The people of Fort McMurray-Lac La Biche waited six whole months for Premier Jason Kenney to call a by-election to choose their next MLA.
That’s an eternity in politics.
But the by-election in the northern Alberta boom town isn’t really about the people who actually live there.
It’s about who leads the United Conservative Party.
Former Wildrose leader Brian Jean is running as an anti-Kenney UCP candidate.
Jean beat Kenney’s favourite in a December nomination vote and has made no secret his desire to replace him as leader.
In fact, every candidate in this by-election is running against Kenney. It’s the reason why the Premier won’t be seen anywhere near Fort McMurray before the March 15 vote.
But Jean’s focus isn’t really on Fort McMurray-Lac La Biche.
It’s on Red Deer.
The by-election is a proxy war ahead of the UCP’s April 9 leadership review.
Jean loyalist Vitor Marciano was in Bonnyville last month with local MLA Dave Hanson talking about why UCP members should dump Kenney.
“On April 9, we’re voting out a tyrant,” former Kenney organizer David Parker said at the meeting.
You can listen to it here.
Parker was Kenney’s Central Alberta organizer in the 2017 leadership race.
Now, Parker is the executive director of Take Back Alberta, a political action committee created to defeat Kenney in the leadership review.
Until recently, Parker was Vice President of Business Development for Higher Ground Medica.
The President and CEO of the Oyen-based Cannabis company is Jeff Callaway.
Yep. That Jeff Callaway.
Alberta politics is a very small world.
Another front in the challenge to Kenney’s leadership is raging on the slopes of the Rocky Mountains in the sprawling Rimbey-Rocky Mountain House-Sundre riding.
Jean joined exiled former UCP MLA Drew Barnes in backing former county councillor Tim Hoven against MLA Jason Nixon in the UCP nomination race.
“Tim Hoven has stepped up to do a brave thing,” Jean said in his Facebook video endorsement of Hoven.
Nixon is a heavy hitter in Kenney’s inner circle.
He’s the Government House Leader and Minister of Environment & Parks.
The Giant from Sundre backed Kenney over Jean in the UCP’s 2017 leadership race – an endorsement that was a critical moment in that contest.
His absence in the Legislature last week was conspicuous.
Rumour is that Nixon was busy driving around his riding campaigning for the nomination.
In the deep south, Jean has endorsed Vulcan County councillor Jodie Gateman in the Cardston-Siksika UCP nomination race.
Gateman is the long-time conservative activist challenging UCP Deputy Government House Leader Joseph Schow, another well-known Kenney loyalist.
“She stepped up because she sees the need to change things in the UCP, the need to bring renewal and take the party back to its original sense of purpose,” Jean said in his endorsement of Gateman.
Back up in Fort McMurray-Lac La Biche, where the by-election is actually happening, NDP candidate Ariana Mancini is busy hitting the doors.
The local elementary school teacher has been joined on the campaign trail by Edmonton NDP MLAs Rakhi Pancholi, Richard Feehan and David Eggen.
“Folks in Fort McMurray have had enough of the drama and the infighting in the UCP,” Mancini said at her February 15 campaign launch.
“We need a government that is focused on families and businesses here in our community,” Mancini said.
Rachel Notley’s NDP are putting in an effort but it’s a long-shot for them. The last time voters in this part of Alberta elected a New Democrat was 1986.
Jean is the favourite to win but by-elections are a funny thing.
Enter Paul Hinman on stage right.
Another former Wildrose Party leader, Hinman is now leading the separatist Wildrose Independence Party.
He’s also running in the by-election.
Hinman and Jean are competing for the love of the Freedom Convoy supporters by promoting conspiracy theories about COVID-19, the World Economic Forum and the Emergency Measures Act.
Hinman has a history of winning by-elections (well ok, one).
After losing his seat in Cardston-Taber-Warner in 2008 he shocked political watchers by winning a by-election one year later in posh Calgary-Glenmore.
A political comeback for Hinman up north would be an earthquake for Alberta politics.
A split on the increasingly unhinged political right could give the increasingly moderate NDP a chance to run up the middle to a win.
When the history books are written, the Fort McMuray-Lac La Biche by-election might just be a footnote in the chapter about the April 9 leadership review.
Or maybe, just maybe, the results on March 15 will grab the attention of Albertans.
Candidates in the March 15 Fort McMurray-Lac La Biche by-election.
- Marilyn Burns, Alberta Advantage Party
- Brian Deheer, Independent
- Abdulhakim Hussein, Liberal Party
- Michelle Landsiedel, Alberta Party
- Ariana Mancini, Alberta NDP
- Steven Mellott, Independence Party
- Brian Jean, United Conservative Party