He’s Baaack! Brian Jean, the UCP candidate in the Fort McMurray-Lac La Biche by-election, which is scheduled for the Ides of March. Credit: Brian Jean

After dragging his feet for weeks, Jason Kenney has named a date for the Fort McMurray-Lac La Biche by-election in which his long-time rival Brian Jean will run for the United Conservative Party on a platform of firing and replacing the premier. 

The date of election—the Ides of March. 

So beware! Everybody beware! 

Premier Kenney waited as long as he legally could before announcing the date at an afternoon news conference about a “wellness village” in Edmonton—a story so dull the government didn’t even bother to post a news release or a video on its website. 

When the premier did name the date, in response to questions by reporters, Kenney explained he had waited until the last possible day to mention it because he was worried about political activities during a pandemic. 

“We’re not going to call an election, in this case a by-election, in the midst of the Omicron wave,” Kenney said. “We wanted to, as much as possible, defer discretionary political activities like that until we got well past the Omicron peak.”

This caused gasps of astonishment among even seasoned Alberta political observers long numb to the Premier Kenney’s habitual gaslighting. 

This, after all, was the leader of a government in the process of lifting virtually all COVID-19 mitigation measures, and who to the great distress of most teachers, many parents and a surprising number of students had just ended all mask mandates in schools—and made it impossible for individual schools or local school boards to insist on masks anyway. 

And he was worried about political activities during an Omicron wave? Seriously? 

Virtually no one in Alberta believed this. 

When Elections Alberta posted an announcement of the by-election yesterday morning, then pulled it down moments later, it prompted a wave of speculation the premier had found a way to block Jean’s candidacy, or was planning an early election to take place before his April 9 leadership review vote.

On the other hand, given his subterraneanapproval ratings, that would have required him to run on a timetable tantamount to political suicide— even if he promised to give every voter in the province a Ralph Klein-style cash “prosperity bonus” after the election. 

With Kenney’s afternoon admission there was in fact a date for the by-election, and the return of Elections Alberta’s official statement to its website, that talk simmered down. 

“Appointments have been made for the returning officer and election clerk in Fort McMurray-Lac La Biche and they are ready to conduct voting in the electoral division,” Alberta Chief Electoral Office Glen Resler said reassuringly in the statement.

Jean and Kenney were rivals for the leadership of the United Conservative Party in 2017 when the former federal Cabinet minister elbowed aside the former Wildrose Party leader in a leadership campaign marked by unsavoury tactics, some of which are still being investigated by the RCMP.

When Fort Mac—Lac La Biche UCP MLA Laila Goodridge announced last summer she was quitting to run for the federal Conservatives in September in Fort McMurray—Cold Lake, Jean’s interest in returning to provincial politics and rekindling his rivalry with Kenney was made plain. 

According to UCP scuttlebutt, Kenney’s political advisors were confident the premier’s favoured candidate, economist Joshua Gogo, would win the nomination with ease.

Others had their doubts. Jean is the wealthy scion of a prominent Fort McMurray business family and a former MP for the region. He was returning to the fray at a moment Kenney’s approval was in free-fall and the UCP was deeply divided over how to respond to the pandemic and a host of other issues. 

When the nomination vote was held, Jean won convincingly

At that point, Kenney had little choice but to live with it. Ever since, though, Alberta political observers have been trying to figure out how he would block Jean. 

That would be hard to do now, though, without inciting a mutiny in the UCP.

Short of finding an unexpected reason to drop Jean as a candidate between now and the Ides—and, count on it, Jean’s advisors are braced for such a possibility—what is Kenney to do? 

He can hardly get his loyalists to throw their votes to the NDP’s candidate, Fort Mac teacher Ariana Mancini, who will be out there campaigning with Opposition Leader Rachel Notley, seen by many as Alberta’s once and future premier. 

Well, there’s always Paul Hinman, the reliably loony leader of the Wildrose Independence Party, or Marilyn Burns, leader of the tiny and barely relevant Alberta Advantage Party. 

The Alberta Party, which sits somewhere vaguely on the right side of the political spectrum too, will probably field a candidate, although recently chosen leader Barry Morishita seems to have had the good sense to decline the opportunity. 

Unless Kenney can come up with some kind of Hail Mary play, there will be no one in the race that supports Alberta’s premier—even the candidate for the government party. 

You can’t make this stuff up. But then, as I’ve said before, this is Alberta, so you rarely have to.

David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...