Dust off your cowboy boots and hat. It’s that time of year again. It’s the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth. It’s the Calgary Stampede.
The Stampede is a must attend event for politicians of all stripes. Aside from the actual rodeo (the Chuckwagon races are a must see), the free pancake breakfast and BBQ circuit is unparalleled and a huge opportunity for local, provincial and federal politicians to connect with Calgarians. Proper attire is key, as is the ability to wear it properly.
There’s not much of anything that is constant in Alberta politics these days, maybe except for the Calgary Stampede.
At least in some non-pandemic years, it’s the Northern Star of Alberta politics. It’s the must attend event for political aspirants of all stripes, from Prime Ministers to aspiring future Premiers.
The Stampede is back in full force this year, with last year’s disastrous “Best Summer Ever” disaster unfortunately an almost distant memory, even though its a big reason why we are where we are today in Alberta politics.
And for anyone watching the Stampede, even this writer from his perch in Edmonton, the race to replace Jason Kenney as Premier and leader of the United Conservative Party was on display as urbanites of all stripes dusted off their cowboys hats and plaid shirts for the week of pancake breakfasts and beer tents.
The big talk of the town this week is Danielle Smith’s unexpectedly strong comeback in the UCP leadership race.
Most political watchers will remember her downfall after a treacherous floor-crossing nearly destroyed the Wildrose Party and helped created the conditions for Rachel Notley to lead her NDP to sweep the province in 2015. (Real political nerds will remember her time on the disastrous Calgary Board of Education from 1998 to 1999, but that’s for another column).
But what we politicos may have missed is that a lot of Albertans, including the thousands who have signed up to support her and are showing up to her campaign events in droves, remember her from her more recent role as the host of a popular talk radio show.
Smith has always been a talented political communicator, despite some high-profile flameouts.
She knows how to talk to conservatives, and it just happens there are a lot of those in Alberta.
It’s not clear how many UCP MLAs support her separatist-leaning “Alberta First” campaign or her dipping into COVID conspiracy theories, but she has nabbed at least one endorsement from the governing caucus – Airdrie-Cochrane MLA Peter Guthrie.
Smith hasn’t held a seat in the Legislature sine 2015 but she’s challenging MLA Roger Reid for the UCP nomination in Livingstone-Macleod. And recently she said she would reopen nomination contests some party activists believe were unfairly stacked in favour of Kenney loyalists, a move that is unlikely to endear her to most current UCP MLAs.
Her comeback would be the political story of the year, and while Premier Danielle Smith is far from a sure thing, she is certainly driving the narrative of the UCP leadership campaign. She’s tapped into a motivated group of Alberta conservatives unhappy with the status-quo.
Those are probably the people Kenney referred to as “lunatics.”
And they might just be the mainstream of the UCP right now.
Even the perceived frontrunner is responding to Smith.
Establishment favourite Travis Toews followed Smith’s lead with a milquetoast “Enough is Enough” social media meme opposing COVID-19 vaccinations. It’s not clear what message he was trying to telegraph.
It was the kind of vague response you would expect from a frontrunner campaign, wanting to respond and not offend but failing at both.
Toews also released a list of autonomist policies that read like they were copied and pasted from 2020’s Fair Deal Panel report.
Smith and Toews aren’t alone.
Brian Jean is hitting the same notes, though he’s running a sleepier than expected campaign. Still, Fort McMurray’s Golden Boy shouldn’t be underestimated.
Independent MLA Todd Loewenis also hitting the same notes on separatist and anti-COVID health measures but his chances of winning appear much less likely than the others in this pack.
Smith’s extreme positions are probably leaving Rachel Notley’s NDP salivating at the opportunity to run against an extremist right-wing UCP that would leave a lot of Albertans alienated.
Two months ago, Notley’s victory in Alberta’s next election looked like a sure bet, but Kenney’s resignation announcement gave his party a bump in the polls and now it’s a race.
