The tipping point came a week from the end of the campaign, and
by April 16 in the Big Four Roadhouse on the Calgary Stampede grounds, United Conservative Party supporters felt scant need for civility. Not anymore. The UCP had won the 2019 Alberta election, taking 63 seats to the NDP’s 24. Sixty-four per cent of registered Albertans voted, the highest percentage since 1982, and 54.9 per cent of those voters chose the UCP.
Television coverage of the results played on multiple screens behind the main stage at the UCP election-night headquarters. Alberta Liberal Party leader David Khan, whose party won zero seats and garnered 1 per cent of the vote, was the first to concede. He congratulated premier-elect Jason Kenney but cautioned, “Some of your candidates have expressed values of intolerance and bigotry. Their fear-mongering was abusive and embarrassing. I urge you to root out and remove those values from your party. They have no place in Alberta or in our government.”
Kenney’s A-team promise was undermined by racists, homophobes, anti-abortionists and white supremacists that wanted to set UCP policy and capture UCP nominations.
UCP supporters booed. Over 1,000 were in the Roadhouse, many of them wearing white or blue United Conservative Party T-shirts and ball caps given out at the entrance. Many booed Khan with the same bitter gusto they’d hurled earlier in the evening at Justin Trudeau, when the prime minister also appeared briefly on one of the TV networks.
Blue, white and red balloons were tucked into nets high on the ceiling, ready to fall. Jason Kenney, the crowd anticipated, would soon ride into the Roadhouse in his blue Dodge Ram pickup. A man of many promises, he would ascend to the stage to herald a sharp reduction in corporate taxes in Alberta, a resurgence in the conventional oil and gas industry and, by implication, a return to the heady days when even a young man out of high school could get a lucrative wage in the patch. The crowd was in no mood for empathy.
The TVs cut to NDP leader Rachel Notley on a crowded stage in Edmonton, her husband and two young adult children by her side as she delivered her concession speech. “My friends,” she said, “four years ago Albertans hired us to do a very big job at a very difficult time. And we did that job—with purpose. And we did it with integrity.”
The Roadhouse crowd booed, a swelling wave that drowned out her speech.
“This is so great,” said one of the four men in tailored suits directly in front of me at the back of the crowd. “It’s awesome,” said another. They were well into their cups—three of them drinking cans of Bud Light and the other man drinking from a big plastic glass. “I was out door-knocking with this guy,” said one, the only man without a bald spot, his trim wavy hair flecked salt and pepper grey. “He’s an oil and gas guy, he owns a company up in Red Deer that had 50 employees and two buildings when the NDP were elected—they’re down to an office of eight right now.”
In her speech Notley acknowledged the 2014 “oil price collapse was hard, exposing deep vulnerabilities in our economy.” Her government’s accomplishments—from economic diversification to worker protections to strengthening public healthcare and public education—helped keep Alberta stable, she said. But the men in front of me were barely listening. Kenney had promised to repeal most NDP legislation, and as Notley spoke the men were talking about the Alberta Party, the centre-right party that won zero seats though they got 9.1 per cent of the vote. “It’s a polarizing election,” said one man. “You’ve got to be on one side or the other. People want aggressive, Trump-like, take-a-position politicians.”
“…And friends,” said Notley, on the screen, “today the number of children living in poverty is half of what it was when we were elected. That is 44,000 more kids who go to school with a full stomach and with clothes to keep warm in the winter.”
“Ah, resign already!” shouted the man with salt and pepper hair. “Concede!”
“…And to every person that has worked with us to stand against bigotry,” said Notley, “know that in Alberta there can be no place for racism…”
“…and we will never shy away from calling it out, because we know we are all Albertans, fellow citizens on a common journey…”
“Na-na-na-na,” the crowd began to sing, “Hey-hey-hey, good-bye!”
“Friends,” said Notley, after congratulating premier-elect Jason Kenney, “the path we chose was right for the province. It reflected the province we have become—young, incredibly diverse, outward-looking, confident; a province of enormous entrepreneurial energy joined with the conviction that we can achieve more working together than we can alone. Friends, if one thing is true, it is this: We have fundamentally changed the politics of this province forever.”
“Never again!” shouted a man near the front stage, a call repeated in the crowd as if an echo. “Never again! Never!”
“Courage, my friends,” said Notley, to end. “It’s not too late to build a better world.”
“Goodbye!” a man shouted at the screen. “Go away!” screamed another, somewhere in the crowd, his voice guttural as if scaring off an intruder.
