“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.…”
In December, it is usually A Christmas Carol that people recite from Charles Dickens. However, watching this past weekend’s United Conservative Party’s AGM, and the surrounding atmosphere, it is A Tale of Two Cities that came to my mind.
Or, in this case, a Tale of Two Provinces.
Inside the Westin Hotel out by the Calgary airport, it was a scene of celebration and hope.
The UCP was meeting for the first time since their April 2019 election victory, and they were in the mood to party. And party they did.
The hospitality suites were packed with around 1,600 delegates, who were high-fiving and hugging. The party went on late into the evening and early morning with drinks, snacks and good cheer.
The highlight was Premier Jason Kenney’s Saturday night address. The conquering hero, who with force of will (and lots of political organization and smarts) merged the Progressive Conservative and Wildrose parties into one and then led them to a large majority victory.
Kenney’s hour-long speech was marked by eight standing ovations by the UCP faithful and 17 “promises made, promises kept” call and responses.
Even Sunday morning’s “bear pit” session with cabinet seemed, in the words of columnist Graham Thomson, more like a teddy bear session.
Outside the Westin Hotel, it was a scene of darkness and despair.
On Friday, the first day of the UCP AGM, it was announced that 750 nurses would lose their jobs and nearly 6,000 additional health-care jobs were at risk. This was in addition to 300 teachers let go by the Calgary Board of Education and 275 job losses at the University of Calgary and Mount Royal University.
Consequently, about 700 protestors, dominated by nurses, teachers and public sector union workers, showed up to make their feelings known.
The protestors, like the UCP delegates, even had their own chant; “Hey hey, ho ho, Jason Kenney’s got to go!”
Inside the room, it was warm.
Outside the room, it was –17 degrees.
Inside the room, there were tables, chairs and comfortable couches.
Outside the room, there were picket signs.
Inside the room, there was beer (unity lager!).
Outside the room, there was hot chocolate.
Inside the room, it was mostly older white males.
Outside the room, it was younger, with more females.
Inside the room were the province’s decision-makers.
Outside the room were the government’s critics.
This Tale of Two Provinces even extended to disagreement over the economic facts.
Premier Kenney, citing a 2.8 per cent budget cut over four years, claimed that the protestors were “making this out to be like the arrival of the apocalypse. This is ridiculous. This is by modern Canadian fiscal standards one of the most modest periods of fiscal restraint.”
In rebuttal, Gil McGowan of the Alberta Federation of Labour argued that “there is absolutely no good reason why nurses, teachers and other public-sector workers should meekly and mildly accept Jason Kenney’s draconian cuts.”
Union leaders also pointed out that there was a 20 per cent cut to capital spending in 2019-2020 and demands for future wage rollbacks (which were outside of the budget).
Kenney’s speech emphasized “promises made, promises kept.”
Protestors noted that the UCP campaigned on maintaining funding to K-12 education and health care with no cuts to front-line services. Instead, there will be almost a thousand teachers and nurses without jobs within months.
The UCP members and the protestors did have one big thing in common. While each group was united with its brethren and knew they had no chance of persuading the other side, they were tailoring their message to the rest of the province.
Both sides realize that it is the 4½ million Albertans who were neither celebrating in the inside warmth, nor demonstrating in the outside cold, who will decide the fate of the province.
Will they accept the necessity of a fundamental revision in the amount of money that is spent on education, health care and other services? Or will there be a backlash to a government that is cutting too deep and too quick?
In keeping with Dickens’ theme, the next three years will determine whether Alberta more closely resembles the French Revolution, with a general strike by Alberta’s unions, or a UCP-led resurrected social order of balanced budgets and economic growth.