Notley and her MLAs have basically decamped to Calgary for the summer, showing up at every event and taking every chance to door knock with their growing slate of local candidates that includes former city councillor Druh Farrell in Calgary-Bow, energy analyst Samir Kayande in Calgary-Elbow, sustainable energy expert Nagwan Al-Guneid in Calgary-Glenmore. Canadian Forces veteran Marilyn North Peigan in Calgary-Klein, and physician Luanne Metz in Calgary-Varsity.
It’s probably the closest thing Calgary has seen to a Progressive Conservative slate since 2015 but the NDP still have a lot of hard work ahead of them to convince Calgarians to vote for them en masse in 2023.
But the UCP leadership candidate the NDP might fear the most so far hasn’t been playing the same cards as Smith, Toews, Jean and Loewen.
The first-term MLA from Calgary-Shaw and former children’s service minister had already nabbed an endorsement from Rona Ambrose but the former interim Conservative Party leader is now chairing her campaign.
Schulz and her husband were political staffers in Wall’s government before moving to Calgary seven years ago and her husband worked for McMillan as VP Communications of CAPP.
It’s hard to tell where her politics are. Schulz seems more moderate than the rest of the pack, which isn’t saying much, but how much more moderate is not clear.
Along with her political establishment connections, Schulz might become a pretty appealing candidate if there are enough UCP members left who don’t want to fight the next election on COVID conspiracy theories and Alberta separatism.
At the very least, there might actually be enough Saskatchewan expats alone living in Alberta to win a leadership race.
And I would be remise if I failed to mention the other candidates who are also busy yahooing their way through the Stampede.
Rajan Sawhney is running an outsiders campaign, leaning on her years of business experience. She is also a candidate to watch.
Three years ago, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney was the unquestioned leader of the Conservative movement in Canada. He was the national conservative standard bearer.
Now, Kenney is politically toxic.
And as the deadly fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic hit Alberta, he was in hiding.
His absence is mostly an attempt to avoid embarrassing his federal cousins in Ottawa, who until today have been grateful for his disappearance, and facing an unruly caucus of United Conservative Party MLAs already unhappy with his leadership, but it also means he has been out from public sight as new COVID cases skyrocketed, hospitals and intensive care units began to overflow, and more Albertans have died of the deadly disease.
Twenty-four more Albertans died yesterday. More than 90 Albertans have died over the past eight days.
Kenney reemerged for the second time in almost two months today to announce the end of his Best Summer Ever.
Joining Health Minister Tyler Shandro, Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw, and Alberta Health Services CEO Dr. Verna Yiu, Kenney declared a public state of emergency and bumbled his way through a confusing new list of public health restrictions and a not a vaccine passport vaccine passport system that largely puts the burden on businesses to figure out (something his party was fundraising off its opposition to weeks ago and he described as illegal a few months ago).
Like the previous three waves of the pandemic, Kenney waited until the health care system was in crisis before acting. If Albertans comply with the new restrictions, we can hope that the number of COVID cases decrease. But not removing the restrictions too quickly, like he has before, will probably be key to its success.
When medical experts and media questioned how quickly Kenney removed the public health restrictions, he and his staff aggressively attacked and dismissed their warnings about a fourth wave.
Kenney eagerly pushed for 70 per cent of eligible Albertans over the age of 12 to get vaccinated in order to lift restrictions in time for the Stampede. The government offered lucrative lotteries and prizes, and even $100 cash cards, to convince Albertans to get vaccinated but it does not appear to have moved the needle to where we need it to be. Alberta still lags behind the rest of the country.
Kenney’s Open for Summer plan was all optimism that the COVID-19 pandemic was over with none of the vigilance required to make sure it actually was.
But don’t expect Kenney to volunteer to face the consequences for his actions.
Responding to his critics at today’s press conference, Kenney initially apologized for the results of his Open for Summer decision only to retract his apology minutes later when answering a question from Postmedia columnist Rick Bell, telling Bell that “I won’t apologize.”
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began 18 months ago, Kenney has failed to lead Albertans through the biggest health crisis in a generation.
It’s been more than one month since Premier Jason Kenney announced the end to public health measures meant to curb the spread of COVID and a week after he announced the province would stop tracking the virus, end contact tracing and remove the legal requirement for people with COVID symptoms to self-isolate.