“Alright! Ladies and gentlemen,” said Dave Rutherford, a former talk radio host, on the microphone at the front of the Roadhouse. “What a great night for Alberta!”
“Yeaaaah!” The crowd cheered and whistled. “Everybody, please direct your attention to the screen,” said Rutherford, as a video showing Kenney and his blue truck began to play. “We’re getting close to you-know-who!”
“Santa?” said the salt-and-pepper haired man. “Santa’s here?” The men beside him laughed. They clicked beer cans and cheered.
Premier Notley dropped the writ for the 28-day campaign on March 19, one day after the Speech from the Throne and two days after she accepted her party’s nomination as the NDP candidate in Edmonton-Strathcona. The UCP was leading in the polls. They’d been ahead since the Progressive Conservative and Wildrose parties merged in August 2017, and in mid-March 2019, according to CBC’s aggregated polling data, the gap was wide: 50 per cent for the UCP to 35.3 per cent for the NDP. Even so, the election timing looked good for the governing party, largely because the RCMP were now investigating a UCP scandal.
On March 16 CBC News broke a story—based on leaked internal UCP documents—revealing that during the 2017 party leadership race Kenney’s campaign provided fellow candidate Jeff Callaway’s team “with resources including strategic political direction, media and debate talking points, speeches, videos and attack advertisements, all aimed at undermining Kenney’s main political rival, Brian Jean.” Callaway, referred to as a “kamikaze candidate,” eventually dropped from the race to endorse Kenney. A year and a half later the RCMP were now “investigating allegations of irregular political contributions to Callaway’s campaign.”
The day after that story broke, the line to get in to Notley’s nomination event at St. Basil’s Cultural Centre in Edmonton stretched into the parking lot. NDP MLAs and cabinet ministers greeted people inside the doors. Speakers blared loud, peppy music. “Do you know this song?” asked NDP Finance Minister Joe Ceci as we shook hands. “It’s called ‘White Flag,’ by Joseph.” He leaned in, his voice lowering to a whisper. “It’s about never giving up. The lyrics are great.”
Inside the hall about 1,000 NDP supporters were gathering in, pressed tight, the jaunty song chorus filling the air:
…I could surrender but I’d
Just be pretending, no I’d
Rather be dead than live a lie
Burn the white flag…
The NDP crowd, from many backgrounds, old and young, was celebratory and defiant. They cheered Edmonton slam poetry champion Omar Farah as he performed two poems, including one for Jason Kenney—“we see how you treat women, trying to revoke the right to abortion”—and they roared when Rachel Notley took to the platform in the middle of the hall, surrounded on all sides by supporters.
For Notley it was a home crowd. She thanked her children—“having a premier for a mom is not easy”—and joked about her husband, Lou Arab, “an amazing partner and… you’ve also become a solid grocery shopper.” Then she got fiery. Notley drew attention to the RCMP investigation into the UCP leadership race—“Shame!” shouted people in the crowd—and highlighted “clear policy differences between me and Mr. Kenney [that] will have profound consequences on generations to come.”
While the NDP raised corporate taxes from 10 per cent to 12 per cent, said Notley, the UCP would chop them to 8 per cent and “blow a four-and-a-half-billion-dollar hole in Alberta’s budget.” In contrast to the NDP’s funding for new schools, new teachers and an updated K–12 curriculum, Kenney would “freeze spending” on education, she said, meaning that public funding wouldn’t rise to meet growing student enrollment. “Banks and large corporations get the biggest tax cut in history and education gets frozen,” she said of UCP policy. “It is just plain reckless.”
The crowd loved it. “Rachel! Rachel! Rachel!” they chanted.
The next day at the Alberta Legislature, in a much different event full of tradition and pomp, Lieutenant Governor Lois E. Mitchell delivered the Speech from the Throne. It was a long, laudatory list of NDP government accomplishments:
“Corporate and union donations have been banned…
“Trans Mountain [pipeline] remains in play because we compelled the federal government to step up and buy it…
“We have leveraged nearly $13-billion in new private-sector refining and upgrading investments in Alberta, creating more than 8,500 new jobs…
“We established a $25-a-day childcare pilot program and… will undertake a major new program to help young mothers and families save thousands of dollars….”
