OPINION | Jason Kenney’s pugilistic approach to governing means finding enemies everywhere

Having provoked public sector unions, Alberta premier will head off to Ottawa to make demands on the Liberals


Alberta Premier Jason Kenney holds a media conference at the United Conservative Party’s annual general meeting in Calgary on Sunday. (Dave Chidley/The Canadian Press)

When 1,000 protesters staged a massive rally outside Alberta’s United Conservative Party meeting in Calgary on Saturday, the UCP couldn’t have been happier.

Any other political leader and political party would be horrified to have an army of angry opponents turn up at their annual general meeting.

But not Jason Kenney. And not his UCP.

For Alberta Conservatives, having hundreds of public sector workers chanting “Jason Kenney has got to go!” was a badge of honour, proof that the Kenney government is on the right track with policies that cut spending and slash public sector jobs.

“Some of this will be controversial, some of it will invite protests — saw one today,” said Kenney in his hour-long speech to conventioneers Saturday night, as he managed to make a joke of the protest. “I’m reminded of what Premier Ralph Klein used to say: ‘If a day goes by and there’s not a protest, I’m wondering what I’m doing wrong.'”

People protest outside of the Alberta UCP’s annual general meeting in Calgary on Saturday. (Lauren Krugel/The Canadian Press)

In fact, it looked as if Kenney had gone out of his way to make sure there would be a massive protest on the front steps of his convention. On Friday, the government sent letters to public sector unions, notifying them that as many as 6,000 jobs will be cut over the next three years.

Any other premier and any other government would want to keep that sobering news secret until after their annual convention.

But not Kenney. And not his UCP government.

They seemed to deliberately poking a stick in the hornets’ nest that is Alberta’s beleaguered public sector, which is not only facing job cuts, but also wage reductions and losing control of their pension plans. MORE

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Canada’s most corrupt Premier: Doug Ford or Jason Kenney?

It’s a close call.

Image result for north99: Canada’s most corrupt Premier: Doug Ford or Jason Kenney?

Since being elected, Doug Ford and his government have been embroiled in scandal after scandal. A poll conducted in July showed that about 60% of Ontarians considered his administration to be corrupt.

Jason Kenney now appears to be following in Ford’s footsteps, entangling himself in a web of unscrupulous behaviour and sketchy dealings.

Both Premiers have a penchant for shady governance, but who stands above the other as Canada’s most corrupt Premier?

Doug Ford: King of patronage and nepotism

Right out the gate, Ontarians got a glimpse of Ford’s proclivity for doling out cushy jobs and appointments to friends and allies.

In July 2018, Doug Ford rewarded his friend and former Progressive Conservative Party president, Rueben Devlin, with an obscure appointment that paid $350,000.

The Ontario Premier’s real troubles began back in late 2018 when he attempted to appoint his long-time friend Ron Taverner as the OPP commissioner. Ford’s government even lowered the requirements of the hiring process so that Taverner could be eligible. He would end up being handed the job but later stepped away from the controversial appointment after public backlash.

By the spring of 2019, Doug Ford had overseen a growing list of patronage appointments. His family lawyer was handed an appointment with a six-figure salary. Failed PC candidates received high-profile jobs in the public sector. Former staffers and lobbyists alike had their fair share of roles to play in Ford’s new government. Most notably, Ian Todd, a senior staffer on his campaign, was appointed to represent Ontario in Washington, D.C., a position which would pay him $350,000 a year.

Things came to a head in June of 2019 with the now-infamous Dean French scandal. French, the Premier’s chief-of-staff, was handing out public jobs to his friends and family. Perhaps the most shocking of all was the appointment of Tyler Albrecht, a university graduate who played lacrosse with French’s son. The 26-year old Albrecht had no substantive work experience, but he was a friend of the French family. That, it seems, was enough under the Ford government to give him a $164,000 a year appointment to represent the province in New York.