This rush to remove public health restrictions has left a lot of Albertans confused and uncomfortable with his sudden decisions as cases of the Delta Variant increase and hundreds of thousands of Albertans under the age of 12 remain ineligible for vaccines as the start of the school year rapidly approaches.
The original announcement to remove public health measures, including mandatory face-masking in public indoor spaces, was made ahead of Canada Day (or the long-abolished “Dominion Day” as Kenney has often called our national holiday). But it was the Calgary Stampede that Kenney wielded and waved like a carnival balloon sword against any Albertan who dared criticize his government’s rush to claim the pandemic is over.
Canada has made big gains in vaccinating people against COVID-19, despite earlier predictions by some that we might not have access to vaccines for years. In fact, cases where federal vaccine supply could not match provincial distribution were rare, and completely non-existent in Alberta. Yet, Alberta remains below the national average for full vaccination rates – and some regions of the province are sitting at troublingly low levels of vaccinations.
A vaccine lottery, dubbed lottovaxx, was launched to push Alberta above the artificial hurdle that Kenney placed to remove restrictions and allow the Stampede to open its gates. A hunting lottery and trips to hot destinations were added, but it appears to have barely moved the needle.
After more than a month out of the public spotlight, Hinshaw was once again thrust into a role that Kenney and Health Minister Tyler Shandro had filled since the Stampede. All of a sudden, Kenney began insisting that Hinshaw was the person in charge.
Despite her endorsement, Hinshaw is in the lonely position of being the only, or one of the only, medical professionals in Alberta to publicly support Kenney’s rush to remove COVID testing, tracing and isolation requirements.
Whether or not it is intentional, Hinshaw is now doing political damage control for the Kenney government.
It is inevitable that we would have removed public health restrictions at some point. As vaccination rates increase, it is expected that COVID-19 cases will be mostly limited to the unvaccinated, which again still includes hundreds of thousands of Alberta kids who can’t choose to get vaccinated.
Parents and teachers are left with no plan and little reassurances about what will happen when their unvaccinated kids return to school and childcare in September.
Kenney’s and Hinshaw’s assurances to parents that they will need to figure it out on their own have not been confidence inspiring.
Albertans with legitimate concerns and questions about the pace of Kenney’s plan have been dismissed by Hinshaw as having “anxiety” or by the Premier’s staff as wanting a “permanent lockdown.” These dismissive and aggressive responses communicated by the government are insulting and patronizing a broad group of parents with legitimate concerns and fears, well earned a year and a half into a public health crisis.
That the government still isn’t able to effectively communicate with the public about these measures is an indication that they are either largely indifferent or completely inept.
If we have learned anything over the past 18 months, it is that the COVID-19 pandemic is probably best approached with a healthy mix of vigilance and optimism. But the UCP government’s approach is all optimism that the pandemic is over and no vigilance to ensure it actually is. We constantly heard from Kenney that we were headed to the Best Summer Ever, but his eagerness to put COVID behind him has left a lot of Albertans behind.
It has been a traumatic and tough 18 months for a lot of people.
Millions of Albertans found themselves working from home, not working at all, thrust into homeschooling and childcare, and in addition to that, many of us have mourned family, friends and colleagues who have died of COVID-19 or other ailments that we have not been able to properly grieve.
Kenney’s Best Summer Ever promise appears to apply largely to the Premier and his small group of insiders the Best Summer Ever hats were made for, who have been able to dine al fresco on a government patio, take in the private parties and open bars at the 2021 Stampede, fire automatic weapons with the Taber Police and many other perks they are indulging in while the Legislature is out. For many Albertans, that slogan and swag hats are a crass and insensitive response to what should be a summer of reflection, recuperation and preparation for the coming school year.
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Politicians of all stripes descended on Alberta’s largest city this week for the annual Calgary Stampede festivities.
Though most of them have probably never ridden a horse or woke up at 5am (or earlier) to start their day on the farm, they were almost all brandishing big shiny belt buckles, wrangler-style shirts and cowboy hats of various sizes (and if they are lucky, they weren’t wearing them backwards).