No crowds cheered or booed. But the subtext was clear: The campaign was on, and the election, at least as the NDP wanted to frame it, would focus on Rachel Notley versus Jason Kenney. That was a competition a lot of people should see, said one of the security guards I talked to at the Legislature. “You should come for Question Period when Notley and Kenney are both here,” he said. “She’s a sharp debater. And so is Kenney. He’s very smooth, almost too smooth,” he said. “All of us ex-police here,” he said of the guards at the Legislature, “when [Kenney] talks we go: ‘I don’t know’…. You know when you’re talking to someone and the hairs on the back of your neck go up? It’s too smooth.”
Long before the election was called, Jason Kenney made a promise to UCP members. This was at the party’s first leadership debate in Calgary on September 20, 2017. Kenney shared the stage with fellow contestants Brian Jean, Doug Schweitzer and Jeff Callaway (the “kamikaze candidate,” who distinguished himself at this debate by scolding Jean barely 20 seconds into his opening statement).
In response to a question about how they would “engage” with the other candidates if they became UCP leader, Kenney said: “I would do what Peter Lougheed did in 1970 and ’71. He reached out to the A-team of Albertans; he asked people to step up for public service, to make sacrifices—accomplished people from business and other walks of life. I would try to do the same thing, [to recruit] a big team of principled, diverse, ethical conservatives…. I am absolutely committed to including my three competitors in our team, as key players in renewing the Alberta advantage.”
It didn’t go quite as promised. Callaway didn’t seek a UCP nomination and wasn’t in the front pages again until the “kamikaze” scandal broke. Jean resigned as a UCP MLA in March 2018. But their absence wasn’t the issue; Kenney’s A-team promise was undermined by a proliferation of racists, homophobes, anti-abortionists and white supremacists that wanted to set UCP policy and vied to capture UCP nominations.
“Bozo eruptions”—such as pastor Allan Hunsperger’s blog post that suggested gays and lesbians would burn in a “lake of fire”—had torpedoed the Wildrose in the 2012 election, a campaign in which they had been far ahead in the polls. Kenney wanted to avoid that. In his early speeches he often stressed the need for “discipline” among party members. And yet, at the same time he also held the door open for potential controversy.
While running for UCP leader Kenney signed a “Grassroots Guarantee.” He claimed it would “let us develop policy in the same way we created the party—democratically, with the grassroots members in charge.” This claim was quickly tested. In May 2018 the UCP held a policy convention where party members passed a resolution that would allow schools to notify parents if their child joined a gay–straight alliance. It was an out-gay-kids policy. Kenney told reporters it wouldn’t be on the party platform. “Guess what—I’m the leader,” he said. “I hold the pen.”
In other words, in Jason Kenney’s UCP, all opinions are equal, but some opinions are more equal than others. Instead of social issues, Kenney wanted the election to focus on the economy, as per the polls: “Forty-seven per cent of people in Alberta think pipelines or the economy are the most important issues facing the province,” a CBC poll reported in 2018. “Other issues, like education and health care, don’t even come close.”
The NDP also focused on those top-of-mind issues. In 2015 they had brought in the Climate Leadership Plan, which imposed a carbon levy, accelerated the phase-out of coal power in Alberta and—with the support of chief executives from Suncor, Cenovus, Shell Canada and Canadian Natural Resources—imposed a cap on greenhouse gas emissions from the oil sands. Prime Minister Trudeau gave federal approval for two oil pipelines out of Alberta—Trans Mountain and Enbridge Line 3—and said, “This would not be possible without the leadership of the Notley government.”
But the pipeline plans hit a snag. On August 30, 2018, the Federal Court of Appeal dismissed the approval of Trans Mountain because the federal government failed in its duty to consult “in a considered, meaningful two-way dialogue” with affected First Nations. The NDP had claimed their climate policy won “social licence” for pipelines and that construction would start on Trans Mountain by the spring. Now it wouldn’t happen.
Kenney pounced. He promised that if elected the first act of his government would be to repeal the “punitive” $30-a-tonne carbon tax. The federal Liberal government had said it would impose a carbon tax on provinces that didn’t have one, so Kenney’s promise was really a pledge to give provincial revenue to the feds, but politically that didn’t matter: Polls said Alberta’s carbon tax was unpopular.
Rage was a common mood at UCP events, anger mixed with paranoia…. The angry rhetoric and the flirtation with the far right were not isolated events.
