Skip to main content

The United Conservative Party Leader hopes dire warnings of economic and cultural war will topple the NDP. But some of his own past battles in Ottawa have come back to haunt him

Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

Jason Kenney sees enemies everywhere, both inside and outside Alberta.

There is his main opponent in next week’s provincial election, NDP Leader Rachel Notley. Though perhaps even higher on the list is Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

There are also the “foreign-funded” environmentalists. First Nations that oppose new pipelines. The governments of British Columbia and Quebec. Oil executives who’ve supported carbon taxes. International banks that have stepped away from funding oil development.

And his United Conservative Party’s campaign has been about building up the province’s defences in preparation for war with all of them.

“I think a lot of Albertans feel like they're under siege,” Mr. Kenney said in an interview.

He has spent the campaign and much of the past three years creating the narrative of a province facing an existential threat, under attack from many sides by forces that want to impede, or destroy, Alberta’s oil sector.

He has tapped into – and done his part to inflame – a level of grievance and regional alienation that the province hasn’t seen in decades. And if he wins, a UCP government under Mr. Kenney could further alter how Albertans see their place in the country – and how the rest of the Canada sees Alberta – with a combative stand that would echo the energy wars of the 1980s and Ralph Klein’s bellicose premiership of the 1990s.

The formative years of Mr. Kenney’s career were steeped in Alberta politics. He spent his 20s as an anti-tax activist, denouncing Mr. Klein and the federal government, and became an MP with the Reform Party, which used a populist message anchored in the West to vault into Official Opposition. He later helped merge the Reform and Progressive Conservative parties – an experience that would prove useful later still in Alberta – and went on to become a prominent cabinet minister in Stephen Harper’s Conservative government.

Stephen Harper and Jason Kenney, then prime minister and defence minister, visit forces fighting the Islamic State in Iraq in 2015.The Canadian Press

Some of the battles of his past have also become a liability.

He’s been forced to reckon with his activism against same-sex marriage and abortion rights, which began in his university days and continued into his time as an MP.

And his aggressive approach to uniting Alberta’s political right and then taking it over raised allegations of rule breaking and cheating – all denied by Mr. Kenney – that have followed him into the current campaign.

His vision is of an Alberta that reclaims its place as a “natural and historic” leader among Canadian provinces, both in terms of economic prosperity and social mobility.

He also argues that losing the election would alter the province’s political environment so dramatically that it would imperil the conservative movement across the country.

As for the potential effect on the province’s grievances and sense of alienation, he said ratcheting up the fight now, perhaps counterintuitively, could prevent something darker later on.

“If we don’t have mainstream federalist political leadership make the case for fairness for Alberta, then I really do believe that this will take a turn for the worse,” he said.

“That frustration and alienation could turn into a real threat to the federation. I don’t want to see that happen.”

Above and below, Mr. Kenney speaks at a rally in Calgary on March 30.

Photos: Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

On a Saturday afternoon at the end of March, Mr. Kenney and his campaign staged a “family fun day” at Spruce Meadows, an equestrian show-jumping venue on the southern edge of Calgary. He worked the crowd of supporters and dipped into the petting zoo before taking the stage, where he was introduced by Laureen Harper, the wife of the former prime minister.

Mr. Kenney walked the crowd through his newly released platform but quickly turned his attention to the forces lining up against the province and new pipelines, notably the Trans Mountain expansion. He mentioned Mr. Trudeau – whose name elicited sustained boos – as often, if not more than, Ms. Notley.

He told the rally that a UCP government would sue Ottawa over its carbon tax and environmental legislation; hold a provincial referendum on equalization payments; challenge environmentalists; and hold a public inquiry into the role of foreign money in anti-oil activism. He led a chant of “Build that pipe!” before declaring: “It’s time that we fight back!”

Mr. Kenney argues that Albertans feel the province has contributed a great deal of wealth to the country and paid more than its share into programs such as equalization, but it’s been a one-way relationship. “We’ve been patriot Canadians. And yet, at a moment of a prolonged economic crisis, all that we’ve done for the federation doesn’t seem to count for very much with the federal government and some provincial governments,” he said in an interview.

