Two Alberta cabinet ministers are calling on the premier to apologize for a dinner held on the balcony of the Sky Palace in Edmonton last week, as well as comments he made on so-called “cancel culture” when it comes to Canada’s contentious history with Indigenous people.
In a post on her personal Facebook page Saturday, Minister of Culture, Multiculturalism and Status of Women Leela Aheer said removing the names of controversial Canadian politicians, such as John A. Macdonald and Hector-Louis Langevin, from prominent infrastructure is “not ‘cancel culture.’”
Last week, when asked about Calgary’s Langevin School being renamed to no longer commemorate the Canadian founding father, Premier Jason Kenney spoke at length about not “cancelling most, if not all, of our history.”
“It is an imperfect country, but it is still a great country, just as John Macdonald was an imperfect man but was still a great leader,” he said at the time. “If we want to get into cancelling every figure in our history who took positions on issues at the time that we now judge harshly and rightly in historical retrospective — but if that’s the new standard, then I think almost the entire founding leadership of our country gets cancelled.”
His comments came just days after the remains of 215 children were found in unmarked burial sites on the grounds of a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C.
“Cancel culture is what has happened to our First Nations by not acknowledging these atrocities and those responsible,” Aheer said in her Facebook post.
“I, as an Albertan, want to apologize to my First Nations sisters and brothers for the historical wrongs, the death, despair, sexual assault, and destruction of their beautiful culture, traditions, and who they are as people at the hands of our governments, and our churches.”
She went on to say Macdonald and Langevin’s actions against Indigenous people were “deplorable” and “not to be debated,” and called them “architects of the residential schools where children died because of disease, neglect, and beatings.”
Global News’ requests for comment from the premier’s office were not returned by time of publishing.
In a Sunday interview on The Roy Green Show, Kenney reiterated his stance, saying Canada needs to be “collectively focused on the work of reconciliation, the truth about Indigenous residential schools, but we also need to be careful when addressing our broader history lest we lose it all.”
“The broader point I made was that we shouldn’t be focusing on historical or kind of retrospective historical judgement on only one or two figures in our history, because, quite frankly, the entire leadership of Canada is implicated in the unjust treatment of Indigenous people and frankly, unjust treatment of other people,” the premier said.
“And so we need to teach those facts. But I don’t think it’s helpful to sort of drive out of our history.”
‘Confused… extremely hurt’ by Sky Palace dinner
In her post, Aheer also took issue with Kenney’s Sky Palace dinner with a number of other cabinet ministers that appeared in defiance of COVID-19 health restrictions, calling it hurtful and frustrating.
“I am confused and, like you, extremely hurt, and I’m so sorry for any pain, anger, or frustration this may have caused you,” Aheer wrote.
“All of us make mistakes, but this one is a big one, and I am truly sorry.”
The “working dinner” included Health Minister Tyler Shandro and Government House Leader and Minister of Environment and Parks Jason Nixon, along with other political staffers, according to the premier’s office.
Under Stage 1 of Alberta’s summer reopening plan, outdoor dining is limited to four people from one household per table, or three people if they are all living alone and sitting with their designated close contacts.
While outdoor gatherings — which the premier’s office referred to the dinner as in response to journalists’ questions — are limited to 10 people in this stage of reopening, the government recommends they be from only two households.
Aheer recognized Albertans’ compliance with COVID-19 restrictions and their willingness to “maneuvre, pivot and adapt to the rules put in place by our government.”
“I can only imagine how disappointed you must be. Our leadership should sincerely apologize.”
Speaking to radio station RED FM in an interview Global News translated from Punjabi, Minister of Community and Social Services and MLA for Calgary North East Rajan Sawhney said she, too, was disappointed to see the photos of the dinner.
Sawhney’s riding has seen high rates of COVID-19 infections and low rates of COVID-19 vaccinations throughout the pandemic, which prompted the creation of a walk-in, low-barrier immunization clinic in the area over the weekend.
“I would never (be at that dinner). Because… think about this: what’s my riding? Where are the most (case) numbers? Where is the most impact? Where has been the biggest pain?” she said.
“And this photo… my photo like this you will not see, because I would never do this.
“If a mistake is made, then one should apologize.”
‘Two-pronged attack on the premier’
Mount Royal University political scientist Duane Bratt said Sunday that the fact that two cabinet ministers openly criticized the government is a “significant escalation” of dissent within the UCP.
“Leela Aheer and Rajan Sawhney are… saying: ‘The restrictions were important and you’re violating them,’” he said.
“I think that’s a fundamental shift. It’s also noteworthy that both Aheer and Sawhney are women of colour in the cabinet.”
Bratt said Aheer’s comments on cancel culture were an “emotional, resonant argument,” against Kenney’s poorly-timed statements.
“It was a two-pronged attack on the premier,” he said.
Bratt said it’s rare for cabinet ministers to speak out against a government unless they’re resigning because of a fundamental disagreement with a government decision or stance.
“We’ll have to see if Kenney keeps them in the cabinet. But I think are some challenges there,” he said.
“Notably, they have not called for a resignation like others have been calling for the premier’s resignation. Instead, they’re simply calling for an apology.”
Bratt said in his opinion, the apology would be “too little too late,” because “the government’s response was to simply double down and to say that they did absolutely nothing wrong, to quote half of the regulations and then to attack anyone criticizing them.”
Global News’ requests for comment from the offices of ministers Sawhney and Aheer were not returned by time of publication.
— With a file from Kaylen Small, Global News
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