Ontario’s new Conservative premier, Doug Ford, came to Calgary, and he and Kenney held an anti-carbon-tax rally for 1,500 raucous attendees who shouted and cheered as Kenney bashed at the spectre of Trudeau and Ford condemned “the worst tax ever!” A country rock band at the event changed the lyrics of “Sweet Home Alabama” to reflect the crowd’s antipathy to people such as Neil Young, the singer who once compared the oil sands to Hiroshima:
I heard Neil Young sing about her
I heard old Neil put her down
I hope Neil Young will remember
An Alberta man don’t need him around anyhow…
Rage was a common mood at UCP events, anger mixed with paranoia. At a September 2018 party forum for nomination seekers in Calgary-Glenmore, candidate Philip Schuman told the crowd packed into a community hall that “Alberta is under attack. Once again we have a Trudeau in Ottawa, and he is baring the hostile fangs of contempt at our people and our resources.” Schuman—endorsed by Calgary city councillor Jeromy Farkas and UCP MLA Richard Gotfried—didn’t win. His campaign was derailed after Press Progress revealed Schuman offered to fund an alt-right Instagram account that shared racist and anti-Semitic material, including memes glorifying Hitler. But he wasn’t alone: The angry rhetoric and flirtation with the far right were not isolated events.
Jason Kenney, for instance, had a long media trail of homophobic and anti-abortion comments dating back to the late 1980s. He didn’t apologize for those statements but said he wouldn’t say those things now. What he did do was vilify Trudeau every chance he got. Assailing Ottawa has long been a successful political strategy in Alberta. But Kenney widened the focus of anger to also scapegoat environmental activists. In this he drew on the writings of Vivian Krause, a researcher who has correctly noted that US philanthropic foundations give money to anti-tar sands climate change advocates, but then claimed, without evidence, that environmentalists were responsible for the oil sands “production cap”—actually an emissions cap—and the cause of the failure to get new pipelines built.
Kenney promised a publicly funded “war room” to “push back” at the “lies and myths told about Alberta’s energy industry.” He spoke of this to audiences as diverse as the Calgary Chamber of Commerce and a Grande Prairie gathering of the Yellow Vests—a pro-pipeline protest movement that also attracted hate groups such as Soldiers of Odin, white supremacists who were photographed near Kenney in the Grande Prairie crowd.
“Welcome to populist politics Alberta-style,” wrote energy journalist Markham Hislop, decrying the impact of Krause on Kenney’s rhetoric, “where facts are optional and indignation is a constant state of mind.”
“Welcome to populist politics Alberta-style,” wrote Markham Hislop, decrying the impact of Vivian Krause, “where facts are optional and indignation is a constant state of mind.”
The toxic anger bubbled into view on many fronts. In multiple constituencies prior to the campaign, UCP nomination candidates were disqualified owing to anti-Islamic social media posts—such as those by Todd Beasley in Brooks-Medicine Hat, who called Muslims “fools who are really worshipping Satan.” In Calgary-Mountain View, on the day the writ was dropped, star candidate Caylan Ford—personally recruited by Kenney—resigned after leaked Facebook messages revealed that she was “saddened by the demographic replacement of white peoples in their homelands.” Calgary-South East candidate Eva Kiryakos, a lawyer and one of many UCP candidates championed by anti-abortion advocates, resigned after tweeting derogatory comments about Muslim refugees. In Drayton Valley-Devon, UCP candidate Mark Smith, the party’s education critic, faced calls to resign after a recording was released of a 2013 sermon in which he drew parallels between homosexual love and pedophilia. Kenney let Smith remain a candidate.
The Smith recording was too much for nationally syndicated talk radio host Charles Adler, a conservative and friend of Kenney. On April 2 Adler asked Edmonton talk radio host Ryan Jespersen why Kenney didn’t “simply say this does not represent Alberta values… his party’s values, or his values, and be done with it?”
“It does represent Jason Kenney’s values and that’s why Jason Kenney is not doing a damn thing about it,” said Jespersen. “He’s beholden to Ezra Levant and Rebel Media. He’s beholden to [anti-gay-straight-alliance lawyer] John Carpay, who has compared the pride flag to the Nazi swastika. He’s beholden to home-schoolers and anti-vaxxers. He’s beholden to anti-choice activists. He’s beholden to people on the fringe that are providing a huge amount of support for him from the social conservative side of things.”
Adler asked why: “Politically it sounds suicidal.”
