Alberta Premier Jason Kenney. Photo: The Canadian Press/Amber Bracken

Sprawlcast: The silence of Jason Kenney

Why is Alberta’s premier so quiet on racism?

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Sprawlcast is a collaboration between CJSW 90.9 FM and The Sprawl. It's a show for curious Albertans who want more than the daily news grind. A transcript of this episode is below.



CALLUM DANIELS: The response from Jason Kenney fell short. In fact, there wasn't much of a response at all.

HEATHER CAMPBELL: They made an entire statement about racism and didn't use the word "racism."

RAFFY BOUDJIKANIAN: Will you clearly denounce the presence of the far right and of white supremacist groups, such as the Soldiers of Odin or the Northern Guard in this province, without using equivocating language?



JEREMY KLASZUS (HOST): In this episode I want to hone in on something that's been a pattern throughout Premier Jason Kenney's adult life, going back to his university days right through to today.

And I'm talking about the consequences of his words and actions on other people. Specifically, people who are marginalized. And the premier's response to those actions when he's confronted.

You'll remember that when he was a university student in San Francisco, at the height of the AIDS epidemic, Kenney campaigned against gay rights. Specifically, he fought against a law that would have allowed hospital visitation rights for men dying of AIDS.

Taylor Lambert investigated that story for The Sprawl in early 2019. And that April, before the last provincial election, Kenney was confronted about this record very directly by the Global radio host Charles Adler.

I was concerned that that legislation would lead to a change in the definition of marriage.

Jason Kenney,

Alberta Premier

CHARLES ADLER: Everyone now knows what some of your activity was about in San Francisco. I mean, you actively participated in an initiative to take away rights from people with AIDS and their spouses.

You actively participated, and were gleeful, about not allowing lovers to visit their dying lovers dying of AIDS. They couldn't visit them in the hospitals. Some of them couldn't even attend their funerals, and this was something that you were proud of. So that's beyond what you're talking about—well beyond that.

JASON KENNEY: No, Charles, I don't agree with your characterization. It's true that I put up some posters on campus and handed out some brochures for an initiative campaign that was supported by the majority of voters in the very progressive city of San Francisco, a position that was supported by then-mayor Dianne Feinstein.

ADLER: What was the consequence of your action, Mr. Kenney?

KENNEY: So, Charles...

ADLER: What was the consequence?

KENNEY: The reason I took that position is because I was concerned at that time, when I was 20 years of age, 21 years of age, in the 1980s... I was concerned that that legislation would lead to a change in the definition of marriage, which ultimately—one would argue—it did, and now I acknowledge that the political and social mores has changed on those questions.

Adler honed in on something important: Why wouldn’t Kenney apologize?

KLASZUS: This echoed what Kenney told The Sprawl a few weeks earlier, after Lambert went to San Francisco to investigate this story. Basically, that his views had evolved since then. But Adler honed in on something important: Why wouldn't Kenney apologize?

ADLER: In the meantime, AIDS patients were dying alone—no visitors, no visitation allowed, and in many cases, they couldn't even visit them at funerals.

Mr. Kenney, we could put this to bed immediately. If you could only offer a genuine, fulsome apology, I'll move on from San Francisco. Have you ever offered a genuine, remorseful apology for the many people that you and your colleagues hurt with that initiative?

KENNEY: Charles, I've said that I regret many things I did when I was a young man ...

ADLER: That's not an apology, Mr. Kenney.

KENNEY: ...And that's one of the [over-talking] that I wouldn't take the same position. I wouldn't...

ADLER: That's not an apology.



KLASZUS: When he was in San Francisco, Kenney also campaigned vociferously against a pro-choice group that had set up on campus. Laurie Moore was one of the people who'd organized a pro-choice petition as a student, standing off against the intimidation tactics of Kenney and his friends. And Kenney's angry approach took a toll on her.

Decades later, her encounter with Kenney still provokes a visceral reaction. This is from Lambert's interview with Moore in early 2019.

LAMBERT: If you could say something to Jason Kenney now, after all of this—after having this happen and having lived with the fallout for so long, is there anything you would say to him?

I wonder if he has any understanding about… what kind of impact that [behaviour] has on individuals.

