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Analysis
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Politics

Meet the Albertans Ditching the Jason Kenney Government

Doctors, entrepreneurs and businesspeople are packing up. That’s bad news for the province’s future.

Tim Ford 22 Jan 2021 | TheTyee.ca

Tim Ford is a mixed-race freelance writer and author based in Victoria. He has been published in the National Observer, CBC News and the Toronto Star.

I left Alberta in the summer of 2019. Jason Kenney, leading a triumphant United Conservative Party, had taken the reins of power just three months earlier. It wasn’t a government I was keen to live under.

And it’s increasingly clear I’m not alone.

Alberta is beset by problems. The economy is weak. The province is facing a record-high deficit exceeding $20 billion. While other provinces have recovered many of the jobs lost during the pandemic, Alberta’s unemployment rate was 11 per cent in December.

Perhaps more alarming, though, is the loss of Alberta’s greatest resource. And no, it’s not oil.

It’s people.

Provincial government data shows that Alberta is on track to see more people leaving than arriving in 2021. It’s the first time since the 1980s that the former prairie powerhouse saw two consecutive quarters of negative net migration.

Kenney and his party have downplayed these issues. They have blamed the departure of companies like Encana on the Trudeau government. They have attacked the companies themselves, like Wattpad, which chose Halifax over Calgary for their second headquarters in 2019.

But people are leaving Alberta. And they may never come back. The loss of trained professionals, families and employers could lead to a bleak future and a permanent loss of its claimed “Alberta Advantage.”

Losing doctors

The government has used October statistics from the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta to argue doctors aren’t leaving the province. There had been threats of an exodus after the Kenney government ripped up its fee agreement with physicians.

But the medical association said the danger is real. "Government refuses to acknowledge that so many physicians are in situations bad enough that they are contemplating leaving," said Alberta Medical Association president Dr. Paul E. Boucher.*

And this month the college reported a net loss of 30 doctors in the last quarter of 2020.

Dr. Don Wilson, an OBGYN who worked at Calgary’s South Health Campus, told The Tyee he relocated to Richmond this month after seven years in Alberta’s largest city.

“I decided that I would leave out of protest over what the UCP was doing to the health-care system,” he said. “It’s resulted in a chaotic year for myself and my family. But it was a choice I felt I really had to make, otherwise I didn’t feel I could live with myself.”

Wilson, a member of the Heiltsuk Nation on B.C.’s central coast, was alarmed by changes in Alberta’s health-care system that he felt would have serious impacts on Indigenous communities in the province.

He said the pay framework the UCP was imposing on doctors made it increasingly hard for rural doctors to survive.

“It wasn’t just about the medical profession,” Wilson said. “For me, it was also seeing developments over time about what was actually happening to the public health-care system.”

Dr. Jillian Ratti has similar objections to the UCP’s health-care policies. But for her, the decision to move away from Alberta stemmed from direct interaction with the government.

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Dr. Jillian Ratti: ‘Amidst all the financial and personal insecurity, and amidst getting very personal attacks from the government from the premier’s office… we were just done.’ Photo supplied.

“Around Christmas time, I had put out a very profane video that was specifically directed at the UCP caucus, and Jason Kenney,” she said. “I was angry about a lot of really awful behaviour.”

In response, UCP government staffers, including Kenney’s executive director of issues management, Matt Wolf, attacked Ratti online. The doctor says the subsequent abuse towards her became so toxic, she had to shut her social media accounts down.

The incident spurred the doctor and her husband to consider moving to B.C. with their two children. But what sealed the deal, according to Ratti, was when she found a number of job postings for new Alberta doctors.

“Amidst all the financial and personal insecurity, and amidst getting very personal attacks from the government from the premier’s office... we were just done,” said Ratti, who moved to B.C. (Ratti asked that The Tyee not disclose the city to avoid harassment.)

“And so here we are, and boy, am I happy to not be in Alberta anymore.”

A problematic ‘oil and gas addiction’

Not everyone who has left the province blames Alberta’s ills on the UCP.

Yvea Zaels, an immigrant from the Czech Republic who called the prairie province home for 26 years, says Alberta has been in trouble for many years.

“I noticed people are blaming it on COVID,” she said. "The problem is not COVID. The problem is what I call the oil and gas addiction.”

Zaels, who started in Calgary as a nanny before moving into careers in business, oil and gas and now project management, sees her personal journey in Calgary as one of growth. 

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After 26 years in Alberta, Yvea Zaels and family celebrated Christmas in their new home of Kelowna. Photo supplied.

Unfortunately, in her opinion, the province hasn’t grown with her, and she and her husband have been thinking of leaving for eight to 10 years.

The province had failed to diversify away from its oil and gas dependence over the several decades, she said.

“Energy means renewable and non-renewable. We have all this amazing talent… everybody could be on geothermal; we could have done so much with the sun and wind.”

That failure to diversify has resulted in a more unfriendly culture, according to Zaels, who now lives in Kelowna. She says Calgary has lost its charm and people are feeling hopeless.

“It doesn’t feel like our home anymore,” Zaels said. “The culture has changed. It’s shifted. And we don’t see much hope.”

Gone for good?

Entrepreneur Victoria Smith, who lived in Alberta from the age of two, says she felt similar pessimism about the province’s future.

She and her husband came to a decision on June 21 to leave Alberta. Smith says she remembers the date because of the clarity around their choice.

“I had been very frustrated with the UCP party, and they had at least another three years,” she said. “The economy’s never going to diversify under that. It felt like they don’t have policies that support working parents.”

When Smith shared the news with friends and family, she says many expressed jealousy at the move. 

The entrepreneur and her husband had significant financial savings that Smith says allowed them the freedom to leave Alberta, an option which she thinks is not open to everyone.

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Victoria Smith left Alberta for Victoria because of the UCP government. ‘I don’t see us going back.’ Photo supplied.

“Real estate in B.C. is very expensive,” she said. “What we had in Alberta versus what we can afford here are very different things.”

Despite that, Smith says she and her family are thrilled with the change and feel a greater sense of community in their new home.

Perhaps more crucially, she doesn’t feel as alienated by her own government.

Smith says she reached out to her MLA, Health Minister Tyler Shandro, on one occasion to raise her concerns about the government’s 2019 decision to fire the elections commissioner who was investigating the UCP.

“He said to me on the phone, ‘That sounds like NDP language,’” she said. “I said ‘Minister? I’m using the language that is in the bill that your party wrote.’ If your own MLA that represents that party can’t agree on facts, that’s very scary to me.”

The Smith family found a new house in Victoria two weeks into January.

Victoria Smith says there’s very little chance they will ever return to Alberta.

“I think we’re going to experience some homesickness, especially as the years go on,” she said. “But it’s going to be our new normal. I don’t see us going back.”

Taking leave myself

I don’t hate Alberta.

I shouldn’t have to even say that. But the Kenney government’s messaging now focuses on “anti-Alberta” activities as it funds a “war room” and pays for papers and studies that accuse foreign powers of sabotaging its economic interests.

That scorn for outsiders extends now to born-and-raised Albertans like me who have the audacity to leave.

These people who have left Alberta have not expressed a desire to return. But perhaps more alarming is that the UCP government has expressed no desire to take them back.

There are only so many times you can be told you are unwanted, before you finally believe it.

*Story edited on Jan. 22 at 2:03 p.m. to correct information on the position of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta.  [Tyee]

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