Alberta’s NDP caucus held their annual summer caucus meeting in Calgary this week, which allowed most of the 54 NDP MLAs to scatter across the city to attend pancake breakfasts and BBQ lunches that could be found on almost every street corner this week.
The NDP had a particularly strong presence at Stampede events this year, signalling what many political watchers already believe – that Calgary will be a major battleground in the next provincial election. Calgarians elected fifteen NDP MLAs in the Orange Wave of 2015 but the party still remains organizationally weak in this city.
Premier Rachel Notley and various cabinet ministers used the week in Calgary to make a series of funding announcements, including loosening restrictions on restaurant patios, construction industry tax credits, improvements to the Canada-Alberta Job Grant and business grants for Alberta’s food processing and booming craft beer industry.
Already campaigning for the leadership of the currently non-existent United Conservative Party, Brian Jean was spotted attending some events that a leader of the right-wing Wildrose Party would not expected to be seen at – such as the annual United Nurses of Alberta BBQ and LGBTQ events. This is likely an attempt to differentiate himself from his social conservative leadership rival Jason Kenney.
By the end of Sunday, most of the politicians visiting Calgary will have hung up their cowboy hats and packed away their boots and denim until next year. But while the Calgary Stampede may be the biggest political event of the season, it is only the beginning of what will be a summer full of political campaigns and maneuvering.
Wildrose MLA blames “hack job” for anti-Trudeau tweet
The tweet appeared to have been sent in response to Trudeau’s initial plans not to attend this year’s Stampede, which he later changed (Trudeau was attending the G20 meeting in Hamburg, Germany earlier this week).
One year later, Kenney is campaigning to convince PC and Wildrose members to approve the creation of a new party in a July 22 vote, while also campaigning for the leadership of the yet-to-be created United Conservative Party (whether Conservatives are actually more united now is a completely different question).
A vote of 50 percent plus one is needed from PC Party members to approve the deal, but a steeper 75 percent support vote is needed from Wildrose Party members to fulfill their end of the agreement.
As has been pointed out before, it is expected that many conservative activists will purchase memberships in both the PC and Wildrose parties in order to vote twice on July 22.
Some Wildrosers are nervous that the three-quarters support could be hard to achieve.
“On most days it can be hard to get 75 percent of Wildrose members to agree what day of the week it is,” one former Wildrose Party member told me, referring to the raucous reputation and anti-establishment tendencies of the party’s membership. But with the political careers of so many prominent Conservative politicians tied to the success of the July 22 vote, it is hard to believe it would be allowed to fail.
Four candidates have officially declared their interest in running for the leadership of the new United Conservative Party, when and if it is actually formed: Kenney, Wildrose Party leader Brian Jean, Calgary lawyer Doug Schweitzer and Wildrose MLA Derek Fildebrandt.
Both Jean and Kenney have essentially been using their parties as vehicles to promote their leadership campaigns while also setting up separate political action committees. Fildebrandt has created United Liberty PAC and his leadership bid appears to be at least partly inspired by the strong showing by Maxime Bernier in Alberta during the recent federal Conservative leadership race.
It may just be wishful thinking by some conservatives, but speculation continues that former federal Official Opposition leader Rona Ambrose could enter the race. Ambrose recently resigned her seat in Parliament and is expected to begin a new role in Washington D.C. She, along with a crowd of Conservatives MPs, also endorsed Kenney after he announced his bid for the PC leadership a year ago.
Wildrose MLA Rick Strankman, who has represented Drumheller-Stettler since 2012, posted a tweet on July 4, 2017 which appeared to accuse Trudeau of being a “Gutless puke” for not attending the Stampede (see the screenshot).
The tweet was deleted moments after it was posted.
Billed as the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth, the Calgary Stampede is a must-stop destination for political leaders of all stripes and all levels of government. The event also provides a good historical marker of how quickly the political winds of change can sweep through Alberta.
