Brian Jean tries to talk about his leadership of Alberta's Wildrose Party but he's overcome by tears.
"It's hard," he says, dabbing his eyes with a tissue. "I'm sorry."
In the throes of a surprisingly competitive provincial election campaign, Mr. Jean's decision to enter provincial politics remains a difficult conversation point. It forces the former Conservative MP to draw on fresh and painful memories of the nearly four months he spent at the hospital bedside of his 24-year-old son, Michael, as doctors tried to diagnose his illness. By the time they identified the problem – lymphoma – it was too late. Michael died on March 20, and his father's experience with the health-care system spurred him to seek the Wildrose leadership.
His son will likely not be far from Mr. Jean's thoughts Thursday night as he faces off against his political rivals in the first televised leaders' debate of the campaign. There is much riding on the event for all four leaders involved, but perhaps more so for Mr. Jean, 52, who is the least known of the group – a fact that defies his party's consistent lead in the polls. If he's asked why he wants to become premier, he will have to recall the heartbreaking loss of someone he calls "my best friend."
"My son's illness was my first real occasion dealing with the health-care system in Alberta and I was utterly shocked and disgusted," Mr. Jean says through more tears. "The system is horribly broken. It's focused on treatment and not focused on actually healing people. We need to put our resources where they matter – on the front line, to serve people. Michael is why I decided to run."
In talking about his son, the Wildrose Leader chronicles a nightmarish medical experience. He says Michael was misdiagnosed seven times and was given the wrong medicine on at least two occasions, once creating serious liver problems. He also had nine biopsies. Shortly after the proper diagnosis was reached, Michael had a related brain hemorrhage and died.
"It was tragic," Mr. Jean says. "There is no other word for it. Just an awful thing to go through for everyone."
Not surprisingly, Mr. Jean has made health care a major component of his campaign. This week, the party vowed to address waiting times for critical procedures such as hip replacements and radiation therapy. In some instances, the delays are exceeding established benchmarks by as much as 23 weeks, according to Wildrose. Mr. Jean says his party would expand private clinics and ship people out of the province and even the country if that is necessary for them to get access to treatment in reasonable time.
If recent polls are to be believed, Mr. Jean could soon be in a position to carry through on his promise. Almost from the beginning of the campaign, Wildrose has been at the top of virtually every opinion survey taken. Many people, however, remain skeptical about the numbers – including Mr. Jean. "I don't trust them," he says with a smile.
Still, he does believe there is a strong undercurrent of anger among the Alberta public. He believes people are mad about the early election call by the Progressive Conservatives, about tax increases in the recent provincial budget, about the governing party's perceived role in the mass defection of Wildrosers to the government benches late last year.
Sitting in a modest motor home (his own) that serves as his campaign bus, Mr. Jean recalls one of his father's favourite sayings. "My dad would tell us politicians are a lot like fish left on the counter. After a while they start to smell bad and need to be thrown out. I think that's what we're seeing in this election. There's a strong feeling it's time to throw these guys out."
While new to provincial politics, Mr. Jean is by no means a political newbie. He represented his home riding of Fort McMurray as a Conservative Party MP between 2004 and 2014. When he resigned, the lawyer thought he was leaving politics for good. But when Wildrose leader Danielle Smith and 10 of her MLAs crossed the floor to sit with the government, he was urged by many people to consider running for the party's top job. Eventually, he did, and won, leaving the leadership race in the final days to be with his dying son.
Mr. Jean fashions himself as a fiscal hawk. The record debt the province is amassing is anathema to everything he stands for, he insists. He came by his penny-pinching ways honestly, he says. Growing up in Fort McMurray as one of 11 kids, he had little. Food was often whatever his dad and brothers could shoot, he says – there was a lot of moose on the table. He didn't taste store-bought bread until he was 12 or 13. He never went to a restaurant in the town until he was 18. He didn't get his first pair of new pants until he was 14.
"I wore hand-me-downs," he says. "My brothers went to high school in the 60s, so let's just say that when I wore their clothes in the 70s they were a little bright for my tastes. … But I wouldn't change any of it. I had a wonderful upbringing. I had great parents."
