Alberta Wildrose leader Brian Jean, left, and Alberta PC leader Jason Kenney walk in to a press conference to announce a unity deal between the two in Edmonton on Thursday, May 18, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

Alberta Wildrose leader Brian Jean, left, and Alberta PC leader Jason Kenney walk in to a press conference to announce a unity deal between the two in Edmonton on Thursday, May 18, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

Brian Jean set to return to Alberta legislature, gears up for showdown with premier

Jean has been buttonholing party members to sign up and vote against Kenney in a leadership review

Brian Jean, the new member of Premier Jason Kenney’s United Conservative caucus, is expected to return to the Alberta legislature this week and escalate his campaign to get Kenney ousted from the top job.

“I’m going to be speaking truth to power. I’m not going to be hiding from it,” Jean said in an interview after winning Tuesday’s byelection to represent the UCP in his hometown riding.

“What I expect to do is to speak the voice that has been given to me by the people of Fort McMurray-Lac La Biche.

“I have a clear mandate from them, and I believe an overwhelming mandate from the people of Alberta who want a change in leadership and a renewal of the UCP.

“If we don’t, the NDP will win an overwhelming majority (in the next election).”

Jean, who founded the UCP with Kenney in 2017, defeated seven challengers in a landslide victory, capturing two-thirds of the votes cast.

He is to meet up with colleagues at the legislature Thursday but does not expect to be sworn in as a member until April 4 at the earliest, which is a non-sitting week for the legislature.

That means Jean may not sit in the UCP caucus or in the house until April 12 — after a hotly contested UCP leadership review in Red Deer on April 9.

If Kenney fails to capture a majority of votes from party rank and file, a leadership contest is triggered. Campaigns are ongoing to sign up members.

Jean has been actively buttonholing members to sign up and vote against the premier. Kenney has tasked his chief of staff, Pam Livingston, to take unpaid time off to round up support.

The cutoff for selling memberships is Saturday and about 8,000 have been signed up to date.

Kenney, facing low poll numbers, strife in his party and rifts in his caucus, has characterized the vote not as a referendum on him.

Rather, he has framed it as a proxy fight for the soul of a mainstream conservative party waged by extremists and those unhappy with restrictions imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Wednesday, Kenney spoke to rural leaders about the difficult decisions his government had to make to balance personal liberties with public health.

He urged critics to put aside their grievances and work toward a more prosperous future fuelled by his government’s projected budget surplus and a burgeoning economy

“I know many of you were deeply frustrated with restrictions and so was I, so were all of us who had to make these decisions,” Kenney said in a speech to the spring convention of the Rural Municipalities of Alberta in Edmonton.

“We tried our best without a textbook to navigate, admittedly through trial and error, the least damaging approach that we could.”

He said the gravity of the consequences struck home last fall as the Delta variant pushed Alberta’s hospital system to the brink of collapse.

“There were days when there was, sitting on my desk in September, an authorization for triage protocols. Had we gone about 30 more people in ICU, we would have run out of our maximum stretch capacity,” said Kenney.

“By signing that, we would have been airlifting people to Toronto, pulling life support on others and denying others care.”

He added: “I had the chief coroner call my office and ask for permission to rent freezer trailers as backup morgues because he was running out of space.”

Critics, including the Opposition NDP, have said Kenney was the author of Alberta’s misfortune when he lifted almost all health restrictions last summer, despite warnings the Delta variant was taking hold. He didn’t take corrective action with renewed incentives and restrictions until months later, after soaring case numbers threatened to overwhelm the health system.

Kenney congratulated Jean by Tweet late Tuesday after the byelection victory, but did not mention him or the win in his convention speech.

Kenney and Jean have been political colleagues going back to when they were federal Conservative MPs.

Both eventually left to enter Alberta provincial politics, with Jean taking over as head of the Wildrose party and Kenney winning the leadership of the Progressive Conservatives.

Together, they founded the UCP, but Jean lost the leadership of the new party to Kenney in a vote stained by accusations of secret deals, colluding candidates and fraud.

Jean eventually quit his seat in March 2018 but announced last November that he was coming out of retirement to run in the byelection.

He said he couldn’t sit idly by while Kenney’s policy failures, along with a tone-deaf, top-down management style, were alienating grassroots supporters and setting the stage for a massive NDP win in the spring 2023 provincial election.

— Dean Bennett THE CANADIAN PRESS

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