“Because he’s greedy,” said Jespersen. “Because he wants to be premier to become prime minister, because he’s watching [federal Conservative leader] Andrew Scheer and he has eyes on the ultimate prize, and he knows to get there he has to be premier of Alberta and he will do it at all costs. He’s lying to Albertans, Charles, and he’s lying to conservatives, which is the worst part about it.”
In the final week of the campaign Rachel Notley stayed almost exclusively in Calgary. Polls had the UCP ahead. But pundits and political strategists agreed that whoever won Calgary would win the election, and Notley held multiple rallies throughout the city. In a speech she said Kenney would not get a pipeline built. “He will stomp his feet. He will throw a tantrum. He will attack the rest of Canada,” she said. “And he will put Trans Mountain at risk.” The NDP had a plan for “an economy of the future,” she said, which focused on growing the petrochemical sector—“turning our energy into products the world needs and doing it with Alberta workers right here in Alberta.” The NDP plan also included funding for seniors care and a massive expansion of the $25-a-day childcare program across the province. The Calgary crowds were enthusiastic, if not huge.
But the polls didn’t move. Early in the campaign the UCP had promised to repeal NDP legislation that “prohibited schools from notifying parents if their children join gay-straight alliances.” Hundreds of people protested the policy in Calgary and Edmonton. On April 3, after the scathing Jespersen comments, Charles Adler interviewed Kenney and asked: “Why are so many people who bash gays and bash women… who bash Muslims, attracted to the United Conservative Party?” Kenney said that wasn’t true and didn’t apologize for incidents involving UCP members. Then the leaders debate, on April 4, failed to deliver a memorable moment that changed the polls.
The tipping point—when UCP strategists stopped caring about the scandals—came with a week to go. Internal UCP polling, done before the writ dropped, found that 70 per cent of Albertans favoured cutting the corporate tax rate by at least a third. The implication—that for a majority of voters the promise of economic benefit trumped all other issues—was a basis of UCP strategy. But Kenney never acknowledged it until April 9, when he told reporters that bozo eruptions and gay-straight alliances were “manufactured outrage” and the UCP wouldn’t be “distracted by issues that voters are not talking about.”
It didn’t matter that CBC News published a bombshell story on April 10 alleging that fraudulent email addresses were used to cast votes in the UCP leadership race. Nor that follow up stories reported, as a whistleblower put it, that the alleged “big bosses” behind the plot were long-time party activists and Kenney supporters.
It didn’t matter that energy economists raised serious doubts about Kenney’s ability to shift Alberta’s energy economy into high gear again, doubts forcefully expressed by Markham Hislop: “Mr. Kenney is making a fundamental mistake about the Alberta oil and gas industry. If it’s not a mistake, then he’s deliberately misleading Alberta voters and that’s far worse,” said Hislop, in an online video commentary on April 11. “Mr. Kenney is advocating policies designed to help the struggling conventional producers, while rolling back the policies designed to support production growth from the big five [integrated oil sands companies] that will account for almost 100 per cent of growth over the next 20 years…. It makes no sense.”
None of that mattered. On election night Kenney drove into the Roadhouse in his blue truck, windows open, high-fiving the jubilant crowd. In his victory speech he denounced “those foreign-funded special interests that have been leading a campaign of economic sabotage against this great province.” He praised voters who chose “free enterprise values.” Cribbing from ex-US President Richard “Tricky Dick” Nixon’s famous speech in 1969, Kenney said: “The silent majority has spoken.”
“Don’t forget to set your clocks back 50 years tonight,” wrote one wag on Facebook that night.
Not everyone saw the outcome as the return of a conservative fortress. At the end of election night I talked to Danielle Smith, former Wildrose Party leader and now a talk radio host. During the 2015 campaign she said Alberta was becoming a two-party province. I asked if she still felt that way. “More than ever,” she said. “If Jason’s strategy fails to get pipelines built, if Notley’s able to make the case that the more collaborative strategy was the better one, if he goes too far and too deep on cuts to get to a balanced budget and the NDP are able to point out places where [the UCP] make mistakes,” she said, the NDP could win again in four years.
“And if [the UCP] don’t succeed in moderating the more extreme social conservative voices… they’ve got to get that resolved, there’s a lot of gay conservatives here tonight and they can’t keep pushing them out of the party with some of the extreme rhetoric,” she said. “We now have a competitive two-party system. I think the days of having a dynasty of 30 or 40 or 50 years—that’s over.”
Tadzio Richards is an associate editor at Alberta Views. Share your reflections on the 2019 Alberta election: firstname.lastname@example.org.