At 5:20 p.m. on October 28, 2017, minutes before the accidental, and then the official announcement of the winner of the United Conservative Party’s (UCP) first-ever leadership race, blue and white balloons hung in a net above a brightly lit stage at the BMO Centre at the Calgary Stampede grounds. A row of TV cameras aimed at the on-stage podium. In the cavernous, 50,000 ft2 hall, a backdrop behind the stage pictured downtown Calgary, Edmonton City Hall and oil wells in Alberta. All were illuminated conservative-logo blue. “In choosing a leader for the United Conservative Party,” leadership candidate Jason Kenney had told a crowd earlier in the campaign, “we’ll not only be electing a leader but almost certainly electing a premier.”
The UCP is a merger of the Wildrose and Progressive Conservative parties. In the 2015 provincial election, when the NDP won a majority government, the two conservative parties got 52 per cent of the vote between them but lost the election. The PCs’ 44-year dynasty came to an end. Two years later, in separate decisions, the two conservative parties voted to unify.
The new, combined party had 27 MLAs (all but two of them male) and no official policies. The UCP policy convention isn’t until this May, but all three leadership candidates—former federal Conservative cabinet minister Kenney, former Wildrose leader Brian Jean and insolvency lawyer Doug Schweitzer—promised to balance the budget, “restore the Alberta Advantage” and repeal NDP legislation including the carbon tax and protections for farm and ranch workers’ safety. A fourth candidate, former Wildrose president Jeff Callaway, promised the same but quit the race to support Kenney.
Now Callaway was standing at the back of the hall with Kenney supporters, including Jason Nixon, the tall UCP MLA for Rimbey-Rocky Mountain House-Sundre, chanting “Ja-son! Ja-son!” as the candidate entered the hall. Kenney supporters had been given the middle section of the hall, with Schweitzer supporters on the left, facing the stage, and Brian Jean supporters seated to the right. I stood at the back, between the Kenney and Jean supporters, who were cheering like sports fans for their man.
“Guys! How are you?” said Kenney as he shook hands in the crowd on the way to his seat. A man in the Kenney section shouted out, loud enough that all 2,000 people in attendance could hear: “The next premier of Alberta right there!”
Talk of uniting the right in Alberta began in earnest on July 6, 2016, when Kenney announced he was running for the leadership of the PCs with the intention to merge with the Wildrose. The NDP is an “accidental government,” he said in Calgary. “Together, we must begin the renewal of Canada’s conservative movement right here in its heartland.”
It wasn’t the first time Kenney had played a role in uniting right-wing parties on the outside looking in at government. From 1997 to 2016 he represented a federal riding in southeast Calgary. Initially famous in Ottawa as part of the “Snack Pack,” a group of young conservatives that included fellow MP Rob Anders and staffer Ezra Levant, Kenney supported Preston Manning, then Stockwell Day, then Stephen Harper as the federal Canadian Alliance party merged with—took over—the Progressive Conservative party in 2003, creating a single neo-conservative party that more moderate Red Tories such as former prime minister Joe Clark refused to join. In the Harper government, Kenney held several cabinet portfolios, including Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism. After the federal Conservatives lost the 2015 election, Kenney entered provincial politics (though he retained his federal seat and continued to be paid as an MP until September 23, 2016). In some circles the move was cause for celebration. “The well-known social conservative,” as he was described by a writer with LifeSite News, a popular anti-abortion website, “has embarked on a quest to unite the right in Alberta in order to take down Rachel Notley’s NDP. ”
Kenney’s plan for Conservative unity—which he posted on Facebook and elsewhere and periodically updated with check marks beside the steps completed—was simple: Get elected as PC leader; negotiate with the Wildrose to create a “united free-enterprise party”; allow time for a “grassroots” debate; have the “grassroots” vote for unity; and then have a leadership election for the “new, united party.” He bought a brand new blue Dodge Ram pickup, strategically tagged it with bumper stickers—“Stop the Carbon Tax” and “I Love Canadian Pipelines”—and drove around Alberta raising support and money through his political action committee (PAC), Unite Alberta.
On November 5, 2016, he rolled into Red Deer for the PC policy forum ahead of the PC leadership convention the following March. He didn’t come alone. Kenney’s campaign bused in hundreds of voting-age youth, mostly young men from an unnamed Christian college (or colleges), as the Calgary Herald reported it, “…to vote for a pro-Kenney slate on the PC youth association executive, which selects 20 delegates to the leadership convention.” The youth—wearing blue or camouflage-coloured “Unite Alberta” baseball caps—made their votes, posed for selfies with ex-prime minister Harper (also there to support Kenney), then got back on the buses and returned to their never-named hometowns.
