You almost have to feel sorry for Jason Kenney. After devoting years of his life to creating a United Conservative Party in Alberta back in 2017 and then leading it to victory in 2019, he now has to watch as the contenders to the throne he built compete to see who can debase it most creatively.
Nobody has been better at that than Danielle Smith, whose blatantly unconstitutional and fundamentally unserious “Alberta Sovereignty Act” has managed to capture the hearts and minds of Kenney’s once faithful. It pretends that Alberta can prohibit its public employees from enforcing federal laws or court decisions that the provincial legislature believes “unfairly attack the interests of Alberta’s People,” as though the Constitution was an optional arrangement rather than a legally-binding document.
That might help explain why he waded into the leadership race this past weekend in an act of political desperation that could easily jeopardize the unity he spent so much time and energy trying to forge. When asked about Smith’s idea on his weekly call-in radio show, Kenney pulled no punches. “The proposal is for Alberta, basically, to ignore and violate the Constitution in a way that is unprecedented in Canadian history,” he said. “To not enforce the laws of the land, including federal laws, which include the Criminal Code, which is nuts.”
He’s right, for a change. It is nuts. That’s a point that’s been made in various ways by everyone from Howard Anglin, his former principal secretary, to Calgary Chamber of Commerce president Deborah Yedlin. It’s a dangerous flirtation with the blend of delusional conspiracy theories and aimless tough talk that animated Donald Trump’s presidency, and it would do nothing to actually improve Alberta's position in Confederation.
But if Kenney wants to blame someone for his party’s apparent embrace of Smith’s toxic populism, he ought to look in the mirror. He was the one who introduced this brand of politics to Alberta, after all. He built his reputation and his brand around being forever in conflict with Ottawa, and aggressively contemptuous of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. He proudly talked up his “fight back” strategy, which was far more focused on throwing punches eastward than bringing resources and funding west. He struck a “Fair Deal” panel that travelled across the province amplifying and validating the grievances that some Albertans had against Ottawa, and raised false hopes about changing the equalization program he knew were impossible to deliver. In all of this sowing, he apparently never understood what he would eventually reap.
At the time, Kenney and his allies claimed these efforts were aimed at diverting the province’s separatist movement into more productive and constructive channels. But the tone of the race to replace Kenney, and the role Smith’s separatist-friendly ideals are playing in it, shows just how big a failure this apparent strategy was. Instead of pouring water on the fires of alienation and frustration, Kenney’s willingness to pander to them served as a splash of gasoline. Now, Alberta may be about to get burned by the flames.
If there’s any hope for non-conservative Albertans, it’s that those flames will burn the UCP down first. Smith and her proxies have already clapped back at Kenney, pointing out that an outgoing leader should be a neutral steward of the party’s interests rather than an active participant in determining its future. It’s entirely possible Kenney would rather destroy his party than hand it over to someone like Smith, and he certainly has the means at his disposal to try that.
But it might be too late. As an avid reader and student of the classics, he can probably see (if not appreciate) the parallels between the movement he’s created and the famous namesake of Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel. Like Dr. Frankenstein’s monster, the party he created now has a mind of its own. And while it’s a mind he played a key role in shaping and guiding, it’s now one that seems determined to go further than even he would want.
Kenney, after all, almost certainly prefers the buttoned-down version of conservative politics he practised under Stephen Harper’s tutelage to the no-holds-barred brand currently in style. He would rather talk about the merits of corporate tax cuts than the evils of the World Economic Forum. As he apparently told his caucus back in 2021 when a “No More Lockdowns” rodeo in Bowden caught the public’s eye: “If they are our base, I want a new base.”
Opinion: Jason Kenney introduced the UCP's current brand of toxic populism to #Alberta. @maxfawcett writes for @NatObserver. #populism #UCP
But as Smith keeps showing, that is the UCP’s base. And of all of the fumbles and bumbles that have defined his government, this will be Kenney’s enduring legacy. Things like his impossibly incompetent “War Room,” his ham-fisted handling of COVID-19, and his billion-dollar blunder with Keystone XL will fade from people’s memories, especially if the UCP is replaced next year by the NDP.
But the creation of this Frankenstein monster of paranoid populism and the control it now wields over contemporary conservative politics in Canada will endure. The only question left is how much damage it will do — and who will be left to clean it up.