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Hundreds of demonstrators gather at city hall in Calgary on March 19, 2022.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney begged UCP members not to relitigate COVID-19 when he was fighting for his job this spring. Many of those pushing for his removal cited lockdowns, vaccine passports and other public-health measures as the main failures of his government.

Mr. Kenney ultimately lost that fight, announcing his resignation after securing a bare majority in a leadership review in May. And now, those same grievances over COVID-19 are propelling the subsequent leadership race to replace him.

Rather than moving on, candidates vying to become the next UCP leader and premier have defined themselves by their attitude toward COVID-19, with the coronavirus touching nearly every facet of the campaign. Danielle Smith, a former leader of the Wildrose Party, has put the most distance between herself and the provincial government’s pandemic policies, frequently citing them as she argues for her proposed sovereignty act, which has dominated the leadership race. But she is not alone when it comes to leaning on pandemic anger.

Key leadership hopefuls have expressed skepticism about vaccines and rehashed what they believed the government and Alberta Health Services did wrong during the pandemic. Some have also cited COVID-19 when talking about the school system and the province’s relationship with the federal government.

In contrast, none have built their campaigns around how they would manage the record amounts of cash rushing into government coffers thanks to high energy prices and mature oil sands projects, or how to ease inflation for Albertans.

The candidates played to a slice of the UCP membership.

“The most motivated in the base – these are their issues that they wanted to see discussed,” Michael Solberg, a partner at New West Public Affairs Inc., said about COVID policies. “Therefore, candidates pivoted and made sure they were talking about them in an effort to mobilize support.”

For example, Ms. Smith has raised the prospect of the federal government forcing schoolchildren to be vaccinated as she pitched the sovereignty act, which she said would allow the province to ignore federal laws it deems unconstitutional.

Travis Toews, a member of Mr. Kenney’s inner circle and finance minister prior to stepping down for the leadership race, tried to recast himself as a defender of freedom at the cabinet table, without whom the public-health rules would have been even more punishing.

And Brian Jean said he will “review” Deena Hinshaw’s contract “at the first practical moment,” taking a swipe at the Chief Medical Officer of Health and the $227,911 cash bonus she collected on top of her $363,634 salary in 2021.

COVID-19 has killed 4,905 people in Alberta, and in 2021 was the third-leading cause of death in the province. More than 90 per cent of people in Alberta older than 12 years old have had at least one shot against the coronavirus and about 87 per cent of those citizens have had at least two.

Yet vaccines and vaccine mandates have played an outsized role in the race. Ms. Smith pledged to amend Alberta’s Human Rights Act to ban what she called discrimination based on medical decisions, a reference to vaccine mandates, if she won the race.

“I figured I would be one of the unvaccinated,” she told an online roundtable hosted by the group Families for Choice in December, 2021.

Ms. Smith said she went to the United States to get the COVID-19 vaccine produced by Janssen to comply with Alberta’s passport system, introduced in September of last year. She explained that she was not comfortable with the mRNA shots from Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna and calculated that she could not perform her duties as the president of the Alberta Enterprise Group by opting for frequent rapid tests instead of getting immunized.

Ms. Smith, at the roundtable, said only people who are severely compromised will need regular boosters.

“There’s very little evidence that anyone under the age of 35 really needs to have the shots at all,” she said. “If you’re over 70, probably you should get whatever is recommended by the medical professionals, including boosters.”

For those between 35 and 70, Ms. Smith said, it is a judgment call based on one’s health, diet, access to sunshine, supplements, “level of immunity” and other factors.

Those under the age of 35, she said, are at risk of injury from vaccines as she argued that vaccine mandates for people under 18 will cause more harm than good. Health authorities in Canada and most other jurisdictions overwhelmingly recommend people eligible for COVID-19 vaccines – including children – get immunized and boosted, which they have concluded is safe and effective.

Mr. Jean, who led the Wildrose at the time it merged with Alberta’s Progressive Conservative party to form the UCP, also believes vaccine requirements equate to government overreach. While he supports vaccines, he has made an effort to distance himself from health professionals encouraging others to get shots.

Earlier this month, he tweeted that Denmark had “stopped recommending” COVID vaccines for “most people under 50 [and] is discouraging them for kids. Yet our public-health ‘experts’ deny the obvious – vaccines not stopping transmission or giving immunity.”

However, the Danish recommendation is related to booster shots for people older than 50. Further, much of the younger population has already been vaccinated or infected and, therefore, have “good immunity,” the Danish Health Authority said. Denmark also said kids are excluded from the fall vaccination campaign because “children and adolescents rarely become severely ill from the Omicron variant of COVID-19,” although those at high risk will be able to access protection.

Meanwhile, Mr. Toews tweeted in July that “enough is enough” in response to officials urging Canadians to seek booster shots after their initial two doses.

Greg Lyle, who conducted polls for Alberta’s Tories for about a decade – between when Ed Stelmach and Jim Prentice sat in the premier’s chair – noted that roughly one-third of Albertans figure the government found the right balance on COVID policies. One-third wanted the government to do more, and an equal amount believe Mr. Kenney went too far. That final cohort, he said, is largely comprised of UCP supporters, which explains why the leadership race was heavy on COVID-19.

Pierre Poilievre earlier this month captured the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada by appealing to its libertarians and populists, Mr. Lyle said, and the provincial contenders did the same.

“If you’re someone running for leader of the UCP, and you look at the example of Poilievre, you’d be crazy not to run on those themes,” he said. “You could see it working for him.”

The UCP distributed ballots to members Sept. 2 and will announce its new leader Oct. 6. Mail-in ballots must be received by Oct. 3, although five in-person voting locations will be open Oct. 6.