Ford and his government went into full crisis management mode. A cabinet shuffle, a promise to change the appointments process, and a 5-month disappearing act — they were all meant to make sure the public forgot about his cronyism. However, if the federal election results are any indication, “the people” remember.

Jason Kenney: A Graft-y Fraudster

Kenney was dogged with scandal from the day he became Premier. His leadership race was riddled with irregularities and an alleged ‘kamikaze’ candidate that ensured Kenney won the UCP’s top spot.

Shortly after arriving in office, Kenney announced a wave of patronage appointments, packing Alberta’s public boards, agencies, and commissions with UCP loyalists. Failed candidates, donors, and campaign staffers all got a piece of the pie. Instead of spreading out his patronage like Ford, Kenney rammed his crony appointments through in one blow.

Then came the news that Kenney had used $16,000 in public funds to fly fellow Conservative Premiers on private jets. The misuse of taxpayer dollars to facilitate a partisan photo-op was just the beginning of Kenney’s most recent problems.

Shortly after, his closest advisor came under fire for using public funds to pay for trips to London, fancy dinners, and luxury hotel accommodations. In the span of a few months, Kenney’s right-hand man spent $45,000 on just four trips to the United Kingdom.

On top of all this, there came the discovery of graft in Kenney’s inquiry on ‘foreign-funded’ climate activists. The inquiry’s commissioner had spent more than a third of his budget on fees to his son’s legal firm. Commissioner Steve Allan, appointed by Kenney himself, had given the firm a sole-source contract worth $905,000.

Now Kenney has fired the Elections Commissioner — the one man capable of thoroughly investigating the ‘kamikazee scandal’ from the UCP leadership race — and announced plans to roll back election finance laws and open a floodgate of dark money into Alberta election campaigns. One can only imagine the forms of corruption this wave of corporate money flowing into Alberta politics will create.

And the winner is…

While Doug Ford has a head start on Kenney, it appears that Alberta’s Premier has learned from Ford’s early mistakes in his efforts to reward his buddies and political allies.

While Ford has thus far received more public blowback for his scandals, Kenney’s interference in election oversight and campaign financing suggests that he is — shockingly — already overtaking Ford as Canada’s most corrupt Premier. SOURCE

 

Albertans must not let our government push a polarized partisan narrative

The reality is that Alberta especially has the capacity to generate revenue, but we choose not to, and then call it the Alberta advantage. AMBER BRACKEN/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Monday isn’t the first time Alberta has elected mostly Conservative MPs. What does seem different, though, is the anger. Premier Jason Kenney described the idea of a Liberal minority government as a “Frankenstein” scenario, in which non-Conservatives pose an existential threat to Alberta.

We Albertans should ask ourselves how far we are prepared to let our provincial government push this polarized partisan narrative in our name. Other Canadians, too, should ask how much they’re prepared to accommodate this belligerent approach.

A few things work together to produce such a charged environment. While relatively few Albertans work directly in oil and gas (6.1 per cent in 2017), the idea that Alberta’s prosperity is tied to oil and gas is pervasive. My own research shows that about 70 per cent of Albertans report that oil and gas is very important for Alberta’s prosperity, compared with only about 24 per cent when that prosperity connection is made to their personal finances. This may be why it is so easy for some to conflate “energy” almost exclusively with oil and gas in Alberta.

So why are Albertans so angry? Certainly, some simply strongly connect only oil and gas to the province’s prosperity. While many Albertans may not say it explicitly, there’s appetite for conversations about energy transition and the environment; politicians across all parties and levels of government ignore this at their peril.

But another factor – partisanship – helps explain the anger. If partisanship is seen as a social identity, then it is ripe for polarization. Polarized partisans see competition between other parties as zero-sum, and then these partisans feel threatened, they will fight to maintain the position and status of their group. Importantly, polarized partisans also feel emotions on behalf of their party, so they are more euphoric when they win, and more angered when they lose.

