spite of plenty of evidence suggesting imminent catastrophe. Alberta should have done something to head this off last month. Ontario, too, allowed the third wave to get out of control before panicking and moving to avoid a hospital meltdown. It succeeded, barely. But it was a near-run thing. 

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I don’t have any specific, ironclad explanation for why both Doug Ford and Kenney botched their respective waves so badly. Many have already noted their common political and ideological beliefs, and I suspect that plays a part — likely a big part. I think that, throughout this pandemic, conservatives have consistently hesitated to use the powers of government, while progressives have consistently overestimated the extent and effectiveness of said powers. Both sides (yeah, I said “both sides”) should learn from their failures.

But whatever role ideology played in the delayed reactions of both Ford and Kenny, and I agree there was a role, we shouldn’t ignore the human element. There’s a reason we study what leadership during major crises does to people. Some of us are naturally hardwired to cope well and remain rational during a crisis. Most of us aren’t. It’s often impossible to tell in advance which group any person will fit into. That’s why we train people, whether first responders or health-care providers or military personnel, to cope with emergencies while remaining effective in their jobs. The training offsets our all-too-human failures of indecision, uncertainty, and hesitation.

We are living an era of history that will be written about by scholars in virtually every conceivable field for decades to come. In a perverse way, I’m looking forward to reading some of those books, many years from now. (I’d like a long break from thinking about COVID-19 first.) But one day, long after this, I would genuinely love to scrutinize the actions and inactions of our elected leaders during the arrival of the first wave and understand them not only with the greater clarity (and documents and candid interviews) that comes with the passage of years but also with the psychic distance that only time can provide. And I would love to read what future crisis-management experts, public-safety planners, and psychologists make of how our leaders, and societies at large, coped with all this. 

But those are the distractions of a future age. Right now, we’re stuck living in this one, and for our friends in Alberta, it’s a grim near-term future indeed. With luck, other provinces will be able to either accept some of Alberta sickest patients or send health-care personnel as reinforcements. On a federal level, the Canadian Armed Forces and the Red Cross may need to deploy teams to Alberta to get them through the next few months. All that can be done should be done for our fellow citizens. 

That should not be as contentious and controversial a statement as I fear it may prove.

But, in the meantime, amid all the warranted criticism of Kenney and his government’s handling of this crisis, one thing did jump out at me. Though their inaction in recent weeks is unforgivable, and their confidence in the preceding months indefensible in the face of what has come, I did note that, when the moment of decision came, Kenney and his staff made it calmly and directly. The statements might have lacked the contrition many would have liked, but they were clear-eyed and rational. Time will tell whether they are also sufficient.

If the above sounds a bit like damning with faint praise, there’s probably some truth to that. But recall that this is a low bar that the Ontario government could not clear. After weeks of denial in this province, when the government finally roused itself to confront the third wave, it did so in a total panicked meltdown that led to the most astonishing three days I’ve ever witnessed living in this province. It fell to police forces across the land to proactively reject the wildly inappropriate powers government was hurling at them as it tried to clean up the crisis it had allowed to spread across the province. 

Again, Alberta is now in worse shape than Ontario ever was. I wouldn’t trade their fourth wave for our third. But I did find it interesting to see how Alberta, belatedly, met this crisis. They did it with more poise than we pulled off. Perhaps they learned from Ontario’s mistakes. Or perhaps we have specific problems within our own government that we ought to keep thinking of as we warily and wearily watch our COVID-19 numbers and hope for the best.

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