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Brian Jean and Jason Kenney shake hands in Edmonton on May 18, 2017.JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

If Brian Jean were in charge, he says he would give Rachel Notley a seat on the cabinet committee making decisions about COVID-19.

Mr. Jean is campaigning to slide back into his old job representing Albertans who live near the oil sands, via a by-election in Fort McMurray-Lac La Biche. His United Conservative Party candidacy is based on deposing Premier Jason Kenney as UCP leader. The pair co-founded the party in 2017.

“It is not so much what Jason Kenney has done that is the difficulty. It is how he’s done it,” Mr. Jean said in an interview. “How he’s managed people, how he’s set up his government, how he picked his cabinet, how he empowered his cabinet – in other words, he didn’t empower his cabinet.

“Jason Kenney is the Minister of Everything,” Mr. Jean said. “You can’t do everything.”

By concentrating power as Premier, UCP originalists argue that Mr. Kenney smashed the party’s foundational promise: to heed the “grassroots.” Mr. Jean said he was compelled to return to politics because of a “failure of leadership,” both federally and provincially.

The by-election is March 15, but Mr. Jean’s platform is built around April 9, when UCP members are scheduled to gather in Red Deer to vote in a review of Mr. Kenney’s leadership. If Mr. Kenney is triumphant, Mr. Jean believes the New Democratic Party will cakewalk back to power in Alberta’s next general election, slated for early 2023.

“April 9 is the most important day in Alberta’s political history in 100 years,” said Mr. Jean, who led the Wildrose Party when it merged with its more moderate rival, the Progressive Conservative party, under Mr. Kenney’s blueprint to unite the right. “It is going to define the direction that we go.”

The government’s decisions on COVID-19 battered the UCP brand. The right wing of the party believes Mr. Kenney unjustly limited rights and freedoms; those closer to the centre, largely progressive conservatives in Calgary and Edmonton, feel Mr. Kenney did not do enough, caving to MLAs from rural ridings.

Mr. Jean, whose ultimate goals are to be UCP leader and then Premier, attacks Mr. Kenney not so much on policy but on style. The UCP, Mr. Jean said, can be salvaged only if its leader is tossed and it embraces transparency and accountability.

For example, the businessman believes the UCP could have maintained trust with Albertans had it invited Ms. Notley, the NDP Leader, to meetings where the government made the most consequential decisions related to the pandemic.

“Appoint the leader of the opposition as part of your COVID cabinet committee,” Mr. Jean said. “Make her part of the decision-making and privy [to] the secrets so people know there’s no secrets between the two party leaders and the government at large.”

Mr. Jean, who previously served as a federal Conservative member of Parliament alongside Mr. Kenney, would also give MLAs a chance to ask Alberta Health Services questions – perhaps once a week in televised committee meetings. This, he said, could hold AHS responsible for its decisions while rebuilding trust in the health care system.

Laila Goodridge resigned as the UCP’s MLA for Fort McMurray-Lac La Biche to run as a Conservative in the federal election last year. Mr. Jean secured the UCP nomination and Mr. Kenney signed off on his candidacy, aware of his rival’s renewed leadership ambition.

Mr. Kenney’s detractors within the UCP were keeping an eye on the party’s nomination contest in Rimbey-Rocky Mountain House-Sundre, a riding held by Environment and Parks Minister Jason Nixon. Tim Hoven, a rancher, was challenging Mr. Nixon to be the UCP candidate in the next election and observers believed the vote on March 23-24 would be tight.

The party, however, on Thursday disqualified Mr. Hoven as a prospective candidate, alleging inappropriate social-media activity. Mr. Hoven told local media that he intends to appeal his disqualification.

Mr. Nixon, who also serves as the Government House Leader, is a member of Mr. Kenney’s inner circle and the nomination race was viewed as a proxy fight over the Premier’s popularity. The UCP also prevented Jodie Gateman from running against Joseph Schow, the UCP deputy House leader, for the nomination in Cardston-Siksika on similar grounds.

Mr. Jean’s main by-election challengers to his left and right insist the March 15 contest is about more than internal UCP politics. Ariana Mancini, the NDP candidate, first ran against Mr. Jean in Fort McMurray-Conklin in 2015. She captured 31 per cent of the vote, compared with Mr. Jean’s 44 per cent. That year, the NDP ended the Progressive Conservatives’ four-decade reign over Alberta and Mr. Jean’s Wildrose formed the Official Opposition.

Fires, floods, and the economic downturn have since changed the community, Ms. Mancini said.

“It is not the Fort Mac of old,” she said. “People are facing serious financial concerns.”

For some, electricity bills have skyrocketed and good jobs are neither stable nor plentiful, Ms. Mancini said. The UCP ended the NDP’s cap on insurance prices, adding to personal costs. Struggling residents, she said, are at risk of losing their homes. Doctors are in short supply. Voters want solutions beyond waiting for oil prices to refill Alberta’s coffers, she said.

“They are starting to realize: ‘Ok, you know what? All of this talk about whether it is federal issues or UCP infighting’ – that stuff doesn’t concern the people here. They want real solutions to their very real, everyday problems.”

Ms. Mancini knows she is the underdog, but believes constituents are looking at issues through magnifying glasses, to her benefit.

Paul Hinman, Leader of the seatless Wildrose Independence Party of Alberta, moved to Fort McMurray late last year to compete in the by-election. He says he’s running under the flag of freedom, framing himself as the defender of the energy industry. He accused Mr. Kenney and Mr. Jean of supporting carbon net-zero goals.

“This by-election is a golden opportunity for the people of Fort McMurray to protect their crown jewel,” he said.

Mr. Jean conceded that he may lose a sliver of support to Mr. Hinman as conservatives in the riding reject the UCP as a whole. But despite the divide among Alberta conservatives, including the split in caucus between rural and urban MLAs, Mr. Jean believes the unruly coalition can be tamed.

“I still think the UCP is the vehicle to renew, to give Albertans that alternative to the NDP.”

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