To this, another factor must be considered. While many Albertans are not polarized partisans, they all feel at least a degree of Western alienation and have long expressed aggravation at the idea that our resources are used to enrich elites in Central Canada. This explains why the bellicose posturing of both Alberta’s Premier Kenney and Saskatchewan’s Premier Scott Moe after Monday’s election references equalization and getting a “fair deal” from the rest of Canada. Again, while this sentiment is not new, it helps reinforce this “us versus them” narrative made explosive by partisan polarization.

This is not the first time that Canadians will be confronted with a region or province that is not satisfied; what is worth considering now is what actions the federal government should take that would satisfy discontented folks in Alberta and Saskatchewan that would also be seen as acceptable, or even positive, by other Canadians. While I doubt polarized partisans will ever be satisfied, I also doubt we can have this conversation without addressing equalization.

The difficulty is that few Canadians can accurately report much, if anything, about equalization. In speaking to Albertans, I’ve found that many agree with the fundamental principles of the program: Canadians should be able to access comparable levels of services regardless of where they live, and provinces should have autonomy in determining how they provide those services. Where Albertans are easily led astray, though, is about what equalization is meant to, well, equalize. It’s about fiscal capacity – that is, a province’s ability to generate revenue.

The reality is that Alberta especially has the capacity to generate revenue, but we choose not to, and then call it the Alberta advantage. It’s estimated that if Alberta imposed taxes at the same level as British Columbia, where the economy has consistently outperformed Alberta’s in recent years, we would generate $11.2-billion a year more in revenue. But there appears to be little appetite to reconsider this. This leaves Alberta open to criticism, justifiably, for asking the federal government to help pay its bills when it’s unwilling to put in the same effort as other provinces to raise revenue.

I can see why the current pugnacious strategy is favoured by Premiers Kenney and Moe. It’s reasonable to assume that most Westerners are easily angered, albeit in ignorance, about equalization. Add partisan polarization into the mix, and it becomes especially easy to shift blame for things Westerners don’t like to the federal government.

Given that it’s already too easy to blame the feds for things that are exclusively the choice of Alberta’s government (i.e. our systematic under-use of our own fiscal capacity), I anticipate that, sometime soon, blame for harsh budget cuts meted out by Mr. Kenney’s government will be presented as Justin Trudeau’s fault. This strategy is certainly as partisanly effective as it is devoid of principled and ethical leadership.

Taken together, this is why a national conversation about the politics of equalization and the Canadian federation, while arguably needed, likely won’t get very far. It’s hard to escape the impression that, at least for some Albertans, the anger is the goal.  SOURCE

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Unions told thousands more job cuts coming to Alberta public service

Letters to unions from Alberta government released late Friday in advance of collective bargaining


Government letters to Alberta’s public-service unions in advance of collective bargaining warn thousands of public-sector workers could be laid off as the UCP government tries to cut costs. (David Bajer/CBC)

Nearly 6,000 Alberta public-sector jobs could be eliminated as the UCP government tries to cut costs and find efficiencies, the provincial government signalled to Alberta’s largest union in letters released late Friday afternoon.

The union received the letters in advance of bargaining for 2020 collective agreements. The letters are not formal notices of layoffs, but as required under the collective bargaining process, outline cuts the provincial government might make.

The potential cuts would impact 2,500 Government of Alberta positions across several ministries, as well as the following positions at Alberta Health Services:

  • 1,000 to 2,000 housekeepers;
  • 350 administrative support and medical transcription employees;
  • 250 general support staff, such as maintenance employees;
  • 235 laundry and linen operations staff;
  • 200 auxiliary nursing employees, such as licensed practical nurses and health-care aides;
  • 200 home care services staff;
  • 165 foodservice employees.

“The [Government of Alberta] will continue to guarantee employment security until March 30, 2020, for permanent bargaining unit employees using attrition, vacancy management and redeployment to meet employer needs,” states a Thursday letter to the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees from Alberta Public Service Commissioner Tim Grant.