Immediately after the policy forum, Calgary MLA and PC leadership candidate Sandra Jansen resigned from the race, citing aggressive and sexually charged verbal and written harassment during the Red Deer convention—abuse that often focused on her support for women’s reproductive rights. “My presence in this race has so enraged a socially regressive element,” she said in an email to supporters, “that I fear it will take away from our ability to fight what is turning out to be a very hostile takeover attempt on the party.” Donna Kennedy-Glans, the only other female among the six candidates, also resigned that same day, saying in an email to reporters that “right now, politics in Alberta is polarizing and there is limited opportunity for centrist voices to be heard.” On November 17 Jansen crossed the floor of the Legislature to join the NDP government.
“We cannot put power ahead of principle,” said PC leadership candidate Richard Starke to members at the Red Deer forum. “If Albertans view our actions solely as a thinly veiled grab for power we are telling them that we have learned nothing from the 2015 defeat.” The caution was ignored. On March 18, 2017, PC members elected Kenney as their new leader, with 75 per cent of the vote and a mandate to pursue unity with the Wildrose. The date for the unity vote was set for July 22.
Sandra Jansen quit the PC race, citing aggressive and sexually charged verbal and written harassment.
By the time of his Calgary Stampede pancake breakfast at the Acadia Recreation Complex in southeast Calgary on July 8, 2017, Kenney had been campaigning for over a year. I met him face to face after standing in a long line that began outside the arena-sized hall. Municipal council candidate Jeromy Farkas—a protégé of the Manning Centre, which wants to limit the role of government—greeted people at the door. Another city council candidate, Chris “We Need a Tax Warrior” Davis, wrote a campaign cheque and lingered at the donation table set up beside the slow, snaking line of seniors and young families waiting to shake hands with “Jason.” Kenney stood in front of a pancake table wearing a black cowboy hat, a white button-up shirt and jeans that rode high and tight on the pear of his stomach. His hand was soft but his grip was firm, a handshake at first pliant but quickly ungiving. “Thank you for coming,” he said, and released his hand to grab the next palm in line, his face sweaty in the air-conditioned hall at 9:30 in the morning.
Kenney was easy to meet superficially. He shook hands at events big and small. He raised money. He did it most days of a week. Described by Maclean’s in 2011 as the “hardest-working MP” in Ottawa, Kenney, age 49, is not married and has no children. On the 2017 campaign trail in Alberta he described politics as a “vocation”—a beautiful description but not his only comment on a political career. As Marci McDonald reported in a detailed 2014 Walrus profile, Kenney once told Republican students at the University of San Francisco: “Politics is a tough life to keep close to your principles. Along with pride, one is constantly tempted to let the end justify the means.”
Money, of course, is among the means to power. Financial statements released by Elections Alberta on July 18, 2017, revealed that Kenney filed $1.46-million in expenses for the PC leadership contest. This included $662,728 for campaign staff such as campaign manager John Weissenberger—Stephen Harper’s close friend who in a Calgary Herald op-ed once dismissed global warming as a “theory” promoted by “a cabal of government-funded scientists, environmental activists and journalists.” The cost for staff alone was four times what Starke, the runner-up, spent on his entire campaign. But that wasn’t all: Kenney’s campaign spokesman, Blaise Boehmer, said Kenney’s Unite Alberta PAC had raised over $500,000 prior to the start of the PC leadership race, bringing the campaign donations above $2-million. Over 96 per cent of those early PAC donors were not identified.
“The NDP—the socialists and their allied special interest groups—understand that if they can win a second term in Alberta they will still the beating heart of free enterprise,” said Kenney at a campaign event I attended later that summer at the Paradise Valley golf course in Medicine Hat. “We need a premier who’s willing to stand up for this province, like we had premiers in the past,” he said, his voice rising through clapping and cheers from the packed clubhouse crowd. “We also need a premier who’s willing to stand up—like we frankly have never had in my lifetime—to defend the oil and gas industry!”
Since Kenney went to Ottawa as an MP in 1997, Alberta has grown by nearly 1.4-million people. The province now has a population of over four million, with a median age of 36.7—Canada’s youngest province. Nearly 84 per cent of Albertans live in urban areas and the province has the highest per capita ownership of smartphones. The population is younger, more ethnically diverse and more globally connected than 20 years ago.
In this context, the PCs’ lurch to the right under Kenney made some party members nervous. PC president Katherine O’Neill left the party in April 2017 to start a PAC—Alberta Together—to “shape a centrist voice going into the 2019 election.” Just before the July 22 unity vote, Calgary-South East PC MLA Rick Fraser told the Herald that to get his support a new united party must develop “moderate conservative” policies and ideals.
Wildrose leader Brian Jean reached out to these “centrist” conservatives. “Gone are the days when hard right governments are going to be successful in Alberta,” Jean told Calgary Sun columnist Rick Bell, just days before the unity vote. “Albertans want a common sense, middle-of-the-road government.”
