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Alberta Nenshi, Notley lambaste Kenney as out of touch with Albertans

Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi and Alberta Premier Rachel Notley chat before the start of the Calgary Stampede parade in Friday, July 8, 2016.

Jeff McIntosh/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi has lambasted Conservative MP Jason Kenney's nascent campaign to unite Alberta's small-c conservatives against the ruling NDP, saying it is a product of a bygone era.

Politicians locked horns on the first day of the Calgary Stampede, as Mr. Nenshi joined Alberta Premier Rachel Notley in her criticism of Mr. Kenney's leadership push, saying he questioned whether Mr. Kenney's message is reflective of the province's modern political climate.

"The only advice I have for him is to be careful that he really understands who Albertans are these days," the Calgary mayor said Friday of the former federal cabinet minister.

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"He's been in Ottawa for 19 years. He's been travelling all the time. And the tone of his introductory speech didn't seem to me to be deeply understanding of who Albertans are. But he'll get it."

Mr. Nenshi's criticism of the well-connected Conservative MP was similar to comments from Ms. Notley.

She said Friday that her government is onside with most Albertans when it comes to issues, including the province's aggressive climate-change strategy, or its push to make schools more inclusive of all students. She suggested Mr. Kenney is not.

"I believe that the vast majority of Albertans are with us on that matter and frankly are a little disturbed at the notion of being dragged back many, many years to a time when our government was less respectful of everybody's rights," Ms. Notley said of the schools issue.

Mr. Kenney has railed against what he calls the NDP's "radical curriculum reform" in schools, which he says amounts to social engineering and politicization of the education system.

He said Friday he's speaking specifically on proposed curriculum changes and not any NDP government policies for gay, lesbian and transgender children in school.

"When I am talking to ordinary Albertans, what they talk to me about is the economy – job losses, businesses going under, the tax burden, the fiscal train wreck in Edmonton right now," Mr. Kenney said Friday.

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"So my focus is on that – not on hot-button social issues."

Mr. Kenney, who is positioning himself as the chief opponent to Ms. Notley's NDP government, has criticized a broad range of her policies, from her government's carbon tax to the minimum-wage increase. As the province struggles with low oil prices and high unemployment, the Calgary Midnapore MP says he will work to restore Alberta's title as the economic engine of the country.

Mr. Kenney is gunning for the leadership of the province's Progressive Conservative party, saying he wants to use the post as a platform to negotiate unification with the Wildrose Party early next year.

But the campaign is placing greater scrutiny on Mr. Kenney's reputation as a social conservative, including his pro-life stand and former opposition to same-sex marriage. His views were highlighted this week when an NDP MLA quizzed Mr. Kenney on his position on abortion through Twitter posts, where she also disclosed her own abortion.

Mr. Kenney has said he has never proposed specific legislation on "bioethical questions," and pointed out Friday he's the first immigration minister to have created a special resettlement program for gay refugees.

Earlier this his week he said conservative-minded Albertans "must fight the ideological agenda of this accidental NDP government to limit the damage that they do to our province now."

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But Mr. Nenshi said that characterization insults the people who voted for the NDP.

"And if he is running a campaign that is free of ideology and social engineering, that will be awesome. It will be totally different for him. But it will be awesome," Mr. Nenshi added.

Although Mr. Nenshi describes Mr. Kenney as a friend, the two politicians have gone head-to-head on hot-button issues before.

During the federal election campaign last year, Mr. Nenshi criticized the Conservative position to force Muslim women to remove their niqabs while taking the citizenship oath, and Mr. Kenney and Mr. Nenshi traded barbs about who was politicizing the issue.

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