But the letter continues that as of April 1 of next year, the government “will use all options available under the collective agreement to ensure government is on track to implement key priorities and support the government’s path to balance by 2020-23.”

Grant said several government cost-cutting initiatives could impact “approximately 2,500 positions” through to the end of the 2022-23 fiscal year.

The letter does not go into much detail about what those initiatives are, but several government ministries are specifically mentioned: Health, Service Alberta, Community and Social Services, Agriculture and Forestry, Seniors and Housing, and Transportation.

Opposition NDP Leader Rachel Notley called the potential cuts “cruel and heartless,” and said they represent a betrayal of what Premier Jason Kenney promised during his election campaign this spring.

“Jason Kenney repeatedly claimed that he was going to protect front-line services,” Notley said. “He does not have a mandate for this because this is the exact opposite of what he told Albertans he would do.”

AUPE president Guy Smith was not available for an interview Friday evening.

In a statement earlier Friday about the collective bargaining process, Finance Minister Travis Toews said the status quo “is not a sustainable option” and said Alberta spends more per capita on services than other large provinces, with often worse results.

“We were also clear about the need for an ongoing review of government programs to ensure they are efficient and effective, and that this could result in changes to the public service,” he said.

Plans to contract out services

A Friday letter to the union from Dennis Holliday, the head of negotiations and labour relations for Alberta Health Services (AHS), details thousands of positions at the health authority that could be at risk.

In October’s provincial budget, the UCP increased health-care spending by $201 million to a total of $20.6 billion, a smaller increase than in previous years under the former NDP government. At the time, Toews told reporters, “It’s hard to talk about fiscal responsibility without talking about health care.”

Holliday’s letter to AUPE said that, while the AHS budget has remained stable, “Alberta’s growing and aging population means we need to be more efficient and focused in terms of healthcare spending.

“This places increased demand on our healthcare services and it means we have to do things differently in order to provide safe, effective, and high-quality care for Albertans.”

Holliday said contracting out AHS housekeeper positions would affect between 1,000 and 2,000 full-time equivalent positions. Doing the same to remaining laundry and linen operations and retail food services would affect 235 and 165 positions, respectively.

“If further contracting out initiatives are to be considered in future, we will advise as required,” the letter states.

“AHS will continue to consider all options available to meet our organizational needs including changes to staff mix, service redesign, including changes and repurposing of sites, relocating services, reducing or ceasing the provision of services,” it says.

Notley said it is clear the UCP government intends to further privatize public services.

“Albertans will pay the price for this. And again, it’s entirely unnecessary. This has gone from prudent fiscal management to an extreme ideological vendetta.” 

More potential cuts for nurses announced

On Friday, the United Nurses of Alberta learned that a further 750 front-line nurses could lose their jobs under a “massive downsizing” at AHS.

The nurses’ union said it learned of the planned cuts Friday morning after the lead negotiator for AHS, Raelene Fitz, called a meeting unexpectedly to inform the union that it plans to eliminate 500 full-time-equivalent (FTE) nursing positions over a three-year period beginning April 1, 2020.

Cutting 500 full-time-equivalent positions would mean layoffs for more than 750 front-line registered nurses because many nurses work part-time hours, the union said.

The plans were disclosed “in advance of bargaining for UNA’s 2020 provincial collective agreement so that the union would have time to absorb the information and respond accordingly,” the union said in a news release.

Decisions are still being made, but AHS was required to disclose the measures as part of the collective bargaining process, the health authority said in a statement.

Kenney was at a business conference in Lake Louise on Friday. When reporters asked him about the potential nursing cuts, he said this is in line with the UCP government’s agenda.

“We’ve always been clear that getting our province’s finances back in order will require some reduction in the size of the overall public service, and that we hope to achieve that primarily through attrition,” Kenney said. “My understanding is that’s the goal of AHS management.”

