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Jason Kenney has everything to lose

Jason Kenney’s inexorable rise in Alberta politics has been more difficult than it looked. Can he close the deal?
Jason Kenney at the Manning Networking Conference 2018 in Ottawa. (Dave Chan)
Jason Kenney at the Manning Networking Conference 2018 in Ottawa. (Dave Chan)

The next chapter of Jason Kenney’s life began when the last one decisively ended, on federal election night 2015. Dozens of Conservatives held an impromptu wake for their government at the James Joyce Irish Pub in downtown Calgary. It was a favourite Guinness-swilling spot of Kenney’s when he returned to his political home—he’d fondly tell Irish servers of his initiatives as immigration minister—and it sat a block from the convention hall where Stephen Harper had just acknowledged his loss to Justin Trudeau and announced his resignation as Conservative leader.

Other Tories floated around the pub that October night, but Kenney held court for hours at a table at the back of the Joyce, his clutch of confreres including Hal Danchilla, a veteran Alberta operative and fellow adviser to Stockwell Day during the former leader’s stormy tenure atop the Canadian Alliance. For years, Kenney had loyally resisted musing, publicly or privately, about running to succeed Harper, though it was on everybody’s mind. Finally, with the leader’s announcement, the stalwart soldier could talk about becoming commander. Kenney stumbled out of the pub after probably a few beers too many; details of the discussion remained hazy.

For months afterward, he mulled pursuing the federal party’s crown. “There was a sense of inevitability about it even for me, because I had such a vast national political network, and obviously a defined political personality in terms of where I’d like the party to go,” he recalls in an interview. Doubts chiselled away that certainty. He’d grown exhausted after serving Harper as a senior cabinet minister, trusted political strategist and tireless conduit to myriad ethnic communities. Like everyone else, he realized the liability of running as another unapologetically conservative white guy from Calgary. Allies kept nudging him away from Ottawa and toward Alberta, where the NDP had stunningly taken over in May 2015 and two conservative parties, the Progressive Conservatives and Wildrose, jostled in opposition. He feared the disunity that once plagued the federal right, and worried about the NDP establishing a durable beachhead in that bastion of conservatism.

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One night in May 2016, Kenney, an MP with no cabinet or critic duties for the first time in his career, and with no partner to nag him to kill the lights, stayed up past dawn in his condo. He crafted a 25-page memo to himself about how to retake Alberta, become leader of a dilapidated PC ­party, forge a merger with Wildrose, secure leadership of that new party and then keep marching onwards, right at Premier Rachel Notley. The next 20-some months unfolded as planned.

Roughly one year out from the spring 2019 Alberta election, Kenney now stands as leader of the official opposition United Conservative Party and is positioned in polls to become premier with a big majority. He’s replicated the electoral coalition-building he did faithfully for Day and Harper—a rural church basement here, a Sikh temple there—but this time as top pitchman for a party being moulded partly in his own image, partly as the second coming of cost-cutting former premier Ralph Klein and his folksy “Alberta Advantage.”

Kenney has sold himself convincingly to Alberta conservatives, but now must close the deal with Alberta as a whole, with no shortage of unknowns between him and the brass ring. The provincial economy might recover before he can rush to its rescue; Notley is showing talent as a defender of her province against pipeline opponents; the leader and his grassroots backers have yet to decide just how far from the political centre they dare to plant their party flag. He’s thundered into provincial politics with a dizzying array of goals and accomplishments, and is now aiming for the biggest one yet. Only Kenney would consider this the less exhausting path.

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Complex dualities defined Kenney’s persona in Ottawa. He’d make hundreds of handshake connections at community events, then find solitude well past midnight in his condo or office, immersing himself in paperwork, books, Gregorian chants or Armenian liturgical music. He’s admitted to being a question period “attack dog” and heckler, but insisted on full opposition briefings on his ministry’s legislation and consulted extensively with NDP MP Olivia Chow on the government’s 2006 Chinese head tax apology. He’s no fan of exercise, but was driven enough to shed 40 lb., mainly through dieting in the four months since winning the UCP leadership (he admits to yo-yoing back from greater weight losses, and predicts he will again).

As political attacks seemingly must, the Notley NDP’s strategy involves caricaturing Kenney: he is a “dinosaur” on social issues and the leader of an arch-right government wrecking crew. “He’s mostly interested in giving massive tax giveaways to the richest Albertans. He didn’t come back to Alberta for ordinary Albertans,” says Deron Bilous, a senior NDP minister.

