It was gaslighting’: What’s behind Kenney’s latest apology

Doubling down didn’t work for Canada’s least popular premier.

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On paper, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney is vociferously opposed to so-called “cancel culture.”

He reiterated this when, in the wake of vigils and protests that have unfolded across the country after the remains of 215 Indigenous children were found near a Kamloops residential school, he defended the legacy of Canada’s first prime minister, John A. Macdonald. “If we go full-force into cancel culture, then we’re cancelling most, if not all, of our history,” Kenney said.

But in reality, with his actions this week, Kenney acquiesced to the worst elements of the cancel culture phenomenon that he loves to hate—publicly apologizing for past behaviour not out of any genuine moral contrition, but as an exercise in public relations.

I refer to the ridiculous brouhaha over the Sky Palace dinner, which was caught on camera, much to the delight of Kenney’s political enemies. When the photo first started circulating of Kenney and ministers Tyler Shandro, Jason Nixon and Travis Toews dining in close proximity, Kenney did what he often does. He doubled down.

Grilled by the NDP in the Legislature on June 3, Kenney said the dinner was “fully rule-compliant” and that he and the others had done nothing wrong. “We were out there with the public, like everyone else, having a great Alberta time, complying with the rules,” Kenney said.

What’s really going on, Mr. Speaker, is that the NDP doesn’t want to open Alberta.

Premier Jason Kenney on June 3

He went on to blame the NDP. “What’s really going on, Mr. Speaker, is that the NDP doesn’t want to open Alberta,” Kenney said. “They always wanted a hard lockdown. They always wanted the schools closed. Now they’re opposed to the very modest measure of allowing 10 people to gather outdoors for a social gathering, which is explicitly what the rule is.”

But as the controversy grew, something familiar happened, reminiscent of what we saw earlier this year when UCP MLAs were caught vacationing abroad at a time when many Albertans cancelled their holiday get-togethers to comply with public health rules.

Dissenting UCPers started speaking out and criticizing Kenney: namely, ministers Leela Aheer and Rajan Sawhney. “All of us make mistakes, but this one is a big one, and I am truly sorry,” wrote Aheer—Alberta’s Minister of Culture, Multiculturalism and Status of Women—on Facebook.

Kenney once again found himself besieged by protest from all sides—from the NDP on the left, from inside his own caucus, and from rogue MLAs on the right. “Do you really think that you can pick and choose rules from different scenarios and design a unique set of rules for yourself?” asked former UCP caucus chair and independent MLA Todd Loewen, who was booted from the UCP caucus last month.

Which brings us to cancel culture.

It’s a nebulous and ill-defined term. On its face, it’s about prominent figures being ostracized as a result of fast and furious online backlash for some sort of moral error. In reality, it’s often about power and public relations.

There is a calculation that comes into play. The person or institution facing backlash weighs the looming risks to their reputation. And often they decide to publicly back down, because they think that it will go badly for them if they don’t.

The end result is often performative apologies, designed to quell controversy.

And so, at a press conference on June 7, Kenney posited that he had discovered new information that cast the Sky Palace situation in fresh light.

“We’ve actually gone up and measured the chairs since this became a controversy,” Kenney said.

This is what the Premier of Alberta discovered from the chair-measuring investigation: Kenney and his ministers weren’t, in fact, rule-compliant after all. “There’s no doubt that over the course of the evening, people came within the two-metre distance that is laid out in the public health guidelines,” Kenney said. “And I regret that. I regret the perception that this has created.”

Health Minister Tyler Shandro put it even more evasively in the Legislature: “The fact that not everybody in attendance at the outdoor social gathering was able to separate by two metres for the entire time is something that I regret.”

After Kenney’s apology, Canadian Press reporter Dean Bennett was having none of it.

If you’ll gaslight us on this, what else will you gaslight us on?

Dean Bennett,

Canadian Press reporter

“Premier, I put it to you, sir, that you knew this last week,” Bennett said. “You saw the picture. You knew that you had broken the rules. But you decided, for whatever reason, that you're going to tell people what they see is not what they see. It was gaslighting, Premier. You did it and now you're going to apologize today—not because it's wrong, but because you're facing a mini-revolt in your cabinet and caucus. Is that true, sir?”

Kenney replied that he’d tried to socially distance, didn’t do a good enough job and had “reflected” on it since.

“Premier, I don't like to call you out,” Bennett continued. “But I think it's a question that deserves to be asked. It looks to me, in the totality of it, you knew last week you had broken the rules. You decided to gaslight the very people you represent. And that matters, because if you'll gaslight us on this, what else will you gaslight us on?”

In other news, the Keystone XL pipeline project is officially defunct, meaning Alberta has likely lost the $1.3 billion that Kenney’s government invested in the project. And on June 9, Angus Reid came out with approval ratings of Canadian premiers. Kenney is dead last.

Jeremy Klaszus is editor-in-chief of The Sprawl.

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The Sprawl first launched to cover Calgary's 2017 civic election. Now we're back for another round. We don't have paywalls, and we don't have ads. Instead, we rely on our readers and listeners to support our work. If you like what you see, become a Sprawl member today and we'll mail you our latest print zine, featuring exclusive stories you won't find online!