He warns that the resentment is fuelling a national unity crisis, pointing to polling data released earlier this year that found more than 50 per cent of respondents in Alberta appeared to support separation. He doubts all of them are serious, but said it’s alarming nonetheless.

“That is a blinking light on the dashboard of the federation,” he said. “It should not be dismissed.”

Rachel Notley has won the respect of Albertans. Can she win their votes again?

Two visions, one sector: What UCP, NDP platforms mean for oil sands producers

Western Canada: Meet the Alberta contenders

David Taras, a Mount Royal University professor who has studied the Progressive Conservative party’s four-decade reign in Alberta, agrees that the province’s economic problems have driven Western alienation to alarming levels. He said Mr. Kenney has tapped into genuine anger and effectively directed it at Mr. Trudeau and, by extension, Ms. Notley.

“There is a great deal of suffering, there’s a great deal of unease, and so he’s playing to that,” said Dr. Taras, who wrote about the history of Western alienation for a chapter in Orange Chinook, a recent book that examined the fall of Alberta’s PCs and the rise of the NDP.

”It's the worst that we've seen in a generation. It's really raw. And he's hitting all those points."

Dr. Taras said Mr. Kenney’s strategy draws from his own history in the Reform Party, which argued that the West had been shut out of decision-making in Ottawa, and holds particular appeal among supporters of the former Wildrose Party, whose support he now needs.

David Taras of Mount Royal University has studied the four-decade reign of Alberta's Progressive Conservatives.Jeff McIntosh/The Globe and Mail

Mr. Kenney said he’s been careful to pair his fight-back message with promises to spur economic growth and bring the province’s finances under control, largely through corporate tax cuts and a government spending freeze.

He said he’s only responding to the anger in Alberta, not fomenting it.

“I’m accused of somehow inflaming that,” he said. “I’m trying to do the opposite. I’m trying to redirect the frustration into a positive political direction.”

The message appears to be resonating among conservative voters. The UCP has enjoyed a substantial lead in opinion polls since the 2017 merger of the Wildrose Party and the Progressive Conservative Association of Alberta, and Mr. Kenney entered the campaign as the clear front-runner.

On a recent Friday afternoon at Calgary’s Blackfoot Diner, a classic 24-hour truck stop with photos of Marilyn Monroe on the walls and a miniature train that runs along a track hanging from the ceiling, Mr. Kenney was frequently approached by diners. One asked him to attend a pool tournament the following day, and another just wanted to point out the Jason Kenney sign in the back window of his vehicle.

Mr. Kenney lives two blocks from the diner and is a frequent patron, even if he’s given up on its specialty pies (part of his low-carb diet). He points around at the room, which is packed, and says the people there aren’t interested in the churn of the election campaign or the side issues and controversies.

“When I talk jobs, economy, pipelines, it’s not some kind of strategy,” he said.

An Alberta flag flies by Mr. Kenney at his March 30 rally in Calgary. Mr. Kenney was born in Ontario and grew up in Saskatchewan, but Alberta has been his home throughout his political life.Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

Mr. Kenney saw the power of Western Canada’s regional politics early in life.

Born in Oakville, Ont., as the youngest of three brothers, he was raised in the tiny Saskatchewan community of Wilcox. He attended Notre Dame College, the private high school where his father, Martin, a former fighter pilot, was president.

His first dip into politics was as a Young Liberal in Saskatchewan and later as an aide to Ralph Goodale, who was that province’s Liberal leader at the time. But he was also becoming more attracted to traditionally conservative ideas around taxes, budgets and Canada’s East-West political divide.

Reform Party leader Preston Manning recalled meeting Mr. Kenney and his father after giving a speech in Weyburn, an hour’s drive southeast of Wilcox.

“We were crusading on balancing the budget and the stronger voice for the West, and those themes seemed to resonate with him,” Mr. Manning said.