Kenney served 18 years as MP for Calgary Southeast but often spent only a few days per month back in Alberta, focusing time in Ottawa or on ethnic community networking that made him a more recognizable face in the Chinese malls of Richmond, B.C., than in West Edmonton Mall. To woo Albertans, he’s acquired a blue Dodge pickup truck, accessorized his ubiquitous navy blazer with blue jeans and added “get ’er done” to a rhetorical repertoire otherwise populated with terms like “concomitant” and quotations from St. Augustine. He says he’s enjoyed “getting re-engaged with the wonderfully unpretentious people of Alberta.” Plus, he doesn’t miss the roughly 150 flights he used to take annually—he’s down to 10.

Experience on the “curry in a hurry” circuit does pay off in his new provincial sphere—immigrants comprise 29 per cent of Calgary’s metro population and 24 per cent of Edmonton’s, and there are Lebanese leaders in Lac La Biche and Gujaratis in Lethbridge to visit as well. He talks less nowadays of immigration issues, appealing to the heads and hearts of newcomers on economic points, instead: low taxes, pro-business and anti-regulation. That and personal connections, the long-time core of his ethnic outreach strategy.

Leader of the UCP Party in Alberta Jason Kenney in Calgary, Alberta, February 23, 2018. (Photography by Todd Korol)

On a February Friday night, his Dodge Ram stops first at a UCP association dinner in predominantly South Asian northeast Calgary. Spotting somebody’s Realtor lapel pin, Kenney asks: “Still selling those houses?” Hearing that one woman arrived from India in 2010 while he was immigration minister, he quips: “I signed your papers!” Entering the hotel banquet hall, he greets one man in Arabic, and in the next breath says hi to another in Urdu. His speech adds salutations in Punjabi, Hindi and, because old federal habits die hard, French. (His steady bashing of Trudeau and the federal Liberals suggests he hasn’t gotten Ottawa off his mind; then again, Trudeau-baiting is a reliable Alberta crowd-pleaser.) Aside from praising new Canadians’ entrepreneurial ethic, he largely sticks to his stump message; applause lines about scrapping Alberta’s carbon tax and boosting pipelines don’t land as well as they do in other settings. His mingling done, Kenney learns he’s more than an hour late to a Hong Kong-Canada business group’s Lunar New Year gala in Calgary’s Chinatown. He arrives after speeches and the first six of 10 supper courses, and must network over a live jazz band. But an MLA colleague helps Kenney find a couple of hours’ worth of people keen to chat up the party leader.

His NDP opponents say Kenney’s immigration policies didn’t endear him to some communities, but he’s warmly received among Alberta’s Chinese. Kenney says Alberta New Democrats show up to some events, “but I don’t see a deep realignment at all”—certainly not compared to what he saw when he competed in these communities against the federal Liberals.

Kenney recruited his first chief of staff, Tenzin Khangsar, after impressing him with his knowledge of Tibetan rights advocacy. “You cannot fault an incredible salesman, whether they’re a politician or a non-politician. If they truly listen and share your values, it doesn’t feel like a sale,” says Khangsar, who was Kenney’s aide in 2006 when Harper passed him over for his first cabinet and instead gave his political outreach a government title: secretary of state for multiculturalism. It’s a role Kenney would embrace and retain as he took portfolios in immigration, employment and defence.

Last April, when a Ukrainian group brought its Holodomor genocide memory bus to Edmonton, Kenney, then the PC leader, showed his higher-level savvy. Brian Jean, then leading the Wildrose, made a hackneyed crack to the crowd about overeating at an Orthodox Easter perogy supper; Kenney, speaking next, greeted the audience in Ukrainian, unpacked the definition of genocide and quoted a Czech émigré novelist on struggles against tyranny.

The Saturday after the Indian and Chinatown suppers, he takes in a men’s wild-game supper at an Alliance Church in small-town Daysland, then spends Sunday at a meet-and-greet at a golf course on a Calgary bedroom community’s rural outskirts. Here, this tireless political salesman warms up the crowd with a farm joke he heard in the area decades ago: “How many politicians does it take to lubricate a combine? Just one, but sometimes you’ve got to roll them through a couple times.”

Though he speaks eloquently about immigrants’ homeland oppression and farmers’ unpretentiousness, Kenney’s upbringing was removed from both.

