Earlier this year, Danielle Smith’s United Conservatives and Rachel Notley’s New Democrats waged an election battle for the ages. Throughout the spring campaign, each party led in polls at different stages — and sometimes split them during the same week. Both leaders struggled at times to connect with voters and apologized for past political mistakes and decisions. A significant number of Albertans couldn’t decide which direction they wanted the province to take until the very end.
The UCP ended up winning the closest election in Alberta history on May 29. Smith took forty-nine seats and almost 53 percent of the popular vote. She won most of those seats in rural areas. Notley, who had served as premier from 2015 to 2019, won thirty-eight seats and 44 percent of the vote. She swept Edmonton and carried fourteen of twenty-six seats in Calgary. In a province that was once regarded as Canada’s most reliably Conservative, this was a surprising result. Indeed, some left-leaning commentators and academics seemed certain it was going to turn out differently. They didn’t count on Smith’s ability to turn around the UCP’s fortunes after the stunning collapse of her predecessor, Jason Kenney.
Three professors from Calgary’s Mount Royal University — Duane Bratt, Richard Sutherland, and the late David Taras — likely fit into that camp. Their Blue Storm: The Rise and Fall of Jason Kenney is a volume highly critical of the former premier and of the UCP. Its editors and contributors, most but not all of them scholars at various Alberta universities, correctly identify some of the Kenney government’s mistakes, but the heavily partisan nature of many essays and a discernible bias toward Notley and progressive politics tempers its effect as a meaningful appraisal.
While some readers — and, one imagines, the book’s writers — may feel my negative assessment is linked to my conservative ideology, it’s not. There’s nothing wrong with critiques of left-leaning and right-leaning governments, party leaders, and politicians. I’ve praised books in this publication (and others) written by or about those on the political left: liberals, socialists, even Marxists. The main issue I have with Blue Storm is what’s painfully obvious: almost everyone involved in this project is singing from the same song sheet. The echo chamber becomes rather tedious, and the resulting lack of objective writing is quite frustrating to observe.
Jason Kenney — the former president and CEO of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and a powerful advocate for small government and lower taxes — served as a Reform Party, Canadian Alliance, and Conservative member of Parliament between 1997 and 2016. He never lost an election and was a highly respected senior cabinet minister in Stephen Harper’s government, responsible for immigration and later defence. In the fall of 2016, he switched to provincial politics, winning the Alberta PC leadership the following March and merging his political outfit with Brian Jean’s Wildrose Party in July to form the UCP. He was elected leader of that new party in October 2017 and easily beat the NDP’s Notley in the 2019 general election to form a majority government. But everything came crashing down during the pandemic. Kenney was attacked by critics and advocates alike for his leadership, political judgment (or lack thereof), policies, and inability to manage COVID-19. He stepped down as premier on October 11, 2022.
I first met Kenney in 1996, and we crossed paths occasionally in Ottawa and elsewhere, but I haven’t spoken with him in several years, including during his entire tenure in Edmonton. I would never have guessed his long political career would flame out in such a stunning and embarrassing fashion. Almost nobody would have. It must have been a surreal moment for one of the most important and identifiable figures in Canada’s conservative movement.
Blue Storm sets out to examine the Kenney government’s “ambitious plans to return to ‘true’ conservatism reminiscent of the early [Ralph] Klein years, and how these plans were received.” It reviews “efforts to will the province out of its sense of decline by taking on national and international forces calling for a shift away from fossil fuels”; how the pandemic “laid bare the internal tensions in the UCP”; and “the tragic consequences of the government’s inability to manage the situation.” The premier “remained a central and increasingly controversial figure,” and contributors, in telling a “story of hubris,” seek to show the “excessive pride and self-confidence that left Jason Kenney resigning before finishing his first term.” The editors set a high bar, which the book does not fully clear.
COVID-19 was a significant issue for the UCP, and the government struggled to keep its head above the pandemic waters, with policies and messaging changing at a far too rapid pace. “Kenney and his government alternated between inaction and action,” Lisa Young writes, “sometimes dismissing measures as ineffective or inappropriate only days before enacting them.” While certain moves appeared positive to some eyes — keeping schools and businesses open, for example, with minimal public health restrictions — the number of COVID-19 deaths in Alberta during the second, third, and fourth waves was higher on a proportional basis than in Canada as a whole. Indeed, Young correctly points out that the provincial government’s approach “satisfied neither those who wanted minimal government intervention nor those demanding a robust response.”
Doug King writes that “the UCP took legislative action to limit municipalities from responding to the pandemic,” which led local leaders and the general public to see the party’s approach “as informed largely by its own political agenda.” King’s colleague Charles F. Webber describes how the “periods of uncertainty and conflicting advice” in Alberta schools — around masking, ventilation, and online accessibility —“led some parents to keep their children at home even when schools were open.” David K. Stewart and Anthony M. Sayers note that “divisions within the UCP relating to COVID-19 were strong and stark and included something of an internal caucus revolt by sixteen MLAs, two MLAs kicked out of caucus for their criticism of pandemic policies, the resignation of the caucus chair, and the removal of the deputy premier from her position shortly after criticizing the premier for a dinner that seemed to violate health rules.”