Notley, however, said she is “very, very worried for Albertans of all walks of life because this is going to seriously destabilize the quality of health care that Albertans across this province need to rely on.” SOURCE

Jason Kenney foreign-funding conspiracy theory is false and we can prove it


Premier Jason Kenney. Photograph by The Canadian Press / Amber Braken

As long as the foreign-funding conspiracy theory was a lone researcher’s crusade, this thing had a great run.

Underdogs are popular, and suspicion of foreign plotting is a guaranteed box office winner.

Now that it’s official Alberta government policy, however, things are about to get a lot trickier.

The foreign-funding conspiracy theory is a house of sand, where every pillar crumbles to the touch.

At its core, this theory, which Jason Kenney has adopted as the Alberta government’s, is that the province has been targeted by a cabal of American foundations led by the Rockefellers in a deliberate campaign of economic sabotage.

By directing money and influence to an anti-pipeline movement called the Tar Sands Campaign, these foundations seek to advance American energy interests by landlocking Canadian oil.

As I wrote earlier in September, the sham outrage over foreign money is just a cynical ruse. Unscrupulous governments are employing it around the world to discredit, silence and intimidate environmental dissent, and ultimately to choke off resources to activist groups.

Nobody cares about foreign money, least of all Jason Kenney.

No sooner did the premier release the terms of his foreign funding inquiry than he set off for New York, cap in hand, to raise more foreign money for the oil industry.

The Canadian oil and gas industry, jauntily waving the maple leaf, is loaded with over a hundred billion dollars in foreign ownership. It sells millions of barrels of oil to foreigners every day, and now wants a pipeline to increase the foreign markets it can sell to.

And all of this is cheered on daily in a foreign-controlled national newspaper chain.

That’s just by way of a little perspective.

The claim of conspiracy is an accusation of fraud

The direct or indirect claim of conspiracy, at its heart, is an accusation of fraud and breach of trust, based entirely on circumstantial evidence. It’s the suggestion that charitable dollars are diverted for a covert purpose and that multiple organizations are colluding in that deception.

A scheme like this would necessarily involve senior foundation leadership acting in concert, and with malice, to subvert the bona fide charitable objectives of their organizations.

That’s a serious claim that has inflamed public opinion, and damaged reputations and community trust within Canada. It should not be made lightly or on thin evidence, and should be treated with special skepticism when advanced by government leaders.

Not least because we’re in a climate emergency and have better things to do than discredit those working hardest to address it.

Curiously, Kenney’s public inquiry terms of reference are far more cautious than his fiery rhetoric. Despite tarring foundations and environmentalists as “anti-Alberta,” they sidestep entirely the issue of motive or intent, which is central to the allegation of conspiracy or bad faith.

The public, having been led to believe that charitable foundations are corruptly working against the public interest, is entitled to a deeper analysis of motive than the inquiry will examine.

That’s what we’ll look at in this series. SOURCE


Other installments in the series are coming soon:

Part 2: “Alberta is the ‘whipping boy’ of foreign philanthropy” and other myths.

Part 3: Is the Tides Foundation really the ‘funding and co-ordination juggernaut’ behind anti-pipeline activism?

Part 4: Exposing the Canadian oil sector’s victim complex, giving overdue credit to Indigenous and environmental activists, and drawing conclusions.

To assess the conspiracy theory’s veracity, I reviewed data from Candid, America’s most comprehensive foundation and charitable monitoring site.

With a $29-million budget and staff of 140, Candid gathers and maintains detailed data and statistics on hundreds of billions of dollars in grants by 155,000 U.S. and international charitable foundations, non-profits and all U.S. federal agencies. Public tax returns recorded and accessible. Most, but not all, major international funders are included.

The material is cross-referenced, tabulated and readily searchable.

So I searched it.

For the last nine months.

I surveyed tens of thousands of grants totaling well into the billions of dollars, looking for patterns, practices and organizational cultures. I double-checked for errors in coding and data entry (yep, found some). Looking for the network effect, I examined partnership constellations, funding pathways and changes over time.

A lot of superficially significant data often turns out to be just noise. It’s only with exposure to high volumes of data that one begins to discern materiality.

