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Alberta Premier Jason Kenney at the Federal Building in Edmonton on Feb. 24, 2020.

CODIE MCLACHLAN/The Globe and Mail

As Alberta struggles with a high rate of COVID-19 infections, internal strife in Jason Kenney’s government burst into the open Thursday, with caucus members voting to remove two of their own members.

MLAs Todd Loewen – who called for the Alberta Premier’s resignation this week – and Drew Barnes were ejected from caucus after a vote by their peers, said United Conservative caucus whip Mike Ellis.

“Members recognize the need for government caucus to remain strong and united behind our leader, Premier Jason Kenney, as we continue to fight through what looks to be the final stages of the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond,” Mr. Ellis said in a news release.

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A UCP caucus meeting that began at lunchtime on Thursday went late into the day. There were no details released on the breakdown of the vote, or the precise reason they were expelled.

“There is simply no room in our caucus for those who continually seek to divide our party and undermine government leadership, especially at this critical juncture for our province,” Mr. Ellis said.

“We look forward to moving ahead as a stronger, more united team.”

However, Mr. Loewen said in an interview late Thursday, “The problem is dysfunction and disunity in caucus…I believe it’s worse than this morning.”

Mr. Kenney has tolerated open criticism of health restrictions from his MLAs for weeks. But Mr. Loewen of Valleyview, Alta., took it a step further Wednesday night, posting a letter to the Premier that called on Mr. Kenney to resign “so that we can begin to put the province back together again.” The MLA for Central Peace-Notley also announced that he would step down as chair of the UCP caucus, but he wouldn’t leave the party – as he believes his views are aligned with the grassroots.

In an interview late Thursday, Mr. Loewen said during the long caucus meeting he was subjected to a number of “bizarre” accusations from the party whip, including that he, his son, his staff and his constituency association president, set up Facebook groups attacking the government. “It was a little bit of throwing everything at me and then hoping something sticks.”

He said the reason he wrote his letter is simple. “When it gets to the point where virtually everyone you talk to tells you the same thing – you will not be re-elected if Kenney is your leader, we are not voting UCP if Kenney is the leader – I hear that virtually from everyone. I guess it finally got to me.”

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Mr. Barnes has also long been a vocal critic of his own government’s policies, especially related to COVID-19 health restrictions. Late Thursday, Mr. Barnes released a statement that said he wished the caucus vote had been a secret ballot.

“The Premier’s promises of servant leadership, grassroots democracy and political transparency were again abandoned in favor of caucus discipline above all else. However, I am no longer shackled by the chains of caucus discipline, especially when the goals of the Premier do not align with those of my constituents.”

Both men said they will sit as independent MLAs.

Alberta’s struggling restaurants and bars call for more support after new COVID-19 restrictions close patios

“The Premier is proud to stand with his caucus colleagues and lead Alberta through the greatest health and economic crisis in a century. He looks forward to putting the COVID-19 pandemic behind us and working towards Alberta’s economic recovery,” said a statement sent from Mr. Kenney’s office late Thursday.

Alberta is in the midst of a massive third wave of COVID-19. Even in a strong vaccine push, it has the highest infection rate in North America, and an active case rate more than twice the national figure. However, one-quarter of the UCP caucus has opposed stricter provincial health restrictions, with rural or small-city MLAs arguing their communities shouldn’t face the same shutdowns of restaurants, gyms and other facilities as centres where cases are higher.

Mr. Loewen and Mr. Barnes were two of the signatories to an April letter from a group of UCP MLAs opposing the province’s pandemic health restrictions. But Mr. Loewen’s newest letter didn’t mention COVID-19 at all. Instead, he said he’s concerned because the views of rank-and-file MLAs are ignored, the Kenney government’s response “to a hostile federal government” is perceived as weak, and the government has mishandled issues such as negotiations with the province’s doctors and coal-mining allowances in the Eastern Slopes of the Rocky Mountains.

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“Messaging from your government has been contradictory, confusing, and needlessly inflammatory,” he wrote.

A senior government source said Thursday there had been concern in caucus about Mr. Loewen’s ability to be impartial and act as caucus chair “while he had his staff and board president running the ‘fire Kenney’ campaign.” He risked being ousted as caucus chair by his peers, said the source, whom The Globe and Mail is not identifying because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

There have been angry rumblings in the backbenches of Mr. Kenney’s government since the beginning of the year but it’s unclear how many other UCP MLAs feel the same as Mr. Loewen. MLA David Hanson wrote a Facebook post supporting Mr. Loewen but not fully endorsing his call for the Premier to resign. In an interview, the MLA for Bonnyville-Cold Lake-St. Paul said he believes the way his own government has enacted health restrictions with little notice has demonstrated a lack of respect for small business owners.

“When I get businesspeople calling me in tears, I’ve got to respond.”

Mr. Hanson also expressed concern about the NDP winning the next provincial election, slated for 2023. “It’s time to take a stand. We fought very hard for unity, to unite the conservative parties here. And I’d hate to see it go to waste.”

The Premier, he said, “needs to get back out and talk to people, and try to mend the fences,” or should face a leadership review this year.

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Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley said in the midst of a period of public-health and economic turmoil, the government should be instead focused on an overwhelmed contact-tracing system, paid sick leave for essential workers, or advocating for keeping Enbridge Inc.’s Line 5 pipeline open in Michigan.

“But instead Jason Kenney and the UCP are too busy fighting each other to work on the critical issues,” Ms. Notley said in a tweet.

With files from The Canadian Press

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