Not long after, Mr. Kenney moved to Edmonton to head the Association of Alberta Taxpayers. He quickly turned the obscure lobby group into a major voice in the province, getting regular media attention as he publicly challenged Mr. Klein over pensions and budgets. In a moment that has taken on an almost mythical status in Mr. Kenney’s biography, he approached Mr. Klein in the legislature in April, 1993, and chided the premier for 10 minutes in front of reporters and TV cameras.

“I still think it’s pretty incredible that he had the moxie to confront Premier Klein – or any premier for that matter – in front of the gallery,” said Hal Danchilla, who was working in the legislature at the time and saw the argument. He later got to know Mr. Kenney when the two worked on Stockwell Day’s political campaigns.

Mr. Klein later said he regretted the confrontation. He then reached out to Mr. Kenney, and the premier’s office kept in touch.

Mr. Kenney in 1995, when he was executive director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.Grant Dayton/Moncton Times-Transcript/The Canadian Press

When Mr. Kenney took over the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and continued his fight against taxes and deficits, Mr. Manning continued to notice. The Reform leader saw Mr. Kenney as a natural fit as the party was preparing for the 1997 election.

“We were a grassroots outfit that attached a lot of importance on meeting with a large number of ordinary people, knocking on doors, holding town hall meetings,” Mr. Manning said. “There are some candidates that are uncomfortable with that. But Jason very much fit in there and was very capable.”

Mr. Kenney ran in the next riding over from Mr. Manning’s Calgary district and, at 27, won his seat. In Ottawa, he became known as a member of the “Snack Pack,” a trio of Reform MPs under 30 who bonded over a love of fast food and an affinity for heckling the government from the Opposition benches.

Beyond the over-the-top theatrics in Parliament, he also became an integral member of the Reform caucus and an increasingly important player in conservative politics. He was on the founding committee of the United Alternative process to negotiate a merger of the Reform and PC parties, which gave birth to the Canadian Alliance and, eventually, the Conservative Party of Canada, whose victory in 2006 was seen as the West’s long-denied arrival in Ottawa.

Ottawa, 1997: Mr. Kenney, middle, dines alongside fellow Reform Party MPs and 'Snack Pack' members Rahim Jaffer and Rob Anders.Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

Despite his profile, Mr. Kenney did not make the cut when Mr. Harper named his first cabinet. Instead, he was appointed parliamentary secretary to the prime minister and, the following year, secretary of state for multiculturalism.

Tenzin Khangsar, Mr. Kenney’s first chief of staff, said it was disappointing to be shut out of cabinet but his boss didn’t dwell on it. Instead, he leaned into his new role. “Would he hurt for one day? Absolutely. A lot of people said, ‘Damn, you should have been in cabinet,’” Mr. Khangsar said. “I think to Jason’s testament, he put his head down, he did what was critical to the team, which was ethnic outreach. He did very well.”

Mr. Kenney became the Conservative Party’s main envoy to the suburban immigrant communities, especially around Toronto, that were essential for Mr. Harper to win a majority government in 2011. His schedule was packed with visits to temples, mosques, churches and festivals, sometimes squeezing in 10 or more events into a single weekend, Mr. Khangsar said. His enthusiasm for the job earned him the nickname Minister for Curry in a Hurry.

Toronto, 2014: Mr. Kenney speaks with MP Tim Uppal during the Sikh community's Khalsa celebrations.Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

Mr. Kenney saw common cause with first- and second-generation Canadians who he believed shared the party’s, and his own, traditional social values. He has repeated that strategy as UCP Leader, actively courting candidates and voters from immigrant communities and proudly pointing out that his slate of candidates is the most racially diverse among the major parties.

He was promoted to minister of immigration and multiculturalism two years into Mr. Harper’s government, which only seemed to intensify his outreach activity. And he continued that work even as moved on to the ministries of employment and then defence.

Mr. Kenney also got to work reforming Canada’s immigration system, handing more power to the provinces to pick economic immigrants, significantly reducing backlogs while increasing immigration numbers and addressing what the government saw as abuses of the asylum system.

