Alberta Premier Jason Kenney’s message to Ponoka chamber members on July 22 at the Ponoka Golf Club was about Albertans’ resiliency through hardships and moving forwards to a hopeful future.
“Isn’t it just great to be back out enjoying Alberta being open for summer, with friends and colleagues, without wearing masks, seeing people smile, and giving people a hug? — Whether they want it or not these days” said Kenney.
“Thanks to the modern miracle of these vaccines, we’ve been able to be the first province in Canada to be fully open — not just open for summer, but I believe open for good.”
The evening started with a welcoming address from Alberta Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Ken Kobly.
Kobly says it was no surprise that likely the first public event many there had attended was hosted by the chamber, as “That’s what chambers do.”
Five town councillors were in attendance. Ponoka Mayor Rick Bonnett and chamber president Barry Grant were not present. MLA Ron Orr, newly appointed Minister of Culture, was not able to attend for health reasons.
Kenney spoke about the state of the economy when the United Conservative Party was elected in 2019, and the party’s provincial COVID-19 pandemic response.
“The incredibly tough 18 months through which we have lived, 18 months which I believe have demonstrated how we are Alberta Strong, how resilient this province is,” he said.
“We have gone through what I call a triple black swan event.”
Those events were the most severe public health crises since the Spanish Flu of 1918, the most severe global economic retraction since the Great Depression in the 1930s, and the most severe energy crisis in the history of Alberta, where 20 per cent of the economy is tied to industry, says Kenney.
“Those three crises were all on top of five tough years … of economic decline and stagnation,” he said.
The Texas Intermediate, the key benchmark commodity price, went from $60 a barrel in February, 2020 to minus $20 two months later, he says.
“If you can imagine, we were paying people to take Alberta oil for a spell,” said Kenney.
“Our economy is still not fully recovered to where it was on Jan. 1, 2015 … I’ve got a lot of good news here, but that’s just setting the context about how deep the challenge was, and it was real.”
In April 2020, finance minister Travis Toews came into the premier’s office and told Kenney that the province hadn’t been able to sell a government bond in six weeks.
They were unable to refinance their debt and had begun cash managing. The pair had daily meetings from then on about cash management.
“We were projecting that we would hit the debt wall and be unable to pay our bills by the first week of June.”
The government had seen a 50 per cent collapse in provincial revenues.
“The floor just collapsed under us … at the same time, we didn’t yet know how bad the public health crisis would get.
“I felt some days like I was staring into the abyss, and I felt, at times, that no one in my office had had a more challenging moment, since probably the early, mid-1930s.
“Alberta did go bankrupt in 1936 and I feared we might be headed that direction.”
At one point, there was almost no place in the world left to store oil, the market was so saturated.
“We were literally afraid that the oils sands producers would have to turn off their production, and they’re not designed to do that,” he said.
“It affected people in many ways. Of course we lost lives, but many people lost hope. They lost a sense of stability and predictability in their lives. Many of you, as business operators, went through a period of incredible sacrifice and anxiety.
“That was the worst (news), but here’s the good: We rose to the challenge. We demonstrated our resilience as a province and now we have exited … the pandemic phase of this and moving to an endemic.”
An ‘endemic’ would mean COVID-19 would be considered like any other conventional, communicable disease.
Kenney says that although the Delta strain is more contagious, COVID-19 vaccinations are up to 98 per cent effective against it.
“I think we must make a decision as a society, yes, to be prudent, to use common sense, but move forward with confidence in the future,” said Kenney.
Kenney stated that Alberta came through the pandemic with one of the lowest fatality rates of the Canadian provinces and elsewhere in the world, and did so with some of the least stringent public health measures.
He says Alberta had 27 per cent fewer deaths per capita than the rest of Canada.
“So we come out of this brutal period with lower fatalities, but less damaging public health restrictions, than almost any comparable jurisdiction in the developed world.
“I won’t pretend for a moment that the government made every call right. We will need to take a step back, and listen to Albertans, and look at the data … the medical experts and scientists, but also the people affected by restrictions, to hear how we could’ve and should’ve done better through all of this,” he said.
“I think exiting this, with lower deaths, and having had less stringent restrictions, means that we walked that moderate and safe ground with expert advice.
Kenney says that at the first rumour of a pandemic, the province’s head of procurement was ordering personal protective equipment, which later put Alberta in the position to share with other places in need of PPE.
“We are not just leading Canada out of the crisis, we are leading Canada now in economic growth. Every major think tank and bank says Alberta is leading the country in economic growth this year, and will do so again in (2022).”
Kenney mentioned the Fair Deal panel recommended the province form an Alberta identity program to better educate Albertans about the province’s history and achievements. Orr will be leading the project.
At the end of his address, Kenney answered a few pre-submitted questions.
When asked if the province would support a high speed rail from Calgary to Edmonton, he responded that it is not currently feasible financially, but may be in 10 to 15 years. A feasibility study would need to be done.
When asked how the province planned to support rural health care, Kenney stated that recruitment has always been an issue.
He says the province has invested millions in health care, there are more doctors and nurses working in Alberta now than ever before, and Alberta needed to get its health spending per capital more in line with other similar-sized provinces.
Last year, the UCP government announced an $80 million investment for rural physical recruitment and retention. There are about 800 rural physicians in Alberta, so that $80 million amounts to about an extra $100,000 per doctor.
“We have the most generous incentive for rural or remote physicians, in the country,” he said.
“More is needed, but we’re taking more action than ever before.”
The event was organized by Ponoka chamber executive manager Heather Bendera.
About 80 chamber members came out to the event. Bendera says she was pleased with the turnout.
“It gave the premier a chance to mingle,” said Bendera.
The meal was catered by Evolution Catering, out of the golf club.