Laurie Moore,

Former pro-choice activist

LAURIE MOORE: I wonder if he'd talk to me and apologize to me—not because of his view, but because I wonder if he has any understanding about how people behaving that way, what kind of impact that has on individuals.... I mean, I guess to crystallize it, that I'm a human being, and this affected me. And it was pretty horrible. It was horrible for me. And I would like him to know that there are consequences to what you do.

Tolerance for whom?

KLASZUS: So what does Kenney's far-right track record have to do with Alberta in 2020? Well, as we all know, we're living in some pretty extraordinary times. Not just the COVID-19 pandemic, but the Black Lives Matter uprising has shone a spotlight on systemic racism in all corners of society, particularly in policing.

And those anti-racism actions continue in Alberta.

In early October, a group of Indigenous women walked from the Piikani Nation to Calgary to bring attention to missing and murdered Indigenous women. And on October 8, students in Calgary Catholic schools walked out of school after teachers were caught on camera using racist slurs.

A government… also leads by example and what it implies through a lack of meaningful comment or action.

Hadeel Abdel-Nabi

KLASZUS: Now, these anti-racism actions are happening among some pretty concerning developments, to say the least. In early October, RCMP charged a Penhold man, Trevor Lyle Roy, with assault for what unfolded in Red Deer on September 20. It was supposed to be an anti-racism rally, but it got cancelled after far-right groups showed up and protesters got attacked.

And after the story of the violence blew up in the news, Premier Kenney stayed noticeably quiet. He let his justice minister, Kaycee Madu, do the talking.

There's a history of open white supremacy in Alberta, from the KKK in the 1930s to Holocaust-denying schoolteacher Jim Keegstra teaching hate in his classroom in the 1980s. Now we have the Soldiers of Odin and the Three Percenters—and a premier who is hesitant to speak up.

We're going to hear from one of the co-chairs of Alberta's Anti-Racism Advisory Council about the Kenney government’s response to racism. But first, let's go back to what happened in Red Deer in September. Here's Hadeel Abdel-Nabi, reporting for The Sprawl.

HADEEL ABDEL-NABI: A government can lead through policy, public statements, and initiatives. But it also leads by example and what it implies through a lack of meaningful comment or action.

The protest was hosted by Cheryl Jaime, the creator of Red Deer Against Racism, as part of a series of anti-racism protests across rural Alberta. The intention was to start a conversation and create space for racialized Albertans to share their experiences.

Instead, it was canceled.

Our province, Alberta, is a tolerant, open society where we respect our neighbors, even if we strongly disagree.

Kaycee Madu,

Alberta Minister of Justice

RACHELLE ELSIUFI: It was supposed to be a community conversation about anti-racism in Red Deer. But before the event could even begin, it turned violent.

KEISHA DANIELS: It's traumatic. All of us are traumatized.

ELSIUFI: Keisha Daniels spent her summer in several small Alberta towns, calling for racial equity. She was supposed to be a speaker Sunday. Her voice was silenced when the event was canceled because of the violence.

SPEAKER: Go home antifa!

ABDEL-NABI: That was Rachelle Elsiufi reporting for CityNews Edmonton on the canceled protest. On the following Tuesday, Minister Madu held a press conference.

KAYCEE MADU: All Canadians have the right to peaceful protest and the right to free speech. I have seen select clips of the protest, and we were there on Sunday, and I am, admittedly, disturbed. This right, a fundamental right. As minister of justice, I have been publicly clear about this.

Violence and threat of violence at peaceful protests are unacceptable, period. All Albertans, regardless of race, religion, or creed, have the right to live their lives peacefully, and I denounce any instance of bigotry and intolerance....

Our province, Alberta, is a tolerant, open society where we respect our neighbours, even if we strongly disagree. I am confident that Albertans, overwhelmingly, reject the behaviour seen this past Sunday.

Is an inanimate object more valuable than the lives and bodies of the racialized people and allies who were attacked by hate groups in Red Deer?

Callum Daniels,

Co-founder, Black and Indigenous Alliance

ABDEL-NABI: Shortly after, a group of anti-racism activists who were present at the initial protest hosted their own press conference.

KLASZUS: Here's Callum Daniels, co-founder of the Black and Indigenous Alliance.