The unexpected comment got attention. At a Jean-led rally for unity in Calgary on July 18, I spoke with long-time PC member Norman Schachar and his wife, Kathy. Schachar is a professor emeritus of surgery at the University of Calgary. “I’ve always felt the Wildrose was made up of people who are more right of centre—that is to say, right of Peter Lougheed,” he said. “Home schooling, anti-abortion, anti-gay; that’s too conservative for us. We have three daughters. They’re all professionals; they grew up in this province and went through public education. I’m not in favour of home schooling or private schools. I’m in favour of a strong public school board to which everyone can have access. So up until this moment I didn’t feel like I could vote for Jean in any capacity.”
“I came here in 1970,” he said. “I remember Lougheed with all these young guys with skinny-leg pants and skinny briefcases and you could see and feel that they were the future of Alberta. They were socially progressive but fiscally conservative. When I shook hands [with Jean], I said ‘I’m a Peter Lougheed conservative.’ And he leaned in and said ‘So am I.’ I’m impressed—he’s not saying ‘It’s a Christian province, don’t you know, and we won’t have any abortion.’ He did have to say he supports parents’ rights to dictate schools, so that’s a negative. But if the parties are united and Brian Jean gets elected as the leader, could I support him? I think I could. We have to support uniting the right. It’s a critical moment. If the right doesn’t get its shit together then the left is going to be in for a long time and Alberta is going to be a much different place. That’s what worries me.”
Until the July 22 vote, uniting the right wasn’t a sure thing. While the PCs only needed 50 per cent of members to agree, the Wildrose needed a 75 per cent majority to merge. On a Saturday in Red Deer, Wildrose members gathered at the Radisson Hotel to vote on unity, both in person and online. The day started at 8 a.m. with a 90-minute member debate moderated by party president Jeff Callaway in the 7,000 ft2 Winspear Ballroom. Most speakers spoke to the yes side. But not all—some members recalled the “entitlement” of the PC party when it was in power, comparing the push for unity to the 2014 floor crossing to the PCs by then-leader Danielle Smith and other Wildrose MLAs. “This is a takeover by the PC party,” said one naysayer. Others said the Wildrose could win the 2019 election on their own. “A cow wouldn’t vote for the NDP right now,” said long-time member Dave Craig. “The Wildrose hasn’t been given a chance.”
The results of the vote wouldn’t be announced until 4 p.m. So to help fill the day, a Special General Meeting Agenda—available to all—listed speakers who would give presentations in the Cascades Ballroom, a large room peppered with round tables and a podium way at the front. The first speaker was John Robson, a National Post columnist and, at the time, a contributor to Rebel Media—Ezra Levant’s latest venture, which was broadcasting from the hotel. Robson said if conservatives agreed that humans are causing climate change—but then did nothing about it—they would “look like heartless, brainless, miserable fools. And that’s not good politics.”
“But the science is wrong,” said Robson. “It is not true that the earth is undergoing unprecedented changes. It is not true that humans are causing them. It is not true that they portend disaster if we don’t stop using fossil fuels. Not one of those things is true, and that’s why we do not need carbon taxes. So if that’s your position, you’re safe intellectually, you’re safe morally and you’re also—which matters in this room—you’re safe politically, which sounds like a pretty good deal to me.”
This got a rousing cheer. As did a later speech by Cypress-Medicine Hat MLA Drew Barnes, who said “the science is not settled” on climate change. Another MLA, Grant Hunter, Cardston-Taber-Warner, praised the Alberta Advantage—“widespread tax cuts, decreasing the size of government and deregulating domestic markets”—as “very good for my family.” Then Hunter said grassroots conservatives could best determine how to balance the budget. He left the podium and strolled around the room with a microphone. “How many people are here? 100 people?” he said. “Who here has a good idea to balance the budget? Just put up your hand and give me one idea—these are going to be good.”
“Use some common sense like any successful business,” said an older man. “Don’t spend money if you don’t have it. Cut costs.”
“Make our transfer payments with oil instead of cash,” said another man. This got some laughs and clapping.
“Use public space for public good,” said a moustached man. “Airports right across the country advertise on their parkades and the money goes to the airport. Why we don’t put advertisements on hospitals and hospital parkades in this province blows me away.”
“OK,” said Hunter. “What else?”
“When we have our children, they’re 18 when we wean them,” said a woman at a table mid-room. “We have one segment of our population that we have not weaned for generations. We need to cut a total department out of the government, and that is the worst leeches that we have: Indian Affairs.” This got the loudest clapping of all.
“OK,” said Hunter. He sidled back toward the podium, talking all the way. “If we had time, we could probably go around this room and come up with 50 different ideas about how to fix our budget,” he said. “We’ve got to get back to where the people are.”