Candid’s data is not a substitute for detailed grant reviews — it’s best employed for detecting large patterns and trends.

My research took me further, to reviewing the backgrounds of directors and key employees of multiple foundations, and examining years of financial statements. I was looking for indicators of weak governance or undue influence within each of the impugned organizations. Family foundations have a tendency toward having family members in lead governance roles, whose priorities and biases can show up in granting patterns.

I checked whether the founder is alive and active in governance and oversight (two major funders are). I reviewed for direct or indirect evidence of impropriety — for instance, claims of misconduct by former employees or independent witnesses. I studied media reports, scholarly and industry research, and spoke to experts in the non-profit world, as well as to parties directly involved or who had personal knowledge of the circumstances.

I then reviewed the oil and gas sector.

What follows below is a distillation of that research.

Overall, there are variances in culture between philanthropic organizations and some steadfast consistencies. Some are very conservative and apolitical, even among the most environmentally committed. Others are more supportive of activism.

In reviewing thousands of grants, these patterns become more evident over time.

The foundations funding the Tar Sands Campaign bore no markers of fraud or unscrupulous conduct within leadership. All of them appeared to be transparent and fully compliant with all legal requirements. There is no direct evidence of misconduct.

But there were surprises.

Every core tenet of Kenney’s conspiracy theory is false

So how do you test a conspiracy theory, anyway?

The same way you tell if your income is high or low. You find the normal range and run comparisons. You check proportionality and look for deviations and irregularities.

After all these years, the most striking feature of the foreign funding conspiracy theory is what isn’t there.

Comparables.

In the absence of comparables, the near endless recitation of international grants to Canadian pipeline opponents is virtually meaningless. Selected samples of raw data don’t reveal more than random pixels in a photograph.

Once these data points are placed in their proper context, i.e., in relation to more complete data and other evidence of surrounding circumstances, the fuller picture emerges.

At that point the theory just collapses.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but every core tenet of Kenney’s conspiracy theory is flatly and demonstrably false.

Reviewing years of grant history, broad patterns and missing context are immediately apparent. For the sake of simplicity, unless otherwise stated, all figures represent the period from 2009 to the present, measured in Canadian dollars.

These are the nine key myths embedded in the foreign funding conspiracy theory. In the remaining three instalments of this series, we’ll examine those myths in groups of three.

Spoiler alert: They’re all false.

Conservative climate claims are a cover for LNG exports


Jason Kenney and Justin Trudeau. File photo

In a recent speech at an oil industry conference, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney trafficked, as he often does, in climate inaccuracy. In itself, that’s not remarkable. The sun also rose and set that day.

What’s worth digging into is how Kenney revealed — perhaps accidentally — the real intent driving conservative thinking on climate policy in Canada right now. That intent is not to reduce greenhouse gases (except as a byproduct), but rather to preserve as much of the conventional energy industry’s status quo as possible for as long ago as possible. The language, policies and targets shift around; this baseline goal never does.

Let’s begin with the inaccurate statement itself. Kenney was singing the praises of new liquified natural gas (LNG) development as a climate-change-fighting tool, calling it “the single biggest thing that we could do to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.” He repeated the line a few days later on Twitter: “The single biggest action Canada can take to reduce global emissions is to expand and ship Canadian Liquefied Natural Gas to the world, especially in Asia to replace higher-emitting coal-fired power.”

Now, the glaring problem here is the phrase “single biggest action.” It begins from a much meeker truth: Replacing coal with natural gas for electricity generation does indeed reduce overall emissions — the International Energy Agency estimates that on average this fuel swap reduces a power plant’s emissions by about 50 per cent. Not too shabby. This is why using natural gas instead of coal is a significant part of the previous Alberta government’s climate plan, one of the few pieces of said plan Kenney’s government has not yet dismantled. You can even extrapolate from this and make the reasonable claim that exporting LNG to replace coal-fired power in Asia would have a similar impact if it were sent to a country engaged in a similar fuel swap.