Beyond the pandemic, a section on oil and gas policies contains some pat analysis. Bratt, for instance, suggests that while the UCP announced its government was going to dismantle Notley’s Climate Leadership Plan upon taking office, Smith actually “maintained or enhanced” most of it, “with the notable exception of the economy-wide carbon tax.” To explain this apparent contradiction, Bratt examines the differences between what he calls the “Public Kenney,” as expressed “in speeches, press conferences, advertising, and high-profile announcements,” and the “Private Kenney,” at play “behind the scenes with bureaucrats, industry, cabinet officials, and relations with other governments.” Most politicians have mastered the art of speaking out of both sides of their mouth, so Bratt’s assessment is pointed but unoriginal.
Jean-Sébastien Rioux focuses on what he perceives as the government’s folly with respect to energy and pipelines. As an example, he quotes parts of Kenney’s November 2020 statement that he “doesn’t trust Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to stick with the completion of the Trans Mountain pipeline Ottawa bought in 2018” and that he “was not prepared to put all of our eggs in the basket of the Justin Trudeau-owned pipeline.” Rioux finds this logic to be “unusual.” Why? The premier didn’t trust the federal government, which held “most levers to make it happen,” yet his “counter-move was to invest even more money — comparatively speaking on a per capita basis — to own a stake in a pipeline in which the provincial government had almost no legal power to influence because most of it was across an international border.” The academic’s query is a simplistic one: “Was that hubris-level confidence on display?”
Whether we agree or disagree with each writer’s analysis, the government’s policies are worthy of further discussion and debate. Unfortunately, far too many chapters get into questionable weeds. Consider Melanee Thomas’s essay on populism and gender, which is more or less a stereotypical far-left attack on Conservatives and their leaders. “I can understand skeptical readers dismissing the possibility that much of the UCP’s rhetoric and support is driven by sexist, racist, or homophobic reactions to group hierarchies being potentially eroded by the NDP government or the oil and gas bust,” she writes. So can I: because it’s simply not true. Kenney’s UCP had diverse policies and political support from across the province. It didn’t target specific groups during elections or while in power. Kenney also had plenty of female MLAs and cabinet ministers who held senior roles and made important political and economic contributions.
Roger Epp offers a study of rural areas and the politics of decline in order to illustrate a developing disconnect (or schism, one supposes) with the UCP. He suggests the government’s “rural policy interests under Kenney were focussed on resource extraction.” This predisposition led it to “reduce or suspend tax assessments for energy producers” over the “strong objections” of the Rural Municipalities of Alberta. Epp reports that when it came to Indigenous relations, Kenney argued that “Alberta oil, in effect, was not only ethical oil in a world where dictators and human rights abusers were going to keep producing it” but also “reconciliation oil.” And in southern Alberta, voters had to deal with “large-scale private solar developments,” bitcoin mining, and a global market that moved prices “increasingly out of reach of local people and livelihoods,” which would “certainly result in the transfer of more wealth out of rural places to lenders, investors, and heirs.” Overall, Epp’s argument is an odd one to make. Rural Alberta and conservative values have always gone hand in hand, despite infrequent disagreements over specific politics and policy. Smith’s success in rural ridings (winning thirty-seven of forty-one) shows that while support for the UCP may have briefly struggled under Kenney’s leadership, it never disintegrated.
Chaseten Remillard and Tyler Nagel provide a strange chapter on neo-liberalism in Alberta, centred on Kenney’s use of a blue pickup on his “Truck Tour,” which began in 2016 during his rise to provincial power. The co-authors propose that the Dodge Ram 1500 “functioned to mobilize a powerful set of existent cultural and societal repertoires.” In getting behind the wheel, Kenney entered “a symbology that neatly aligned with a host of neo-liberal populist myths of what Alberta is and who Albertans are.” Moreover, Kenney’s choice of vehicle “aligned his own personal political brand with the well-trodden symbology of the pickup truck, and brought together powerful myths of Alberta exceptionalism, sovereignty, anti-elitism, and populist homogeneity.” This is a classic case of making a mountain out of a molehill. Albertans have enjoyed trucks for generations. It has never mattered who they are, where they come from, or even how they vote. Kenney quite possibly drove a blue Dodge Ram across Alberta because — wait for it — he simply liked it. Not every decision in life is politically motivated.
Ultimately, the wild fluctuation between thought-provoking leftist critiques and rigid hard-left ideological rants makes Blue Storm a frustrating and less than satisfying read. Those expecting plenty of thunder and lightning in this Sturm und Drang will in fact find little more than light rain and an assortment of puddles.
Michael Taube was a speech writer for former prime minister Stephen Harper. He is a syndicated columnist for Troy Media.