In late afternoon in the main ballroom, Strathmore-Brooks MLA Derek Fildebrandt—who in the past year and more had attended multiple events with Jason Kenney, and said he would not support Brian Jean for the leadership of a united right—reassured Wildrose members that “a vast majority of PCs share our core values. The leftists that used to be in that party are, thankfully, at least some of them, already gone to the NDP. ”
In the crowded main ballroom, shortly after the announcement of the vote—a vote that went 95 per cent in favour of unity—party president Jeff Callaway took to the stage. For conservatives, he said, a vote to merge the right “is about being proud, being strong. It’s about one day, as government, freeing this province from the failed socialist shackles of the NDP!”
“Let the word spread,” he shouted. “Hope is on the way!”
“In choosing a leader for the UCP, we’ll almost certainly be electing a premier.” —Jason Kenney
“For the conservative coalition to succeed,” said Danielle Smith, the former leader of the Wildrose, in an interview with Global News, “it needs to embrace a broad spectrum—Jason Kenney and Sandra Jansen should be able to be under the same tent if there’s going to be a large enough coalition to win.”
All three UCP leadership candidates claimed to represent such a “big tent” party. Doug Schweitzer, a former campaign manager for PC leader Jim Prentice, called for greater equity for women and LGBTQ+ people. He also proposed cuts to business taxes and a lower minimum wage. Brian Jean, calling himself a “positive” and “moderate” candidate, promised to balance the budget, starting with $2.6-billion in cuts to public services. Alberta’s current annual deficit is over $10-billion, but Jean didn’t say where he would find the other $8-billion or so in savings. That amount happens to be “the approximate cost of Alberta’s entire K–12 education system,” as Public Interest Alberta’s Joel French noted.
In contrast, Kenney didn’t get tangled in details. He signed a “grassroots guarantee” pledging that party members, not the leader, would decide UCP policies. The only candidate to not attend Calgary’s 2017 Pride Parade, Kenney said conservatives who did not join the UCP were “folks who are not comfortable in a big tent. They’re not comfortable with a diversity of opinions. They want an echo chamber. They want to live in a partisan pup tent.”
The UCP membership had a choice. On October 28, 2017, after five leadership debates and three days of phone and online voting, Kenney won the UCP election with 61.1 per cent of the vote on the first ballot. Some 15 minutes before the official announcement, the results were posted to the UCP website—and tweeted by journalists—then quickly taken down. Few in the BMO Centre were aware this had happened, and if the Kenney supporters knew, they didn’t hold back when the result was read from the stage. “Woo-hoo!” shouted MLA Jason Nixon, standing in the cheering crowd near Jeff Callaway and Kenney’s campaign manager, John Weissenberger. “Yeaaaah!”
At the time, the UCP claimed 106,000 members. About 55 per cent of them—58,219—voted in the leadership race. Among conservative Albertans who did not vote were former PC leadership candidate Richard Starke, who refused to join the UCP after the July unity votes, and MLA Rick Fraser, who resigned from the party to sit as an Independent the day after the first leadership debate was held in Calgary on September 20.
At that debate, Doug Schweitzer—who got a mere 7.3 per cent of the final vote—said, “we need to get the social issues right” so that matters such as the UCP stance on gay–straight alliances in schools wouldn’t turn voters off the party. Kenney—endorsed by Campaign Life Coalition, an anti-abortion lobby that claims “gay people are not born that way”—had previously told the Calgary Herald that parents should be notified if their children join a gay–straight alliance. Critics called this “outing.” Kenney didn’t address the issue at the debate. But he did say what he would do as premier.
“I would appoint a minister whose sole focus is deregulation,” said Kenney, promising “a period of sustained fiscal restraint” to balance the budget. “We made sacrifices in the 1990s,” he said, in reference to the Klein-era cuts to public services, “and we’re going to have to make some sacrifices again.”
At least two polling firms, ThinkHQ and Mainstreet Research/Postmedia, predicted Jean would win more seats than Kenney in a provincial election. But online social conservatives—and Jeff Callaway—relentlessly criticized Jean for supporting “middle-of-the-road government.” Jean got 31.5 per cent of the vote. After posing with a triumphant Kenney, he walked off the stage, sat down next to his mother and held his head in his hands. Then he and his wife quickly left the building.
As Kenney shook hands with supporters at the after-party in the hall, UCP MLAs—almost all of them former Wildrose MLAs—who had supported Kenney during the campaign got onstage for a group photo. Derek Fildebrandt, facing a hit-and-run charge and now sitting as an Independent MLA, was among them, along with Grant Hunter and Drew Barnes—11 MLAs in total. They grinned. Cameras flashed. “These are the 11 smartest guys in Alberta,” said Nixon to the photographers with a smile.
Tadzio Richards is an associate editor with Alberta Views.