Now to this year’s Stampede, Rachel Notley is Premier of Alberta and there are 53 NDP MLAs in the Alberta Legislative Assembly (including 15 from the Calgary area), a former Member of Parliament named Brian Jean leads the Wildrose Official Opposition, former Calgary alderman Ric McIver leads a 9-MLA PC Caucus, Alberta Party leader Greg Clark is an MLA, and Mr. Prentice has disappeared from the political landscape.
The changes that took place between the two Stampedes are an important reminder about how quickly political change can happen, even in a province that is known for turning political parties into governing dynasties.
With the October 19 federal election less than four months away, it is also an important reminder to Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper that even voters in the Canadian conservative movement’s spiritual homeland cannot be taken for granted. That thought must have crossed Mr. Harper’s mind as he met with Ms. Notley for the first time this week in Calgary.
The provincial election win has boosted the NDP’s credibility and organizational strength, especially in Edmonton, but it is not clear how this will translate in the federal election. Ms. Notley’s win has created opportunity for the federal NDP in Alberta, especially for candidates like Janis Irwin in Edmonton-Griesbach and Linda Duncan in Edmonton-Strathcona. As Tom Mulcair‘s federal NDP focus their resources in Quebec, Ontario and British Columbia, it is to their advantage to put the Conservatives on the defensive in Alberta, a situation that has not happened very often.
The Conservatives are still expected to hold most of Alberta’s ridings in the upcoming federal election but the NDP and Liberals could make gains in the major urban centres.
The truth is that federal Conservatives have always taken Alberta voters for granted, and they have had reason to. Albertans have not elected more than 2 non-conservative MPs in any federal election since 1993. The Conservatives even held all 28 of the province’s federal ridings between 2006 and 2008.
With a federal election fast approaching and and increasingly stale government approaching ten years in Ottawa, the Conservatives may need to spend more time campaigning in Alberta in the next few months, or else there could be a whole new cast of federal politicians wearing plaid shirts and cowboy boots at next year’s Calgary Stampede.
In any other job, breaking the law would likely be cause for dismissal, but this does not appear to be the case if you are a cabinet minister in Alberta’s Progressive Conservative government.
NDP leadership candidate MLA David Eggen, himself a teacher, chimed in on Mr. Johnson’s actions, saying “(It) shows a lack of respect for the teachers and a lack of respect for the law.”
Mr. Johnson, who appears to be intent on dragging the professional credibility of Alberta educators through the mud, also turned his attention to school board administrators this week by demanding they hand over all complaints against teachers from the past ten years. Tory MLAs are expected to discuss Mr. Johnson’s reign of terror at this week’s annual “Stampede Caucus Meeting” in Calgary.
Joe Anglin unleashed
Rabble-rouser MLA Joe Anglin was defeated in his bid to be a Wildrose candidate in the next election. The first-term MLA was defeated by local constituency president Jason Nixon in a controversy-ridden party nomination contest in Rimbey-Rocky Mountain House-Sundre. Mr. Nixon’s brother, Jeremy Nixon, is the nominated Wildrose candidate in Calgary-Klein.
Mr. Anglin now has some decisions to make before the next election. He could quietly complete his term as a Wildrose MLA and retire at the next election, or he could run for another party or as an Independent candidate (given his style, this may be the likely option). A property rights activist and former leader of the Alberta Greens, Mr. Anglin sparked a political wildfire in central Alberta before the 2012 election over widespread opposition to electrical transmission line construction.
Nenshi calls out paid political agitator Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi called out the untransparent Canadian Taxpayers Federation after its spokesperson was invited to speak at the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association conference. Mr. Nenshi has been in a prolonged public feud with the special interest group’s paid political agitator, Derek Fildebrandt. While the Taxpayers Federation preaches transparency for government, it refuses to make public a list of its own financial backers.
This is at least the second time Mr. Butler has switched parties in recent years. Before joining the Liberals, he ran as an NDP candidate in Edmonton-Rutherford in the 2008 provincial election and in Edmonton-Mill Woods-Beaumont in the 2008 federal election. He was the Liberal candidate in Edmonton-Mill Woods-Beaumont in the 2011 federal election and in Edmonton-Mill Creek in the 2012 provincial election.