CALLUM DANIELS: We can and should disagree on public policy and discuss issues without resorting to violence. Justice Minister Kaycee Madu: Racism is not a public policy. Racism is not something that needs to be discussed. This conversation was about the experience of racialized folk. This conversation was about simple human rights.

ABDEL-NABI: Kenney did chime in at one point—or rather, he retweeted Madu's statement.

DANIELS: Mr. Kenney has yet to make an official statement on the violent attacks that had happened in Red Deer. Mr. Kenney has only spoken out via quotes of Justice Minister Kaycee Madu's statement.

ABDEL-NABI: The group also questioned Kenney's lack of response, when he hasn't been afraid to be vocal in the past about less pressing matters.

DANIELS: The response from Jason Kenney fell short. In fact, there was not much of a response at all. Mr. Kenney had more of a visceral response to the destruction of a statue of John A. Macdonald in Montreal, which, I will remind people, is an inanimate object.

Premier Jason Kenney, I ask you, is an inanimate object more valuable than the lives and bodies of the racialized people and allies who were attacked by hate groups in Red Deer, a peaceful anti-racism community conversation, this past Sunday?

I find it very poignant that Mr. Kenney decided he was going to choose a racialized man to make his statement.

Keisha Daniels,

Co-founder, Black and Indigenous Alliance

ABDEL-NABI: Keisha Daniels, cofounder of the Black and Indigenous Alliance, also pointed that out during the conference.

KEISHA DANIELS: I find it very poignant that Mr. Kenney decided he was going to choose a racialized man to make his statement. I do understand that the justice minister is the justice minister. However, he is a racialized man, so it feels very token.

I think that that's the symbol that it shows across Alberta and Canada, that the UCP government chose a token symbol to have this conversation, rather than premier Kenney himself, because I would argue that, if Ms. Notley can come and speak with us, Mr. Kenney can come and speak with us.

'Dog-whistle racism from my government'

KLASZUS: On the same week that the Red Deer anti-racism protest was cancelled, Kenney made some inflammatory comments in response to the federal throne speech, talking about one of his favourite topics: the importance of Alberta oil.

KENNEY: If you really think that people—the billion people in India who desperately want to move to a higher standard of living are all going to be driving Teslas 15 years from now, then you're disconnected from reality.

That is to say, there are billions of people around the world living in extreme energy poverty. They don't have the luxury of repeating all of these kind of California-style pieties.

They want to stop burning cow dung. They want to be able to electrify their homes. They want to have affordable and reliable energy through much of Asia, Latin America, Africa, and elsewhere.

In his response to the throne speech, Kenney also took a shot at intersectionality.

KLASZUS: We'll get into the subtext of those comments in a bit, but first let's have a little fact check here: in fact the India government is embracing electric vehicles to reduce the country's reliance on oil. India's goal is that 30% of all vehicles on the roads are electric by 2030.

The same week Kenney made his comments, Reuters reported that the Indian government is looking at giving $4.6-billion in incentives to manufacturers of batteries for electric cars.

Now, in his response to the throne speech, Kenney also took a shot at intersectionality. If you don't know what that is—it's basically a framework that considers the overlapping nature of social factors like race, gender and class when trying to understand the world.

KENNEY: We also asked for action, to show fairness in the federation through reform of the fiscal stabilization program. These issues were not addressed in yesterday's throne speech.

There was space for every bright, shiny object; every possible political distraction—kooky academic theories like intersectionality found their way into yesterday's throne speech. But not one word about health transfers for the provinces...

KLASZUS: After Kenney made those comments, one of the co-chairs of Alberta's Anti-Racism Advisory Council spoke out on social media. Heather Campbell wrote this on Twitter: "As a woman, as a Black woman, it was just more hurtful & offensive dog whistle racism from my government."

So what are the consequences of Kenney's words and actions on this file?

I spoke with Campbell, a Calgary engineer, in more detail about this. The Alberta Anti-Racism Advisory Council was set up by the previous NDP government to advise the provincial government on anti-racism actions it can take.

I began my conversation with Heather Campbell by asking what she thought of Minister Madu’s statement about the Red Deer rally that was cancelled on September 20.

