In a 1958 issue of the Rotarian, US historian Burges Johnson wrote that “most of history is a sort of congealed or petrified gossip.” This exciting idea makes me wonder if history has to wait for gossip to congeal. Could it be gathered while still steaming, so as to write a kind of instant history? The United Conservative Party, ruler of Alberta, was born in a mess of rumours and gossip. I have chosen it for my instant history experiment.
The roots of UCP go back to the Reform Party of Canada. Started by Preston Manning in 1987, Reform was based on old-guard progressive conservatism’s being out of touch and on people’s belief in a hot mess of evangelical Christianity, capitalism and fear of new immigrants (by old immigrants). In 1997 Reform eclipsed the federal Progressive Conservatives to become the Official Opposition. But it couldn’t beat the Liberals.
Reform tried putting the bean under a new shell. It became, in order: United Alliance, Canadian Conservative Reform Alliance, and Canadian Alliance (a.k.a. Alliance). In search of charisma, it shed Manning for Stockwell Day (who rode a jet ski in a wetsuit). The Liberals won again in 2000, and Day was replaced by Stephen Harper, charisma’s antithesis, who had started in politics as Manning’s researcher (let the circle be unbroken). By 2004 Harper had swept the last rumps and polyps of federal conservatism under a carpet called Conservative Party of Canada (CPC).
You think I’ve lost the handle? Wasn’t the subject Alberta’s UCP? Bear with me.
After Alliance supplanted the PCs, many wanted a provincial Alliance movement in Alberta. Alberta’s ruling PCs were so out of touch, they retained “progressive” in their name. The Alberta Alliance was birthed in 2003 and ran a full slate in 2004. They hired a US company to coach them in running a Republican-style dirty campaign. This garnered them one rural MLA.
Seeking to outflank everything on the right, Alliance merged with Wildrose, another upstart right-wing outfit. Wildrose Alliance contested the 2008 election and lost its one MLA. Starting at zero, under new leader Danielle Smith, Wildrose began to climb—so high that many picked it to win the 2012 election. But fear of Wildrose put the PCs back in power one more time. In 2014 Smith led eight Wildrosers across the floor to the PCs. A popular move? In the 2015 provincial election, the New Democrats led by Rachel Notley took 41 per cent of the vote and 62 per cent of the seats. Wildrose elected 21, and the PCs, with nine, were kicked to oblivion. As for Smith and her floor-crossers, not one of them was reelected.
The political right is prone to schism and is forever in need of unification. After the Alberta NDP’s victory, the clamour to unite the right was shrill. The process became the product name: United Conservative Party of Alberta. It wasn’t simple. Someone willing to kill the PCs had to be elected to lead the PCs. Kenney, a Harper-era cabinet minister until he and the rest were swept out by the Liberals in 2015, took the job. Kenney’s claim to fame was that he had challenged the federal Liberals’ ownership of the immigrant vote. Kenney proved that immigrants were often extremely conservative, even anti-immigrant, and he brought them into Harper’s fold.
Does history have to wait for gossip to congeal? Could gossip be gathered while still steaming, so as to write a kind of instant history?
Kenney’s closet had skeletons. When not yet a Catholic, he’d gone to a Jesuit-run university in San Francisco, where he led an attack on girls who dared put up a pro-choice exhibit. He scolded university brass for not fully supporting the Vatican on abortion. He defended the traditional family by preventing gay men from visiting their dying spouses in hospital during the AIDS crisis. Kenney left without a degree.
Kenney won the PC leadership. The UCP was founded. Kenney went up against Wildrose leader Brian Jean for the UCP leadership. Despite Kenney’s being miles ahead in all polls, he and his backers funded a “kamikaze” candidate whose sole purpose was to attack Jean, while Kenney took the high road. Kenney denied involvement, even as CBC reported that a Kenney aide had written the kamikaze’s resignation letter.
The UCP leadership vote was online. You needed a personal identification number. Many PINs went missing. Whole families whose names were on the list of voters for Kenney said they did not vote. How did their PINs come to be used by other people? Who were those people? In a July 19, 2019, article, CBC News confirmed that “fraudulent email addresses, all connected to a single source, were used to cast ballots in that vote.” At the time of the article, $77,250 in fines had been levied relating to the kamikaze scheme, mostly for people “donating to the campaign with money that was not their own.”
The RCMP has been investigating the UCP leadership scandal for two and a half years. No charges have been laid but the investigation remains open. Open. The gossip is still congealing. Its petrification awaits.
Fred Stenson’s novels include Who By Fire, The Trade, Lightning and The Great Karoo.