At the age of 33, Michelle Rempel made history as the youngest-ever Canadian female cabinet minister. Now, the 39-year-old Conservative MP is one of the most prominent members of the Conservative power base heading into the federal election.
Ms. Rempel, who is running for re-election in Calgary Nose Hill, is working to bring the concerns of her community and Alberta to the forefront of the election campaign this fall.
Alberta has been dealing with an economic downturn amid collapsing oil prices in recent years, a situation Ms. Rempel says the Trudeau government has exacerbated through its energy policies. She is concerned about growing separatist sentiment in the province as Albertans who once worked in the oil and gas sector struggle to make ends meet.
“The message I would like the rest of the country to hear is it doesn’t matter where you live in the country, oil and gas and the Alberta economy need to be a ballot question for you," Ms. Rempel said. “Our national campaign has to talk about Alberta."
Frustration with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government is on full display at Ms. Rempel’s campaign office, with signs reading “Trudeau must go" on the walls. Her campaign will be based at Calgary’s Symons Valley Ranch, which suffered a fire in 2017.
Although parts of the ranch are still charred from the fire, Ms. Rempel’s team is making use of the barn, where they have set up computers and phone banks under wagon-wheel chandeliers. A wooden canoe hangs on one wall, with “Michelle Rempel” election signs piled against another. For Ms. Rempel, the western-style location feels on brand.
Ms. Rempel held a volunteer barbecue at the barn earlier this month, where one particular volunteer stole the show.
Constituent Murdoch Macleod was all smiles, despite the fact that he showed up to the barbecue in a neck brace. He broke three vertebrae when he accidentally face-planted on a step while door knocking for Ms. Rempel. Mr. Macleod, who expects to recover fully, refused to miss the pre-election event ahead of what he sees as a critical opportunity for Albertans to oust the Trudeau government this fall.
“Murdoch fought so hard for democracy that he’s in a neck brace right now. Murdoch is team Rempel’s first – and hopefully last – 2019 campaign casualty,” Ms. Rempel joked. “Murdoch, to me, is the spirit of this team.”
Ms. Rempel thanked her supporters who will “take care of the riding” as she prepares to take their concerns cross-country during the election campaign.
Alberta has lost nearly a quarter of its oil and gas jobs since commodity prices crashed in 2014, according to a Petroleum Labour Market Information report. Ms. Rempel accused the Trudeau government of leading a “hostile attack” on the province’s energy sector, citing its failure to get a pipeline built.
Liberals say that while they have tightened environmental-assessment rules and introduced carbon pricing to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions – two measures that are not popular in the oil patch – they have tried to support oil and gas workers. Last year, the government purchased Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project for $4.5-billion but construction was stalled when the Federal Court of Appeal quashed the federal permit last August and will start up again only this fall.
Natural Resources Minister Amarjeet Sohi, who represents the riding of Edmonton Mill Woods, defended the Trudeau government’s efforts to boost the province’s economy, pointing to the Trans Mountain purchase.
“If the Prime Minister doesn’t care about Alberta, why would he go to the lengths to invest those kinds of resources and protect a project that people like Michelle Rempel and other Conservatives feel that we don’t support?” Mr. Sohi said.
Ms. Rempel was born in Winnipeg where she grew up in an apolitical household and paid her way through university as a classically trained pianist. She moved to Alberta in 2004 for a job opportunity in Calgary, where she went on to volunteer in a number of Conservative Party roles. In 2010, Ms. Rempel was encouraged to run when then-minister Jim Prentice resigned as the MP for her riding.
In 2011, at the age of 31, Ms. Rempel was elected and appointed parliamentary secretary to the environment minister by Prime Minister Stephen Harper. She was named the youngest-ever Canadian female cabinet minister two years later, taking up the Western Economic Diversification portfolio.
Ms. Rempel is now mentoring some young women candidates on the Tory roster, providing the guidance she wishes she once had. A record-level 101 women – out of 332 nominated candidates – are running for the Conservatives so far.
"Nobody took me under their wing, and I don’t say that in a bad way, just no one did,” Ms. Rempel said. “I literally learned through trial and error, and I did not bat a thousand while I did that, and I don’t want others to have to go through that.”
Ms. Rempel got emotional talking about one candidate in particular: Cyara Bird, a 22-year-old Indigenous woman who is running for the Tories in the northern Manitoba riding of Churchill-Keewatinook Aski. As the riding is currently represented by veteran NDP MP Niki Ashton, Ms. Bird has a tough campaign ahead of her.
“She’s the real deal. I’m sorry,” Ms. Rempel said, her voice trailing as she choked up. “She’s just so inspiring. She’s a 22-year-old mom. She lives on reserve. And she’s got two young girls. She’s so smart and passionate.”
Ms. Rempel encouraged Ms. Bird to run after she attended this year’s Daughters of the Vote conference which brought 338 young women – one from every federal riding – to Parliament Hill. Although hesitant to take credit for Ms. Bird’s decision to run, Ms. Rempel said she feels she has a responsibility to give Ms. Bird access to her established Conservative network as she sets up her campaign.
Ms. Rempel will turn 40 next year and, if re-elected, will have spent nearly a quarter of her life in public office. In that time, politics has become personal for her – something that was evident in May when her former boss, Mr. Harper, officiated her marriage to Jeffrey Garner, a U.S. Army veteran who served in Afghanistan.
As Ms. Rempel seeks re-election, she says she is thankful for her husband’s support in her journey as the MP for Calgary Nose Hill.
“I said to him, ‘You realize you’re not just marrying me? You’re marrying like 120,000 people.’ ”