In July of last year, Alberta’s UCP government announced that Albertan children would be returning to school in person in the fall after having spent the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic learning online. All students and staff were to be provided with two reusable masks for the year to help prevent the spread of the disease in schools. Two contractors were chosen to produce these masks: Old Navy and IFR Workwear, a family-owned business based in Red Deer. As the decision to provide masks to all students and staff was made a mere month before schools were set to reopen, Old Navy was chosen to produce 90 per cent of the masks due to their capacity to produce large quantities of masks quickly. IFR would provide the remaining 10 per cent of masks. The decision to use these specific contractors, however, was not based on their cost effectiveness or ability to produce the masks quickly—it was based on the potential for personal and political gain, specifically that of Alberta’s Minister of Education, Adriana LaGrange.
Citing a need for expediency, the UCP government decided not to follow the regular procedure of publicly posting a Request for Purchase (RFP), the official process intended to ensure transparency in government purchasing. The reason governments are supposed to post RFPs became clear when it was revealed that IFR Workwear has significant ties to Adriana LaGrange. Besides the fact that IFR Workwear is located in LaGrange’s riding of Red Deer, Reg Radford, the owner of IFR, is a long-time Conservative donor. Notably, he donated $2000 to LaGrange’s campaign for MLA in 2019.
The Provincial Operations Center (POC), part of Alberta’s emergency response system, was responsible for securing the contracts to produce masks. According to the UCP, the decision to place the POC in charge was made to ensure there would be no political interference from Alberta Education. But this was decisively not the case.
Despite LaGrange’s insistence that she has no personal connection to the Radfords and that her team had no say in the choice of vendors for masks, emails have recently been uncovered that indicate the original list of vendors who were being considered by the POC. The list included Old Navy and three local vendors, none of which were IFR. Further emails show that Alberta Education employees inquired multiple times about IFR, a company that until that point had not been mentioned regarding mask contracts. The POC had been chosen as an “independent” body to secure contracts—so why was Alberta Education getting involved?
The POC had originally planned to move forward with 100 per cent of the masks being provided by Old Navy, as they offered the best price. Adriana LaGrange’s lackeys specifically interfered and ensured the POC would include IFR in their contracts, citing the need to “support local business”, despite there already being three local companies in the original considerations. Within hours of these emails from Alberta Education, the POC presented their decision to move forward with Old Navy and IFR. This is clear evidence of Adriana LaGrange and Alberta Education’s involvement in the choice of vendors to provide masks to students.
Despite the UCP’s claims about valuing “fiscal responsibility” and all their talk about reducing government spending and debt, the choice to proceed with IFR doesn’t even make financial sense. Of the original vendors considered by the POC, Old Navy offered the best price at $2.30 per mask. IFR, on the other hand, offered the worst price at $4.24 per mask—180 per cent more than the price offered by Old Navy. This is not exactly a money-saving move.
Adriana LaGrange lied about her involvement in these decisions, falsely stating in a letter to the Ethics Commissioner that “neither [herself] nor [her] political staff had any role in the selection of vendors for these masks.” This is a clear case of nepotism and corruption in the UCP government, and it is far from the first.
In November 2020, Alberta’s Auditor General criticized the UCP for sole-sourcing $1.3 million of contracts for things like web design, photography, and media campaigns for the Canadian Energy Centre, a provincial corporation which was launched in 2019 for the purpose of combating “misinformation” surrounding Alberta’s oil and gas industry. The sole-sourcing took place despite procedures which state a bidding process should always be used unless there is only one eligible vendor. The UCP refused to provide reasons for why these contracts were sole-sourced and how they selected the vendors.
In 2019, UCP public inquiry commissioner Steve Allan awarded a $905,000 sole-sourced contract to a law firm. Beyond the fact that this contract was sole-sourced, Allan’s son was a partner in the firm. Allan was appointed on recommendation from Minister Doug Schweitzer to lead the Public Inquiry Into Funding of Anti-Alberta Energy Campaigns. Despite calls from the NDP to investigate whether Allan broke any rules by awarding the contract to a firm his son partially owned, the UCP refused to investigate. Deputy Energy Minister Grant Sprague stated that “Mr. Steve Allan is not in violation of the Code of Conduct and Ethics and there is no conflict between his private interests and his role as Commissioner.” This is very clearly not the case. Sprague himself was involved in a similar controversy in 2012 when former Conservative premier Alison Redford chose a law firm with which she had significant personal and political connections for a tobacco litigation contract.
Beyond securing contracts, the UCP is grifting off the public purse in other ways as well. It was revealed in May 2020 that the salaries for just 19 government employees who work for Premier Jason Kenney’s office totaled over $2.9 million in taxpayer money. These salaries ranged from $114,000 for Kenney’s assistant and tour manager to over $224,000 for his principal secretary and chief of staff. While Kenney has admonished regular Albertans in the public sector to tighten their belts and accept lower wages, he clearly does not hold his own staff to the same standard. Many of these positions are dedicated to managing the public image of Kenney and the rest of the UCP. These are functionally party staffers, not public servants, so why is the money for their salaries coming from taxpayers’ pockets and not the party itself? Apparently, the damage control necessary for the UCP government is so severe that of these 19 employees, three essentially have identical professional face-saving positions. As the economy was plummeting and Alberta’s unemployment rate remained the highest in Canada, Jason Kenney was paying his staff exorbitantly high salaries, despite his campaign promises of fiscal restraint and strong financial management.
The fact that UCP calls for “fiscal restraint” are only an excuse for attacking workers was further demonstrated by the privatization of registry services, which actually brings in a tidy sum of revenue to the government. At a time when Alberta’s oil and gas revenue is plummeting, these services brought in an impressive $123.6 million in the last fiscal year. The UCP is willingly giving up a steady source of revenue for the province while they simultaneously implement various austerity measures, such as cuts to healthcare during a global pandemic. So much for the UCP’s fiscal responsibility.
The UCP have further shown their true colours through the “Hawaiigate” scandal, in which numerous UCP ministers took personal vacations to international destinations in December while Alberta was battling its deadly second wave of COVID-19. Despite government recommendations strongly advising against non-essential travel, six UCP MLAs and four political staffers took non-essential trips to destinations such as Hawaii and Mexico. Many of them had even published posts on social media while they were away to give the impression that they were in Alberta over the holidays. Despite initially stating that there would be no repercussions for this behaviour, Premier Jason Kenney eventually conceded to the deafening public outcry and announced that all six MLAs and one high-level staff member would be asked to resign or forced to step down from their positions. One of the MLAs involved in the scandal, Municipal Affairs Minister Tracy Allard, was the member in charge of Alberta’s long COVID-19 vaccine rollout timeline, which didn’t even meet half of its 2020 target for vaccinations while Allard was enjoying mai tais in Maui, and continues to fall behind schedule.
Alberta’s UCP government has proven to be disastrous for Albertans, but if they are good at one thing, it is lying. It is abundantly clear through their continued lying and shady business deals that the UCP government is hell-bent on making the working class pay for the crisis, while ruling in the interests of their capitalist friends and lining their own pockets along the way. At a time when the government should be focused on the health and wellbeing of the province, the UCP have shown time and time again that they are more concerned about their own political and financial gain. These instances are some of the corrupt aspects of the UCP’s wealth-before-health approach to the pandemic. Alberta’s working class is starting to see through the UCP’s lies and manipulation. Opposition to the government’s austerity continues to grow. There is a mood in the province to fight back against Kenney’s austerity agenda. We must continue to organize to bring this government of con artists down.