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Former member of parliament Jason Kenney, while having lunch at the Blackfoot Truckstop Diner in Calgary on Dec. 21, 2016. (Todd Korol for The Globe and Mail)
Former member of parliament Jason Kenney, while having lunch at the Blackfoot Truckstop Diner in Calgary on Dec. 21, 2016. (Todd Korol for The Globe and Mail)

Jason Kenney channels populism — but not Donald Trump — in Alberta Add to ...

Jason Kenney says he’s reaping the rewards of populist anger in Alberta.

Ripples of the populist tide that has swept through the Western world over the past year have washed up in Alberta, where a bruising recession has pushed unemployment to its highest levels in decades and shaken the province’s swagger.

Mr. Kenney says dispirited Albertans, from farmers facing foreclosure to droves of unemployed workers in Calgary, are flocking to his rallies and putting their faith in him to end Alberta’s economic slide. The former federal minister’s promised cure is to merge the province’s two conservative parties and boot Premier Rachel Notley and her New Democrats from power.

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After six months of campaigning, Mr. Kenney is far ahead of his opponents in the delegate count as he seeks the leadership of the province’s Progressive Conservative Party while also promising to unite Alberta’s divided conservative movement before the next provincial election.

It’s a promise that faces many obstacles, but the Calgarian has won nearly two-thirds of delegates so far and pocketed more than 50 endorsements from former legislators as the Tory leadership campaign enters its final stretch before a convention in March. The results so far have “exceeded expectations” according to Mr. Kenney.

Speaking with The Globe and Mail at Calgary’s Blackfoot Truckstop Diner, Mr. Kenney explained that he’s witnessed an Alberta racked by despair and recession as he logged more than 46,000 kilometres campaigning around the province in a blue Dodge pickup truck since July.

“What’s surprised me is the level of despair I’ve encountered,” he said while digging into a grilled-cheese sandwich. “There are a number of Albertans who are off the radar screen for the elites and they are going through serious adversity right now.

“They are decent, dignified hard-working people who feel totally disoriented about what’s going on and they feel like the government is working against them, not for them.”

While Alberta’s economy is expected to begin growing again in 2017, the province has been stuck for two years in its worst recession since the Second World War. After years of Canadians moving to the province for good-paying jobs, more are now leaving. Alberta’s unemployment rate is at a 22-year high and its jobless rate surpassed Nova Scotia’s for the first time ever in August.

While Ms. Notley’s NDP has been in power for less than two years, her government’s introduction of a carbon tax, a hike to income taxes and a nearly $10-billion deficit has roiled many Albertans. With the Premier’s honeymoon long over, her approval rate sank to 31 per cent in December. Where Ms. Notley’s support has suffered, Mr. Kenney has found backers.

“There have been so many family-owned small businesses vaporized in Calgary this year. These are the people coming to my events. It’s that human tragedy that I’ve experienced,” he said.

“People are desperate for something, for the political system to get back on track. They’re investing hope in my campaign, which is a real burden.”

For much of the past decade, Mr. Kenney has been in Ottawa, where he was one of former prime minister Stephen Harper’s indispensable lieutenants. Mr. Harper has endorsed Mr. Kenney’s race for the leadership and has appeared at campaign events with his former immigration and defence minister.

Mr. Kenney says he’s still learning about local issues that he overlooked while he was in Ottawa. He concedes that he may have looked at the province’s economic malaise “too statistically” before undertaking his long road trip through Alberta.

While he might be benefiting from populism, Mr. Kenney cautions that he’s nothing like U.S. president-elect Donald Trump. He says he’s tapping a rich tradition of Canadian Prairie populism and calls Mr. Trump’s brand of politics irresponsible.

“I’m trying to avoid the kind of nasty, negative, irresponsible populism I think the Trump phenomenon represents,” he said.

Mr. Kenney contrasts his behaviour to Ms. Notley and statements the Premier made in early December that have led to comparisons between the New Democrat leader and Marie Antoinette.

When Ms. Notley was asked how Albertans suffering from the recession could cope with the looming carbon tax and its impact on fuel prices, she suggested that they should take the bus more often. “It’s not just a question of having a more fuel-efficient vehicle, it can sometimes be a question of taking a bus, walking, those kinds of things,” she said.

It’s hypocrisy, according to Mr. Kenney, who points out that the Premier is chauffeured around in a gas-guzzling SUV. “At a time like this, the last thing people want to hear is a judgmental hypocrisy about how they live their lives,” he said.

As he finishes his sandwich and fries, a man wearing a maroon Canadian Airborne Regiment T-shirt approaches. “Go Trump,” he says with a wide grin before telling Mr. Kenney that he’s “totally fed up with Alberta’s communist” politics.

“That’s what I’m trying to change,” Mr. Kenney says with a smile and a handshake.

Mr. Kenney is the second-most popular politician in Alberta, the man says. Who’s number one? Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall.

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