But does replacing one fossil fuel for another in electricity generation represent the “single biggest action Canada can take”? Well, let’s see. In Alberta, some of that coal-fired power is being replaced by renewable power, which — hold on, let me just double-check my math here — yes, eliminates 100 per cent of the emissions. A larger number than 50 per cent. Twice as large. Obviously a much bigger action.

Perhaps the greatest inaccuracy here is that Jason Kenney supports LNG exports because they are good for the planet. And here is where we begin to see signs of the larger dishonesty at the core of not just Kenney’s climate plans but those of the federal Conservatives.

When Jason Kenney first started touting natural gas as a “real, practical solution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions” back in October, he did so at the launch of a pipeline that delivers natural gas to two power plants west of Edmonton that are being converted from coal. Three years earlier, when he was running for the PC Party leadership that would vault him into a position to unite Alberta’s right, he appeared just a few kilometres away, at another coal-fired power plant, standing in front of his campaign-trail-prop pickup truck in the cold. Back then, Kenney celebrated “inexpensive, reliable and environmentally efficient clean coal technology” and railed against the NDP’s plan to phase it out in favour of natural gas and renewables. “It will do nothing in terms of global greenhouse gas emissions,” he said. “It makes no sense.”

From “nothing” to the single biggest action the whole country could possibly take on climate is a pretty substantial shift in thinking. What changed? Well, among other things, Jason Kenney’s cousins in the federal CPC found themselves in an election campaign in which they desperately needed to string up some thin façade of a climate plan. Carbon pricing was obviously out, so Andrew Scheer and his crew started talking up the need to fight climate change “in a global context.” They filled their climate plan brochure with talk of “global emissions reduction” and “exporting emissions-reducing technologies.” And they remained vague on exactly what kinds of technologies they meant, though LNG was certainly in the mix.

Kenney has now provided the definitive answer. Lavish support for LNG with the promise that it can reduce coal use in places like China is the cornerstone of the Canadian right’s climate plan. Kenney just took it for a test drive around Alberta. Expect to see it roll out nationwide as soon as the new federal government looks wobbly.

What media misses about national rail strike by CN train crews and yard workers

Teamsters Canada Rail Conference strikers at the Alberta legislature last week. Image: David J. Climenhaga

Here in Alberta, what news coverage there has been about the strike for safer working conditions by Canadian National Railway train crews and rail yard workers has focused on the increasingly agitated calls by Conservative politicians for punitive back-to-work legislation.

There is very little reporting on the issues behind the strike by 3,000 conductors, trainpersons and yard workers that began last Tuesday, and none I have seen on why letting the collective bargaining process continue is sound policy or what the political motivations of Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and others making these demands might be.

First of all, it’s important to remember that the strikers are principally concerned with work rules by their employer that literally put their lives at risk.

The train workers’ union, Teamsters Canada Rail Conference, has emphasized worker safety in this round of bargaining, saying CN now requires members to operate trains alone from outside locomotives, often in rain and freezing temperatures, for distances of up to 27 kilometres. They must hang on to the locomotive with one hand and operate a remote control unit with the other.

“The union’s demands to cease these dangerous practices have fallen on deaf ears and the company has refused to come to a satisfactory agreement at the negotiations table to adjust their operating practices in the interest of safety,” TCRC said in a statement just before the strike began.

“The company also wants to make it more difficult to take time off and make employees work longer hours, in an attempt to get more work done with fewer people and to reduce staffing levels,” the union statement also said. This despite the fact the Transportation Safety Board has reported that since the early 1990s sleep-related fatigue issues have been contributing factors in more than 30 railway incidents. There have been at least nine fatigue-related fatalities among conductors in the past two years. And many conductors work 100 or more hours a week and can be called in on short notice any time.

So keep in mind that Conservatives demanding the train workers immediately return to work with no change in their collective agreement are therefore also demanding that they continue to risk their lives, and the lives of people in the communities through which CN trains run, for our convenience and economic benefit.

