The Alberta Legislature ended the 2021 Spring Session on a particularly disturbing note.
Members of the Opposition asked Jason Kenney to apologize for his role in pushing the niqab ban, a policy that contributed to growing Islamophobia, while he was a federal cabinet minister.
Instead of an apology, Kenney stood up and flatly denied he’d ever supported the niqab ban.
We’ve all seen the news clips and Hansard transcripts where Kenney banned the niqab at Canadian citizenship ceremonies. Over the years he’s said the niqab “reflects a certain view about women that we don’t accept in Canada.” It was “a medieval tribal custom” and he “was proud to make that decision” because he believed “people taking the public Oath of Citizenship should do so . . .with their faces uncovered.”
This week Kenney added that it is “entirely reasonable that when people are making a public oath in a court, when they’re testifying, when they are providing identification, when they’re boarding an airplane, they should do so with their identity available and their faces uncovered.”
None of Kenney’s examples of “reasonableness” are relevant. Citizenship ceremonies do not take place in court. They are held at CIC offices, schools and community halls. The oath or affirmation is not giving testimony in court and the certificate of citizenship is not an identity or travel document.
He could have apologized like his former MP colleagues Tim Uppal and Michelle Rempel Garner, instead he chose to lie. Why?
Characteristics of an autocrat
The answer lies in historian Timothy Synder’s analysis of autocrats.*
Autocrats lie. Even in the face of concrete evidence to the contrary. Putin lied about the invasion of Ukraine and Trump lied about winning the 2020 election.
And Kenney lies. He said the coronavirus was the flu, then denied he’d said it. He violated the restriction against outdoor patio dining, then denied it, then admitted it.
Autocrats like to win. For them winning isn’t about getting the most votes, it’s about getting away with whatever it takes to get into power.
The UCP leadership race that resulted in Kenney becoming the leader of the UCP was fraught with shady practices. The Election Commissioner imposed thousands of dollars in fines for illegal donations but was not able to finish his investigation because Kenney fired him after he came to office. (The RCMP investigation into voter fraud and identity theft is still ongoing).
Autocrats have a disdain for democracy.
Kenney displayed his disrespect for the democratic process very early in his tenure by distributing earplugs to his fellow MLAs so they wouldn’t have to listen to the Opposition MLAs who (let’s remember) are charged with the responsibility of holding the government to account and voicing the concerns of their constituents.
He shut down debate 29 times in two years, contrast this to the NDP who shut down debate 5 times over four years.
When covid struck he declared with Churchillian bravado that his government would stay open no matter what, then suspended the Legislature for two weeks at the height of the covid crisis to avoid questions about spiking covid numbers and to hide from a brewing caucus revolt.
He enacted public health restrictions then adopted a “do as I say, not as I do” approach allowing his MLAs and staff to travel over Christmas and treating his cabinet ministers and staff to an outdoor patio dining experience on the 11th floor of the Sky Palace.
He passed legislation to curtail Albertans’ right to protest but was slow to act when evangelical clergymen held illegal church services and anti-maskers took to the streets to illegally gather in protest of his public health restrictions.
He announced important policies on Twitter and Facebook to avoid tough questions from the media. And at traditional press conferences he sneered at reporters when they asked legitimate questions or sought clarification about inconsistent or contradictory policies.
These examples of autocratic behavior are disturbing, but none are as destructive as Kenney’s focus on past grievances.
Timothy Snyder explains that instead of creating possibilities for the future, autocrats place their country (or in our case our province) at the centre of a cyclical story of victimhood where they dwell on the wrongs done to them by others (the federal Liberals).
The autocrat promises to redress these ills. So per the autocrat’s handbook Kenney promised to “stand up for Alberta” against shadowy foreign funded special interests and get a “fair deal” from Canada.
He dragged Albertans into a whirlpool of studies, panels and inquiries including the never-ending and oh so secret Anti-Alberta Energy Public Inquiry, the utterly useless Energy War Room, and the divisive Fair Deal Panel.
Kenney convinced Albertans they were virtuous “people of destiny” who suffered injustice at the hands of the Feds. Instead of developing a clear understanding of the present reality and creating policies to give us control over our own future we’re stuck nursing our grievances and wallowing in self-pity.
Snyder points out that a society obsessed with victimhood runs on inflamed emotions. Consequently, tribalism and polarization increase.
A premier who not only refuses to apologize for actions that fuel Islamophobia and flat out denies what he’s done when all we have to do is google “Kenney niqab ban” to confirm he’s lying only makes things worse.
But it doesn’t matter to Kenney because all he cares about is staying in power.
As Timothy Snyder said, for an autocrat winning is everything.
*The Road to Unfreedom