Some of those changes fuelled intense criticism, allegations of racism and successful legal challenges. They included cuts to refugee health-care coverage and a ban on face coverings such as the niqab at citizenship ceremonies, both overturned by court rulings. When his department revised the citizenship guide, the new document included a controversial reference to “barbaric cultural practices,” which has since been removed.

Ottawa, 2010: Mr. Kenney stands in front of a banner reading 'Say no to racism' as he announces Canada's decision not to participate in the UN-led Durban conference on racism, which he said would be a 'hatefest.'Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press

Bernie Farber, a former CEO of the Canadian Jewish Congress, said Mr. Kenney was a study in opposites. On the one hand, Mr. Kenney earned his respect while working on files such as an international Holocaust education project and seemed to embrace new Canadians. But he said Mr. Kenney was also responsible for some of the Harper government’s more alarming policies involving minorities, in particular refugees and Muslims. Mr. Farber said he was particularly shocked when the Canadian government erected billboards in Hungarian cities that were home to Roma refugees, warning that unsuccessful asylum applicants in Canada would be quickly deported.

“At one point in his career, he did and said not just the right things but the morally correct things to do in relation to human rights,” said Mr. Farber, whose Canadian Anti-Hate Network has been critical of the UCP. “And then, at the flip of a switch, it would be like we had a different Jason Kenney.”

Calgary, April 9: Mr. Kenney, standing alongside the UCP's signature blue campaign pickup truck, arrives to vote with Tom Olsen, the UCP candidate in Calgary-Buffalo. Below, Mr. Kenney casts his ballot. Polls open at 9 a.m. (MT) on election day, April 16.

Photos: Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

Mr. Kenney’s provincial election campaign has been knocked off message repeatedly by a string of revelations about homophobic or racist comments from his candidates. Two resigned during the first week of the campaign, and several others have apologized. As well, his pledge to roll back some protections for gay-straight alliance clubs at schools – he would allow the clubs but would remove a prohibition on informing parents – has prompted protests in Calgary and Edmonton.

Those incidents have gained traction in part because of Mr. Kenney’s own history as an advocate against same-sex and abortion rights, which the New Democrats have used to paint him as an extreme social conservative.

He began that activism in the late 1980s while attending the University of San Francisco, a private Jesuit school in a city he later described as “Sodom by the Sea.” He spent his time there as part of a debate club called the Philhistorians, writing for the student newspaper, The Foghorn, and as one of the school’s most vocal opponents of abortion and gay rights.

When the university said its free-speech rules allowed abortion-rights advocates to petition on campus, he petitioned the Vatican to strip the school of its accreditation. He also pushed back when the university introduced a new constitution that would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, arguing that adding such protection would upend the school’s roots in “Catholic moral teaching.”

In an issue of The Foghorn, the University of San Francisco's student newspaper, Jason Kenney denounces a campus free-speech policy in November, 1989.The Foghorn, University of San Francisco

Off campus, he fought against a referendum that would have extended spousal rights for same-sex couples. The initiative, known as Proposition S, failed by a slim margin in 1989. A similar vote passed the following year.

The New Democrats have been running ads featuring video from a speech Mr. Kenney gave almost two decades ago in which he boasted about his activism in San Francisco, which he said brought him closer to the church. The party also produced a 10-minute documentary-style ad that told the stories of same-sex couples in San Francisco who were barred from visiting their partners in hospital during the height of the AIDS crisis.

As an MP, Mr. Kenney consistently voted against same-sex marriage, including in a 2006 vote to reopen the debate a year after it was legalized.

He has said he regrets the positions he took in his youth, but noted that his stand on marriage and same-sex rights were in line with the broad social consensus. "I think I showed my good faith,” he said. "Am I proud of every position I took as a sophomore at university three decades ago? No.”