The family eventually opened a convenience store that grew to become the City Centre Group, which owns a number of small businesses in the Fort McMurray region and beyond. Mr. Jean attended a Christian university in Portland and independent Bond University in Australia, where he received an MBA and completed a law degree. He had three children by a first marriage, which ended a number of years ago.
Since winning his party's leadership last month, Mr. Jean has maintained a hectic pace. The party was forced to rush candidates into battle because of the early election call. Many were not properly vetted until after the campaign began. He had to ask one to step aside recently when blog posts he authored were discovered and deemed bigoted against gay people. That was on top of his firing of Bill Jarvis, the party's candidate for Calgary-Southeast. Organizing a photo on stage after Mr. Jean's leadership victory, Mr. Jarvis was picked up by a mic saying: "We need lots of brown people in the front." Mr. Jean turfed him the next day.
Both incidents revived memories of the 2012 election, when it appeared Wildrose would cruise to victory until the last week of the campaign. That's when an old blog post written by a candidate was unearthed. In it, Allan Hunsperger suggested gay people would "suffer the rest of eternity in the lake of fire." When then-Wildrose leader Danielle Smith refused to condemn the remark, it gave the Progressive Conservatives an opening to suggest Wildrose was too extreme to govern the province. It worked.
Last week Mr. Jean had to talk to another candidate, MLA Rick Strankman , who caused a stir when he sent out an invitation to a riding meet-and-greet and pie auction. It urged those attending to "BYWP: Bring Your Wife's Pie." The brochure was denounced as sexist and Mr. Strankman apologized. But not before The Calgary Sun crafted the best headline of the campaign, one harking back to Wildrose's 2012 campaign disaster. "Bake of Fire," it read.
Mr. Jean's swift response to these campaign imbroglios illustrates his desire not to see the party framed as extremist.
"I know for certain that I'm not interested in any social agenda," he says, sitting in his motor home, which is driven by a son. "I will not legislate on social agenda. I don't think that's what governments are for. Governments are for making a better quality of life for people, and I think I should stay out of their personal business and that's exactly what I intend to do. That sort of thing only splits Albertans, splits Canadians, and there's no benefit in it."
Barb Schlaht, a Wildrose supporter from Airdrie, has been impressed with the job Mr. Jean has done since taking over the party. "That man buried his son on a Thursday and won the leadership that Sunday. I'm in awe of his ability to put his grief behind him to work on behalf of all Albertans."
Ms. Schlaht says she was "shocked," "heart-broken" and "gob-smacked up the side of the head" when former party leader Ms. Smith led a mass defection of Wildrose MLAs to the government benches last fall. The new leader, says the RV park employee, has "taken a ship that was kind of like floating loose in the ocean and tied it down and pulled us all together. A lot of the anxiety in the party ended the night he became leader."
Morgan Nagel, a 24-year-old councillor from the town of Cochrane, says he has memberships in both Wildrose and the Progressive Conservatives. Initially, he said he was supporting Premier Jim Prentice but that has changed in recent weeks.
"His messaging and his actions aren't consistent," Mr. Nagel says about the Alberta Premier. "I think right now Wildrose offers a much more clear vision of what they would do. Also, speaking as a municipal politician, Wildrose would put a more reliable funding structure in place from what I can see."
With the campaign more than halfway over, Mr. Jean enters a critical stretch. Increasingly, Wildrose has come under attack from the Conservatives, evidence of the governing party's internal polling which shows them in serious trouble. Before the election was called, Mr. Jean spoke about being happy if his party emerged as the official Opposition again. He doesn't talk in those terms any longer.
He won't dare to imagine how this is all going to end up, mind you. But regardless of the outcome, Mr. Jean will certainly take time to reflect on the person who gave him the strength to wage this fight in the first place. And he'll miss him more than ever.
Editor's note: A previous version of this article incorrectly said Russ Kuykendall caused a stir by urging those attending a riding meet-and-greet and pie auction to "BYWP: Bring Your Wife's Pie." In fact, the candidate was MLA Rick Strankman. In addition, the article mistakenly identified Mr. Kuykendall as an MLA.