At last count there have been 1,550 Covid-19 infections and three deaths connected with the Cargill, JBS and Harmony Beef meatpacking plants in Alberta.
This is frightening in a province that prides itself on having the highest testing levels in the country and was so comfortable with its Covid-19 preparedness plan that it donated PPE to BC, Ont and Quebec last month.
The only way to understand why Alberta’s meatpacking plants turned into a national Covid-19 hotspot and to prevent a similar tragedy from reoccurring is to proceed with Rachel Notley’s call for a public inquiry.
Sadly, Jason Kenney rejected Notley’s proposal. He cited three reasons; all of which are ludicrous.
First Kenney reverted to his default position, rebuffing Notley’s call for a public inquiry by accusing her of “politicizing” the issue.
Covid-19 is a virus. A virus has no political affiliation. The coronavirus infected and killed thousands of Canadians, and brought our economy to a standstill without regard for who is sitting in the premier’s office (or in the prime minister’s office for that matter).
One would think both parties, the NDP and the UCP, would be equally concerned about spiking infection rates at the Cargill, JSB and Harmony Beef plants and the implications of these spikes on the surrounding communities of High River, Brooks, and Balzac.
Unfortunately, that’s not how Kenney sees it.
Kenney said a public inquiry isn’t necessary because his government followed the best expert advice it received from Alberta Health, public health officers, the Chief Medical Officer, Dr Deena Hinshaw, OH&S, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, Alberta Agriculture, and “all of our expert officials”.
Bearing in mind that this is the man who cherry picks experts’ advice—he likes Janice MacKinnon on balancing the budget, he doesn’t like Mark Carney on curbing investment in fossil fuels—he’s missing the point.
The issue is not whether the government received the best expert advice but whether it followed this advice in the most effective way.
A secondary question is: what advice, if any, did the government receive from executives running the Cargill, JBS, and Harmony Beef plants and how much weight it gave their advice compared to the weight it gave the advice it received from health experts.
We’ll never know because Kenney refuses to call a public inquiry.
Kenney’s third reason for rejecting a public inquiry is the government will bring forward a motion to allow an “extended debate” on Alberta’s Covid-19 response. If Kenney is suggesting an extended debate in the Legislature is an adequate substitute for an independent public inquiry, he’s mistaken.
A public inquiry is heard by an impartial commissioner, often a retired judge, who has the power to subpoena witnesses, compel them to give evidence under oath and provide documentation to support their testimony. Witnesses may bring lawyers and may be subject to cross examination. The process of collecting and analysing evidence takes months. At the end of the inquiry the commissioner writes a report describing his findings and setting out his recommendations so the government will be in a better position to protect the public the next time a pandemic rolls around.
Compare the public inquiry process to the legislative debate process.
The time for debate is compressed into days (not months). Politicians (not witnesses) make statements (which are not under oath and not subject to cross-examination) based on what they believe happened. The members’ statements are recorded in Hansard (there is no written report setting out recommendations based on the evidence). The press picks up the debate (assuming there aren’t more pressing things going on, like relaunching the economy or a precipitous drop in the price of oil). Columnists write about it for a few days and everybody moves on.
Kenney is not opposed to public inquiries on principle. He happily forked over $2.5 million for a public inquiry into foreign funded anti-Alberta energy campaigns, a “problem” significantly less pressing than a global pandemic that wreaked havoc at three Alberta meatpacking plants infecting hundreds of people, killing three, while also devastating Alberta’s beef industry and disrupting 85% of Canada’s beef supply.
So what’s Kenney’s problem?
Either he’s right and his government did everything it could to ensure the safety of Albertans working at the meatpacking plants and it still wasn’t enough; or he’s wrong and his government failed to do everything it could to keep Albertans safe. In either case a public inquiry would expose these shortcomings and provide recommendations that would make it safer for all employees working in close proximity in the future.
Given Kenney’s refusal to call a public inquiry let me save you the bother of waiting for the extended debate to appear in Hansard. Here’s a summary of how it will go:
NDP: the government should have acted sooner and done more.
UCP: the government did everything right, and if we didn’t, blame the experts
NDP: public officials give advice; cabinet makes decisions
UCP: there you go again, going partisan on us
We’re fighting for our lives, our health and our economy in the face of a global pandemic. We deserve a premier who will act in the public interest by calling a public inquiry into the failures at Cargill, JSB and Harmony Beef, instead of defaulting to political rhetoric.