Alberta Premier Jason Kenney waited until the final day of the six-month statutory window to call the byelection. (Photo by Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta)

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney waited until the final day of the six-month statutory window to call the byelection. (Photo by Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta)

Premier Jason Kenney calls March 15 byelection, UCP candidate campaigning to oust him

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has called a byelection that will feature his own candidate campaigning to topple him as leader.

Elections Alberta announced Tuesday the launch of a four-week campaign in Fort McMurray-Lac La Biche. Voters in the northern constituency will head to the polls March 15.

Brian Jean, a former Kenney political partner turned foe, is running to retain the seat for the United Conservatives.

Ariana Mancini will run for the Opposition NDP. Paul Hinman, leader of the Wildrose Independence Party, has announced he will also contest the seat.

The constituency came open last August after UCP backbencher Laila Goodridge stepped down to run, successfully, for the Conservative party in the federal election.

Kenney waited until the final day of the six-month statutory window to call the byelection.

Kenney said he wanted to wait to get through the Omicron wave of COVID-19.

“We thought it would be difficult for local candidates of all parties to campaign in that environment,” he said. “Having held it late is a way that we can ensure the campaign ensues as we’re coming down in terms of COVID numbers and hospital pressures.”

Kenney and Jean have a long history dating back to when they were federal Conservative MPs.

Both eventually left to enter Alberta provincial politics. Jean took over as head of the Wildrose Party and Kenney became leader of the Progressive Conservatives.

Together they co-founded the United Conservative Party in 2017. Jean lost the leadership of the new party to Kenney in a vote stained by accusations of secret deals, colluding candidates and fraud.

Jean, who is from Fort McMurray, has represented the area as an member of Parliament and as a provincial member of the legislature.

He eventually quit his UCP seat, but announced last November that he was coming out of retirement to run again for the party in the byelection with the goal of ousting Kenney as party leader and premier.

He has criticized Kenney’s performance on multiple files and has suggested the premier’s top-down approach to government was causing Albertans to ditch the UCP in droves, opening the door to an NDP government in the 2023 election.

The Jean fight is one of two brush fires Kenney is trying to put out while working to improve his low popularity numbers and boost party fundraising that lags well behind the Opposition NDP.

On April 9, party members are to gather in Red Deer to vote on Kenney’s leadership. The vote was originally supposed to happen this fall, but Kenney agreed to move it up to tamp down growing discontent within caucus over his job performance.

Kenney has framed the vote not as a referendum on his performance, but as important to repel fringe elements threatening the stability, core ideology and achievements of his party and government.

“There will be an effort obviously by many of the folks involved in these (COVID-19) protests — who perhaps have never belonged to a party before — to show up at that special general meeting to use it as a platform for their anger about COVID measures over the past two years,” he said.

“So it’s incumbent on mainstream Alberta conservatives to also show up in large numbers to send a message about the importance of stability and maintaining a big-tent mainstream coalition for the interests of the future of the province.”

Last May, backbencher Todd Loewen was voted out of caucus after he publicly called for Kenney to resign. Drew Barnes, another strident Kenney critic, was also voted out.

Less than two months later, Kenney dropped Leela Aheer from cabinet after she criticized his COVID-19 performance. Kenney denied the demotion was retribution.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 15, 2022.