A question of manipulation

I mostly agree with the adage, “there are no stupid questions.” But as I wait for results from the ballots cast by Albertans during our recent elections, I feel there are manipulative questions.

For those outside Alberta: you can either ignore this post or continue to be entertained by our situation. Here’s a quick recap on two of three questions on which we were asked to vote:

  • Whether to stop using Mountain Standard time. We can either switch to daylight time year-round, or we can keep the status quo that involves changing the clocks twice per year. If the “stay on daylight” voters are successful, that means those of you in Toronto who already can’t wrap your heads around the fact Canada has multiple time zones will become even more confused. (Sorry for the jab. I know being the centre of the universe comes with its own challenges.)
  • Senators. If you’re in the U.S., voting for senators is normal. If you’re in the rest of Canada or any other place that inherited its parliamentary system from Britain, you’ll be scratching your head and saying, “I didn’t think that’s how Canada’s senate worked?” And you’d be right. But Albertans ticked some boxes next to some names to prove some kind of point, and that was that. How’d the names get there? Insert shrug emoji. What will happen with the winners? Insert shrug again.

The third question on the ballot is the one I see as manipulative. First, some background: once upon a time, the federal Conservatives lost power and a man named Jason Kenney who never had a job outside politics considered what he wanted to be when he grew up, or at least while he waited for a turn to try for Prime Minister.

He looked westward, and why not? Gorgeous mountains, expansive blue skies, hard-working people…and, of course, political opportunity. Jason bought a blue pick-up truck and drove around the province, commiserating with people who weren’t sure how to adjust to the rapidly changing context around them. He had plenty of coffee with plenty of people who wanted things to go back to a (possibly fictional) better time.

He kept an eye on the U.S., and saw how much a man named Donald achieved by riling up folks and feeding them this/that, win/lose stories that comforted them. Jason told worried Albertans they were right to be worried, and he told them he’d be the guy to solve all their problems. So, when 2019 rolled around, many of Alberta’s voters gave Jason a shot – even though I still think it made no sense to do so.

For some time after the election, he kept those people fired up, and he fed them stories about how they were getting a raw deal. He paid for panels and reports and war rooms to validate just how terrible the deal was. He promised people could vote to change the deal.

On October 18, 2021, every voter who went to fulfil their civic duties in the scheduled municipal elections also received a ballot to determine whether Canada’s equalization program should be removed from the country’s constitution. Albertans would finally have their say on what many of them were raised to believe is the rawest deal of them all!

“But wait,” you may be thinking. “How can a province change a country’s constitution?” And that’s a very good question. Similar to the nonexistent senate elections, Alberta doesn’t have the power to amend the Canadian constitution. It seems Jason promised the people they could vote on something impossible, which seems a good way to keep upsetting more people. (And what I didn’t mention in the story yet is that it’s increasingly easy to upset people, because every last one of us is at the end of our ropes, well-detailed in a column by the journalist Jen Gerson.)

As another nod toward manipulating the feelings of already-exhausted, burned-out, angry people, it appears that Jason forgot to mention that he was most recently responsible for developing the Canadian equalization formula, back when he still worked in Ottawa. That seems like a rather convenient omission when it comes to a program that many Albertans despise.

Which raises a further interesting point. My grandfathers who hated the National Energy Program, deplored the metric system, and growled about most things “Liberal” may rise from their graves and strike me down for saying this, but I’m not sure they knew…drumroll, please…that equalization payments do not involve transfer of funds from Alberta. I learned as an adult that the money distributed to “have-not” provinces comes from the taxes we pay to the federal government. That’s right, the taxes we’d still be paying even if equalization was removed from the constitution. As one of my friends recently said, there’s an easy way for any Albertan (indeed, any Canadian) to pay less into equalization – and that is to earn less income.

And so – as we await votes to be counted from across Alberta on whether we’re going to see winter sunrises sometime after kids in northern regions finish their morning recess breaks, and as we watch for tallies related to people who ran for senate, in part, as a joke – we can also think about how we will handle the highly-likely situation where an Alberta vote on the constitution results in absolutely no positive change to Albertans’ bank accounts or their feelings.

I can only hope the sunshine-loving, values-based, clever people of this province will instead think about what it means to be part of Canada. Maybe they’ll even reconsider how they react next time someone comes along in a truck, making quick and cavalier promises. And maybe, just maybe, we will stop letting ourselves be used as pawns for political parties and instead think about the parts we each play in making this a continually better place.

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