HEATHER CAMPBELL: I thought it was—I thought Minister Madu's response was quite poor. I was disappointed, fundamentally. What we saw in Red Deer and in Ponoka and in all of these challenges is not a disagreement and a minor difference of opinion on matters. These were hate crimes.

You had a group of folks who purposely went to a peaceful protest with the intent of creating harm, creating pain, creating dissent, spreading hate. These are hate and bias crimes. This is not a fundamental disagreement.

So I was disappointed in Minister Madu's response and, similarly, in the premier's response, which was the same as Minister Madu's. They made an entire statement about racism and didn't use the word "racism."

We have a premier and a justice minister who cannot utter the words racism” in a statement that is about a fundamentally racist act.

Heather Campbell,

Alberta Anti-Racism Advisory Council

KLASZUS: And what do you make of that? Because most people, when they are condemning racism, they use that word. But as you say, it didn't appear anywhere in Minister Madu's response.

CAMPBELL: We're in a place right now where we are trying to actively eliminate systemic racism from society, and we have a premier and a justice minister who cannot utter the words "racism" in a statement that is about a fundamentally racist act. Why?

It's funny; I was in a call with another organization on the weekend, and the topic of race and elimination of racism came up, and someone on the call said, "Well, it would be lovely if we could not say 'anti-racism.'" And I asked why, and said, "Well, it sounds so negative."

And I thought, wow. Well, you know, anti-racism does...it is a pretty bold word, but you know what? Racism is a pretty bold and painful thing, so the words match, for me.

If we can’t name it… how in the world are we ever going to actually address it?

Heather Campbell,

Alberta Anti-Racism Advisory Council

CAMPBELL: If we can't name it, if we're not even brave enough to call something what it is, how in the world are we ever going to actually address it if we're not even brave enough to actually name it. For me, it's just... I'm not even sure I have the words. I'm just so fundamentally frustrated.



KLASZUS: I want to jump in here, because the day after I interviewed Campbell, Minister Madu more explicitly condemned an apparent white supremacist rally that had happened in Edmonton on September 29. And yes, he did use the word "racism." He called the people who participated "sad losers."

On September 30, Premier Kenney was asked directly about this by the CBC’s Raffy Boudjikanian.

RAFFY BOUDJIKANIAN (CBC): Hi, Premier. Considering the peaceful anti-racist rallies in Ponoka and Red Deer that were disrupted by far-right groups and the presence of far-right elements last night holding a rally in one of Edmonton's more multicultural neighbourhoods, will you clearly denounce the presence of the far right and of white supremacist groups, such as the Soldiers of Odin or the Northern Guard, in this province, without using equivocating language that blames both sides when it comes to racism?

We condemn racism and racial prejudice in any manifestation.

Jason Kenney,

Alberta Premier, September 30

KENNEY: I don't know whoever equivocates on that, Raffy. Obviously, we condemn racism and racial prejudice in any manifestation. It is un-Canadian and un-Albertan, and I think it's unfortunate that we've got a small number of kooks who go around trying to get attention for a message of hate. I don't think we should give them the attention that they crave.

You know, this is a country that, while imperfect, is built on the concept of human dignity and equality of all before the law, regardless of race, ethnicity, country of origin. And our minister of justice, Kaycee Madu, the first Black Canadian justice minister in history, I think made a very strong statement unequivocally condemning those hateful views and attitudes.



KLASZUS: OK, let's go back to my interview with Heather Campbell. I asked her about Kenney's comments on dung-burning and intersectionality.

CAMPBELL: That was just highly offensive, fundamentally racist. I could not believe that that response received no follow-up or, say, response from the premier's office and from communications responding to just how offensive and ridiculous those remarks are. Intersectionality, I believe the premier said, was something like a kooky academic theory. It was just, for me, more dog-whistle racism from my government.

I am disappointed that I haven’t seen a comment from Minister Leela Aheer denouncing the premier’s comments.

Heather Campbell,

Alberta Anti-Racism Advisory Council

CAMPBELL: I think some of the disappointment for me lies in other leaders within the government in the caucus. Minister Leela Aheer is a woman, a woman of South Asian descent. I cannot for a moment imagine that the premier's comments were in any way okay with her.