Second, anyone involved in labour relations will recognize a common phenomenon — an employer dragging its heels in bargaining in the reasonable expectation the economic or public impact of the strike will soon fuel calls for one-sided back-to-work legislation.

This is absolutely standard operating procedure with large public sector employers whose services impact the public. We see it in action every time there is a labour dispute at Canada Post.

And, from an unprincipled employer’s point of view, why not? They know the public will blame strikers for any inconvenience and ignore the role the employer played by failing to bargain in good faith as required by law. Lazy, overworked and ideologically motivated media are happy to play their role by reinforcing this misleading narrative.

For example, the union has said that since the company can operate reduced numbers of trains with non-striking engineers and management workers, the propane shortage in Quebec is a fabricated crisis. “We wonder if CN is choosing not to ship goods like propane in order to manufacture a crisis and force back-to-work legislation,” a union statement said Friday.

If true, that would mean the railway thinks it can avoid concessions by making Canadians feel economic pain from the strike — and politicians like Kenney are happy to cooperate.

But why should back-to-work measures only damage the workers’ cause, as demanded by Alberta’s premier and his annoying agriculture minister, Devin Dreeshen, the young man in the MAGA hat?

Obviously, the Trudeau government is on the right track sending a message to this irresponsible employer that it needs to engage in collective bargaining, not a manipulative attack on the economic wellbeing of Canadians up and down the CN line.

If the company continues with this strategy, back-to-work orders should impose proper occupational health and safety measures sought by the employees’ union in recognition of what the real problem is here, and who the party responsible for Canadians’ economic discomfort really is.

Finally, there is the matter of why Alberta’s United Conservatives sound so strident on this issue. Hint: it’s not the economy, or even all that much about Alberta’s perpetually unhappy farmers.

Rather, it’s a terrific distraction from the lousy week the UCP just had while Kenney was on the lam in Texas, going somewhere he is unknown, as he often does when the going gets tough. It is also a great way to continue the federal Conservative post-election-failure strategy of sandbagging Trudeau’s Liberals at every opportunity.

Trading barbs with Quebec Premier François Legault over pipelines is part of this strategy. Kenney knows very well that the case for a pipeline from Alberta to Canada’s East Coast was always weak.

But it lets him beat up on environmental truth tellers and federal Liberals at the same time, while saving him from admitting that the owners of the refinery and the terminus of Energy East’s planned route were never that interested in crude from Alberta’s allegedly ethical but expensive bitumen. Here’s a link to a story written back in 2016 by the person who more recently set up the UCP’s “War Room.”

Scrapping with Legault allows Kenney to perpetuate his misleading claims about how Canadian equalization payments work. Ironically, since the current equalization formula was brought in by the Harper government when Kenney was Stephen Harper’s chief lieutenant, it’s pretty obvious he knows the truth.

As for Legault, he has his own political base to tend, and so is perfectly happy to reciprocate.

When new pipelines from Alberta fail to be built — it’s the market, stupid! — Kenney will have plenty of scapegoats to blame for the economic failures his government seems determined to make worse by putting all our economic eggs in the bitumen basket.

Well, at least he now implicitly admits pipelines don’t actually create many jobs, without them being used to justify the release of more of our ethical greenhouse gases into earth’s anti-Alberta atmosphere anyway.

As he huffed at Legault from Texas last week, “we have technology that could guarantee you constant, stable access to propane and other fuels. They’re called pipelines.”

As we all understand, pipelines operate with almost no employees, so there’s far less chance of a labour dispute shutting them down. But we also understand that a new eastbound pipeline would do nothing for Prairie grain farmers, who can’t ship grain by pipe. Nor would Quebec’s propane requirements justify the multi-billion-dollar cost of building a 4,600-kilometre line to the Atlantic coast.

As for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the best thing he can do is continue to let collective bargaining work. SOURCE

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