By Celia Shea,
Imagine arriving on a street corner carrying a sign and megaphone, then leaving in handcuffs, thrust into the judicial system of the state you were protesting.
In the United States, it happened to tens of thousands of Black Lives Matter (BLM) protesters who took to the streets after the police murder of George Floyd. Their stories tell of costly legal battles, job-destroying permanent records, life-altering rubber bullet wounds, and jail time: lifelong consequences for a moment of activism. Extreme punishment for engaged citizenship.
It might be tempting to put our neighbour to the South on trial for an unusually cruel, broken and blood-thirsty judicial system, but the truth is Canada’s courts and prison systems are no better, and Alberta is on the path to being the worst offender, thanks to the UCP.
It was directly related to the  rail blockades, but [Kenney] has taken the opportunity to leave it vague… to come after unions.
While Alberta inmates might not be making McDonald’s uniforms for pennies and rich bondsmen aren’t sucking the money from desperate families’ pockets into a $2-billion bail industry, we do have a Premier who hates dialogue, democracy and dissent, and to curb these, passed one of the most draconian laws Alberta’s ever seen.
Under the UCP’s Bill 1: The Critical Infrastructure Defense Act, Premier Kenney gave his cabinet the power to criminalize any protest outside public infrastructure, such as hospitals, universities and government centres. As more Albertans find themselves caught in the crosshairs of this law, fewer will have recourse to a fair trial because the UCP also gutted the justice system.
A concrete cell with two entrances and no exit is what Kenney’s built, and whether you’re a doctor who saw Health Minister Shandro shred your contracts, a hospital front-liner fighting to save your livelihood, an Indigenous youth protesting the UCP’s pipeline plans, a BLM protester fighting racism or a guardians of a person with disabilities facing potential state-sanctioned eviction, Jason Kenney wants to put you in it.
AUPE Vice-President Kevin Barry believes Bill 1 is broad for a reason: “It was directly related to the  rail blockades, but [Kenney] has taken the opportunity to leave it vague… to come after unions.”
Under the new law, the government could even declare that a sidewalk where members are holding an information picket is “essential infrastructure,” which means police can arrest you without a warrant and without any notice. If you're found guilty, penalties for a first offence are up to $10,000, while subsequent offences are up to $25,000 in fines and/or up to six months in prison. Organizations like a union can be charged up to $200,000.
On one hand, Barry is certain the public and unions won’t stand for such excessive force. When the Alberta Labour Relations Board (ALRB) declared the hospital workers’ Oct. 26 wildcat illegal, the public continued to stand with members in their fight against privatized healthcare. Similarly, in the 80s, during the illegal United Nurses of Alberta (UNA) strike, “all the nurses started showing up at the police [stations] saying ‘please arrest me, please arrest me – I’m on strike...to overwhelm the system.”
However, Barry also knows Kenney is a new breed of Premier. He’d rather dismiss Albertans like you as crooks before you can plead your case, and we can prove it.
Just last June, the UCP ousted every member of the committee that vets potential provincial judges and recruited Kenney’s conservative pals and party donors to replace them.
The Provincial Court Nominating Committee (PCNC) is supposed to be a diverse team of Albertans who earn their position through a rigorous, open hiring process. But not in Kenney’s town. Here, the committee is a page pulled from Cabinet’s personal address book.
Political sympathizers at the bench are bad enough under any government–but they’re worse when your elected leaders are authoritarian ideologues rewriting the law to crush basic rights. As Barry says, “If there’s a court challenge provincially or if someone’s been charged through Bill 1 – and they [judges] are like-minded, they’re going to think it’s ok to give someone thousands of dollars in fines…to an individual on strike.”
The PCNC overhaul wasn’t the only time the UCP handed ammo to the state while simultaneously stripping citizens of their armour. In 2019, then-Justice-Minister Schweitzer promised to hire 50 new state prosecutors … after cutting $5 million from Legal Aid, which is the agency that provides counsel and support to low-income Albertans who can’t afford defence lawyers.
The UCP said the new hires would help speed up the courts and help unclog the backlogged system – a simple solution to an old problem created by the neglectful NDP.
Kenney and Schweitzer failed to acknowledge that justice is about balance. Without funding the defence and prosecution, the courts can’t move any faster. The plan quickly revealed itself for what it was: an ideological crusade that will only put a bigger target on UCP opponents’ backs and, maybe, pack more Albertans into overcrowded prisons.
He’s preaching to his rural base, but all he’s done is downloaded the cost onto rural communities.
Kenney’s “tough on crime” platform? Barry believes it’s just the premier’s weak attempt to blindside rural Alberta, by wooing small towns with one policy while wrecking their local power and culture with another.
“He’s preaching to his rural base, but all he’s done is downloaded the cost onto rural communities,” he says. Jason Kenney has “talked about having a provincial police force, which we know is a lot more expensive.”
On Oct. 7, the UCP announced its plans to replace the Federally funded RCMP, in part to target “activists.”
The last thing struggling rural Albertans need right now is to pick up the bill for Kenney’s personal political police. There’s more than one way for the state to handcuff a people. Driving them into poverty is one. Getting them to fund an ideological army that would punish them simply for protesting that poverty is another.
AUPE members know that Alberta’s most remote communities won’t stay quiet about this assault. Kenney might think he’s the sheriff, but he doesn’t have the jail space to hold 90,000 working people. While Alberta’s government has broken the justice system, it hasn’t broken our solidarity, and solidarity is the only path to real justice.