I know her to personally be a very good human, and I cannot imagine that those comments in any way would've sat well with her. I am disappointed that I haven't seen a comment from her denouncing the premier's comments

Similarly, the Alberta Anti-Racism Advisory Council reports into Culture, Multiculturalism, and Status of Women. When Minister Madu was making the statement about the events and the hate crimes that were happening in Red Deer, why would you not have brought in Minister Aheer as part of that conversation, given her role for Culture, Multiculturalism, and Status of Women?

It just seems so disjointed and strange to me. Surely I think she should have been a part of that conversation.

KLASZUS: And maybe it would've gone differently?

CAMPBELL: Well, maybe we would've had a statement about racism that actually used the word "racism."

KLASZUS: Yeah. And this is a recurring thing. It's not just a one-off, these comments. Like when the John A. Macdonald statue was pulled down in Montreal a few weeks ago, Kenney actually had some very strong words—stronger words than he had about what happened in Red Deer.

CAMPBELL: Oh, yes. I believe he called some folks "thugs."

Protesters, who are primarily Black and Indigenous, are not thugs. They are protesters.

Heather Campbell,

Alberta Anti-Racism Advisory Council

KLASZUS: Yeah, exactly. And you took pretty strong issue with that as well.

CAMPBELL: Absolutely. Protesters, who are primarily Black and Indigenous, are not thugs. They are protesters. And to say anything otherwise, for me, is just, again, more dog-whistle racism.

So, yeah, Jeremy, I think you've identified a really interesting... I'm not going to say "lovely," it's typically my word, but a very interesting pattern of behaviour.

KLASZUS: And what would you say are the consequences of these kinds of statements? Because, you know, it's one statement here; it's "stop burning cow dung" here, and "intersectionality is a kooky academic theory"; there's these Twitter comments—yeah, what would you say are the consequences of these kind of repeated statements?

CAMPBELL: I think it probably falls into three buckets. The first, I am a co-chair of Alberta's anti-racism advisory council. If I can't get to a place where my premier and government can communicate to Albertans and to the world in an anti-racist manner, how effective am I being in my volunteer capacity? So that's the first piece. It makes me question my own credibility and reputation.

Who is going to want to make their home here? Will they feel safe?

Heather Campbell,

Alberta Anti-Racism Advisory Council

CAMPBELL: Second bucket is really trying to understand whether there is an intent or an appetite to really actually move this province forward in our relationship to one another, in the idea that we could eliminate racism and reduce systemic racism and look towards the economic prosperity for everyone, because truly, racism itself is an economic issue. It's about trying to... we are trying to work on ensuring that everyone can thrive, full stop. So it makes me question whether the province has that as an underlying intent or intention.

Third is how we're perceived externally. And, you know, I look at province of Quebec and their Bill 22, which basically legislates systemic racism with head coverings and all that, and I wonder if Alberta is just the embodiment in words of all of what we're seeing.

No, we don't have any regulation around head coverings and legislation of that nature, but with the amount of dog-whistle racism that occurs—that was three incidents in a week—you have to start to wonder how we are going to be perceived within Canada, internationally. Who is going to want to make their home here? Will they feel safe?

So, yeah, I think for me it really just speaks to three different buckets, you know?

Racism exists, and there is no getting around that.

Heather Campbell,

Alberta Anti-Racism Advisory Council

KLASZUS: Heather, is there anything that you'd add that I haven't asked?

CAMPBELL: This is such a huge topic. It's exhausting. it's difficult. It's uncomfortable.

We walk this journey and we walk this path together, as a community. And it's important for Albertans to understand that this is about the prosperity of all Albertans. We walk this journey together. We resolve this problem together.

And, yes, it exists—racism exists, and there is no getting around that.

This isn't going to sort of fade away into the ether and we're not going to be talking about it in a month. We're probably going to be talking about it even more, and we need to come to a place where we address it, we feel confident about our approaches and solutions, we're authentic in our approaches and solutions, and we're earnest.

And that's a bit sermon-like, but it's very much the mindset that I need to be in as we tread these very challenging waters right now.

Help us hire another journalist—and get our new zine!

Sign me up!

At The Sprawl, we want to hire another reporter to dig into stories that others won't. To do that, we need your support as we aim to reach 2,000 members by year's end. Help make it happen!