Leader of the UCP Party in Alberta Jason Kenney during a news conference regarding Alberta pipelines in Calgary, Alberta, February 23, 2018. (Photography by Todd Korol)

Born in Oakville, Ont., in 1968 to a private-school teacher father, Martin Kenney (Kenney’s granddad, Mart Kenney, was a famed big-band leader), at age eight Jason moved to Wilcox, Sask., (population: 250) when Martin became president of the Athol Murray College of Notre Dame boarding school. He split high school between Saskatchewan and a Vancouver Island private school. His first political forays were as a Young Liberal: he suffered his only election loss to date running as the national youth wing’s vice-president of policy in 1986. Two years later, he served as an aide to Ralph Goodale, when the now-cabinet minister led the Saskatchewan Liberals. He says he discovered conservatism through the pages of his University of San Francisco roommate’s neoconservative National Review magazine. Back in Canada, Kevin Avram, a libertarian who grew up one town over from Wilcox, was sufficiently charmed by the young man’s smarts and convictions to move him to Edmonton to lead the nascent Alberta wing of his fledgling taxpayers group. Kenney consistently irked then-premier Klein over issues like political pensions and spending. “He didn’t cower or flinch,” Avram says. “Ralph could be a lion, and Jason roared right back.” When Avram moved on, Kenney at 25 became head of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, and three years later moved south to Calgary to win a federal seat for Preston Manning’s Reform party. Manning later tapped this rising star to co-chair the United Alternative initiative to unite the federal right, and when that spawned the Canadian Alliance, Kenney abandoned his boss to run Stockwell Day’s leadership bid.

Kenney has a rare political background of both fiscal and social conservatism. When he led student council at the University of San Francisco, a Jesuit college, he launched a petition urging the Roman Catholic Church to sever ties with the school because it allowed abortion-rights lobbying on campus. “Organizations whose objectives are antithetical to the gospel, including racist, pro-abortion and homosexual groups, could soon be using facilities and resources that have been consecrated to the promotion of justice and human dignity,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle in 1990. The archbishop rejected the petition that summer, and Kenney never returned to finish his undergraduate philosophy degree. In 2002, when he backed Day’s unsuccessful second Alliance leadership bid, Kenney accused rival candidate Stephen Harper of being ambiguous and said he may have flip-flopped on abortion. Kenney remained a consistent “no” vote on issues like same-sex marriage, something the New Democrats plan to not let Albertans forget. But provincially, he’s photocopied Harper’s position on social questions: Kenney won’t legislate on the issue, but will allow his caucus free votes if matters come up.

READ MORE: Jason Kenney wooed Alberta’s conservatives. Next, the rest of Alberta.

Kenney allies routinely bring up his efforts as immigration minister to bring in gay people persecuted in Iraq and Iran, but there’s no mention of him expanding or safeguarding LGBTQ rights for those within Canada. The week he became UCP leader, Notley’s government introduced a bill preventing school staff from outing students who join gay-straight alliances, and Kenney opposed it on the grounds that it impinged on parental rights. In the ensuing furor, he opened up to radio host Charles Adler about his volunteer work during college at a nun-led centre for (mostly) gay men: “If the things they say about me are true, then explain to me why a young Jason Kenney spent his time washing bloody sheets at an AIDS hospice in San Francisco in the 1980s.” But he’s never found time in his packed cultural outreach schedule to attend a Pride parade, and last fall singer k.d. lang needled him on Twitter: “You’re gay, aren’t you?” Asked by Maclean’s about other speculation published over the years regarding his orientation, Kenney replied: “My life is a lot more boring than some of my critics seem to imagine.”

Still, his solitary personal life is clearly a defining character trait—Kenney has never had a public romantic partner to divert his attention or encumber his work ethic. That has allowed him to routinely log 20-hour work days and 20-event weekends (he’s throttled it back a bit since going provincial), a regimen that has made friends worry about his health and his ability to delegate in the leadership role. “We used to joke with him: Jason, you have to find time to get married and have your own family. He used to laugh,” says former aide Agop Evereklian. “Laugh in the sense that it’s wishful thinking on our part.”

Chris Alexander, who replaced Kenney as immigration minister in 2013, says, “He has something of the monk in him . . . There’s a part of him that has renounced other things to focus on his calling, and his calling is politics.” Kenney admits weakness in work-life balance; with his torrid schedule, “there’s not a lot of time for what I guess a lot of people consider a conventional lifestyle. But I don’t sit around reflecting much on that. I’m happy with what I do.”

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For nine years, Kenney sat in a Harper cabinet beset by competing impulses: on one hand, avid conservatism, on the other, incrementalism—the idea that Canadians had to be brought along gradually to accept the Conservative agenda on taxes and programs. A defining question in the run-up to Alberta’s next election is how much cautious incrementalism Kenney will employ, or how free he’ll feel to untether his conservative id.

He’ll have more elbow room in traditionally Tory Alberta, says former Conservative war room colleague Jason Lietaer. “He was really good at convincing people in a room where the available vote was maybe 42 per cent,” he says. “I’m excited to see what he can do when the available vote is 60 [or higher].” (Polls have generally shown his party support above 50 per cent, Notley’s around 30.)

