If Leela Aheer hopes to continue her career in Alberta provincial politics, she’ll probably need to find a new political party.
Well, sure, the United Conservative Party MLA who lately has become a frequent and vocal critic of Premier Jason Kenney could theoretically still win the United Conservative Party nomination in her Chestermere—Strathmore riding just east of Calgary for the election expected in 2023.
Stranger things have happened. For example, former Wildrose Party leader Brian Jean has been allowed to win the nomination to become the UCP candidate in the upcoming but still-unscheduled Fort McMurray-Lac La Biche by-election.
Still, it can’t be a good sign for Aheer’s political ambitions that apparent allies of the premier have just staged a coup to take over the board of the Chestermere—Strathmore UCP Constituency Association.
As the CBC put it, “at the annual general meeting of the association on Jan. 8, the existing board was overthrown and new leadership was elected.”
As a result, the UCP is now having its own stop-the-steal moment.
This, you see, is because the old pro-Aheer board won’t recognize the results of the election that chose a new pro-Kenney board, claiming votes were cast by individuals ineligible by merit of not having been association members for the required 21 days.
This may or may not be true, although no one who has followed the recent career of Jason Kenney is going to be shocked at the thought the presumed mastermind and principal beneficiary of the notorious Kamikaze Candidate affair of 2017, intended to ensure Jean did not win the race to lead the UCP, may have engaged in electoral shenanigans.
At any rate, John Kittler, the old constituency association president said in a letter that more than 50 voters didn’t qualify to vote, “sufficient enough in number to invalidate the AGM in its entirety.”
Meanwhile, Dustin Van Vugt, executive director of the UCP, says everything was hunky-dory and “the results of that meeting are in full force and effect.”
The fight, which continues, is not only about Aheer’s future or that of her challenger for the nomination, Chantelle de Jong, but also the funds in the association’s bank account.
Someone soon leaked everything to the media, so the UCP’s dirty laundry is now on full display to the entire province.
As political stories go, this is all highly entertaining to those of us who are not disunited Conservatives.
Clearly, though, long gone are the days when Aheer, who was first elected as a Wildrose Party candidate in 2015, was seen as a major asset by Kenney and the just-created UCP.
In the fall of 2017, Mr. Kenney appointed her his deputy leader—giving the party an appealing modern face to show it was open to matters of concern to women and members of minority communities.
But in 2018, former Wildrose and UCP MLA Derek Fildebrandt, who had been kicked out of the caucus by Kenney for failing to disclose he’d faced illegal hunting charges and had also seen his Strathmore riding disappear due to redistribution, wanted to seek the nomination in Chestermere-Strathmore to get back in.
When the party said no, he accused the premier of smoothing Aheer’s path to the nomination. Despite his self-inflicted problems, this may have been true.
After the UCP was elected in 2019, Kenney named Aheer to his cabinet as minister of culture, multiculturalism and status of women.
Perhaps her appointment indicated those responsibilities were not top priorities for a party run by the boys and focused on pipelines and petroleum. Or maybe the premier’s assessment of her talents was quite sincere.
Regardless, by last June, the bloom was clearly off the rose when Aheer publicly criticized the premier after his boozy, mid-pandemic rooftop “working dinner” at the notorious Edmonton Sky Palace was captured by an anonymous photographer with a long lens and a still-undisclosed agenda.
She won no favour by calling on the premier to apologize, but she might have survived and remained in cabinet—as did Social Services Minister Rajan Sawhney—had she not dared to assail Kenney’s tone-deaf defence of John A. Macdonald the day before the Sky Palace pot boiled over.
The ugly history of Canada’s residential schools notwithstanding, Premier Kenney’s preoccupation with protecting the reputation of Canada’s first prime minister is passionate, and well known.
Three days later, Kenney shuffled his cabinet. Sawhney was still there—perhaps aided by the fact she had made her criticism on a radio program broadcast in Punjabi, not English.
Aheer was out. As I wrote at the time: “Aheer is now minister of bupkes. Message sent.”
She has remained a member of the UCP caucus, where she may soon be joined by her old boss, Brian Jean, who has described Kenney as an existential threat to the party and vowed to replace him.
She has also continued to criticize Kenney. In October, when a harassment and office-day-drinking scandal broke out in cabinet that eventually brought down then agriculture minister Devin Dreeshen, she called for the premier to resign, tweeting, “Premier Kenney—you knew! Step down!”
Now a stronger message has been sent. If Aheer wishes to run again, it’s not likely to be as a candidate for the UCP.