As for his candidates, he was quick to condemn the two who stepped down early in the campaign. He also condemned an incumbent candidate, Mark Smith, after audio surfaced of a 2013 sermon in which he appeared to compare “homosexual love” with pedophelia, but said Mr. Smith’s candidacy would stand.

Mr. Kenney said the attacks against his candidates were an attempt to distract from the real issues in the campaign. “They’ve gone to new levels of very personal and vicious attacks, I don’t think it’s registering,” he said.

Calgary, 2017: Mr. Kenney celebrates his leadership win at the Alberta PC party convention. He would unite the party with the farther-to-the-right Wildrose Party to create the United Conservatives.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

Three years ago, Mr. Kenney’s name was the source of intense speculation in the leadership races for both the federal Conservatives and Alberta’s Progressive Conservatives.

He was getting advice pulling him in both directions. After the Conservatives’ election loss in 2015, he was also considering just leaving politics for a “normal life” in the private sector after a tiring stretch as a cabinet minister who kept long hours and spent much of his time off Parliament Hill on a gruelling schedule of outreach work.

Still, Mr. Kenney said he believed someone needed to head off another NDP victory in Alberta. He decided it would be him.

The idea of a conservative merger had been floating around for years, and Mr. Kenney’s plan found quick support in corners of both parties. But many prominent Progressive Conservatives saw him as parachuting in from Ottawa to destroy a party that had existed for four decades.

He purchased a blue Dodge Ram pickup truck – which remains his campaign vehicle – and put 200,000 kilometres on it visiting members and constituency associations to sell his idea. He went on to win the PC leadership with support from 75 per cent of delegates – proof to him of a strong endorsement of a merger, as he was the only candidate making that pitch. It set off the ultimately successful negotiations to work with Wildrose and create the United Conservative Party.

“It was the power of the idea – people supported the unity idea,” he said

By the summer, he was running to lead the UCP against his chief competitor, former Wildrose leader Brian Jean. He handily won that race, too, but he is still dealing with the fallout.

Allegations surfaced this year about what’s become known as the “kamikaze candidate.” Mr. Kenney was accused of enlisting a competitor in the UCP leadership race, Jeff Callaway, to run a stalking-horse campaign to attack Mr. Jean. Mr. Kenney denies such a scheme, but leaked e-mails between the two campaigns, fines against Mr. Callaway’s donors and the involvement of the RCMP have kept the story alive.

Mr. Kenney cradles a goat's head at the March 30 rally in Calgary.Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

Mr. Kenney brings any discussion about his past, his candidates or investigations into leadership races back to jobs, pipelines and the economy. They are the only things, he says, that voters want to hear about. And if he wins, his fights on those fronts could begin almost immediately.

He said he would file a legal challenge of the federal carbon tax – modelled after similar cases in Ontario and Saskatchewan – by the end of this month. He would quickly set up a $30-million campaign-style “war-room” to counter anti-oil messages.

His other moves could take some time. He will repeat his threat to B.C. to “turn off the taps” and cut oil shipments if that province continues to oppose new pipelines, though he hasn’t set a timeline or criteria.

He has also said he would give Ottawa two years to get the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion built. Otherwise he will hold a provincial referendum in 2021 to remove equalization from the federal constitution. In the meantime, a UCP government would create a Crown corporation to assist First Nation ownership of the Trans Mountain pipeline and other resource projects.

Dr. Taras, the Mount Royal University professor, said he expects Mr. Kenney to be careful when picking which of those battles to actually pursue if he’s elected, rather than waging an “all-out frenzied war.” He also risks promising more than he can deliver, Dr. Taras said. “He is presenting himself as the great deliverer. And of course, if you don’t deliver, then things can come crashing down very quickly.”

Mr. Kenney said he’s been trying to manage expectations and not leave his supporters with the impression that things will happen quickly or even that Alberta can win every fight.

“If we’re ambitious in our strategy, we’re more likely to win on some of them,” he said. “People here are looking for a game plan. … The game that we’re losing badly.”

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

Follow the author of this article:

Follow topics related to this article:

Check Following for new articles