Kenney returned briefly to Ottawa in February as keynote speaker at the Manning Centre’s annual conservative confab. He warned fellow partisans about the perils of trying to mimic “squishy, meaningless, opportunistic” liberalism. We must be bold, Kenney told conservatives: “Voters want—and they deserve—to have a choice and not an echo”—a line evoking Barry Goldwater, the 1960s icon of both resolute U.S. conservatism and presidential campaign defeat. Kenney preached “courageous” reforms on health care entitlements, and more “school choice rather than state monopoly.”

Weeks earlier, his United Conservatives had released a discussion paper proposing those greatly expanded private-sector roles in health and education, and other red meat like restoring the flat provincial income tax of the later Klein years. He insists he didn’t help write this framework, that he will accept whatever members approve at May’s UCP founding convention, and that he wants to stay “within the mainstream of Alberta politics.” This hasn’t stopped Notley’s team from warning of damage his reforms can do, while Kenney keeps promising a “summer of repeal” during his first months as premier, when he will undo the carbon tax and other NDP initiatives. He points out in each speech that he respects Notley and wishes to avoid personal attacks, yet his references to the NDP as a “tax-raising, debt-quadrupling, job-killing, accidental-socialist government” have launched a thousand nasty Twitter memes (Notley’s riposte: “the UCP’s job-killing, climate-denying, gay-outing, school-cutting, health-privatizing, backward-looking, hope-destroying, divisive agenda”).

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All of which may leave an opening at the political centre—albeit a small one. Three of nine Progressive Conservative MLAs left during Kenney’s rise, each worried he was dynamiting the moderate side. Rick Fraser, the last one to bolt, was left sour when he hosted Kenney at his Calgary home with his wife and several friends. Women were particularly turned off, Fraser says, when they asked Kenney about LGBTQ rights and the federal Tories’ niqab ban at citizenship ceremonies, and he deflected. “If people thought I was a homophobe, I wouldn’t be elected by 70 per cent,’ ” Fraser recalls Kenney saying. The UCP leader’s team is also keenly aware of how he’s underperformed among women in polls; so eagerly are they courting female candidates that Maclean’s witnessed Kenney meeting a young neurologist at the Chinatown dinner and promptly asking her if she’d consider running.

Wayne Drysdale, who initially opposed Kenney’s leadership but remains one of his MLAs, is worried about social conservatism and says he’s had “frank” talks with Kenney. “He’s the leader and I’ll follow him, but I told him if I think you’re going over a cliff, I won’t go over the cliff,” he says. The policy direction will be critical to former PCs, Drysdale adds: “There’s a lot them, somewhat like me, watching and waiting: who is the UCP?” Some, like Fraser, rushed into the Alberta Party, a third-way centrist faction now led by Stephen Mandel, a former Edmonton mayor and PC health minister, though it remains low in the polls.

Kenney’s Ralph Klein revivalist appeal poses its own challenges. Alberta’s population has grown by 50 per cent since the ex-premier’s heyday, so immigrants and interprovincial arrivals have no Klein memories to evoke. What’s more, many older Albertans outside Kenney’s base have bitter memories of Klein’s coarseness, public-service slashing and lack of long-term vision. To former Harper chief of staff Ian Brodie, it’s a funny way to present yourself in a province whose energy economy faces a turbulent and uncertain future. “If you think victory is a foregone conclusion, then by all means, indulge your nostalgia for 1993,” Brodie wrote recently for CBC.ca. But conservatives, he noted, didn’t imagine losing to the NDP the first time in 2015.

Today, the NDP points incessantly to the economy’s recovery, though they get less credit for this upswing than blame for the past downswing. Kenney’s bashing of Notley as a foe of the petroleum sector took a temporary blow when she banned B.C.’s wine over that province’s proposed pipeline crackdown: only after she relented, responding to a minor concession from Premier John Horgan, did Kenney resume the captaincy of Team Bellicose. In the coming Alberta budget, meanwhile, the NDP promises a “credible” plan to end deficits, potentially dampening another of Kenney’s chief arguments.

Which is to say, Alberta’s 2019 election will pit Canada’s least left-wing NDP leader against its most right-wing Conservative. Given so much of Kenney’s background, outhustling Notley should nevertheless be easy. Going by history—Kenney’s and Alberta’s—victory is in his sights. But in this province, at least lately, the past is no sure predictor of the future.

Clarification: The original version of this story described Kenney as being unemployed after the 2015 federal election; in fact, he was re-elected as an MP and serving in opposition.