The Alberta legislature (Photo: Kenneth Hynek, Creative Commons).
The Alberta legislature (Photo: Kenneth Hynek, Creative Commons).

Premier Jason Kenney had less than 24 hours to savour his dubious victory in Alberta’s anti-equalization referendum before a serious scandal involving accusations of sexual-harassment, heavy drinking in the office and the firing of a victim hit the headlines.

It’s not clear if the revelation a former ministerial chief of staff has filed a lawsuit claiming she was unjustly fired for complaining about sexual harassment in a workplace where open drinking and abusive behaviour were tolerated was coincidental or timed to inflict damage on Kenney. 

It hardly matters. This is what the implosion of a government looks like.

For, while Kenney was not directly implicated in the any of the alleged toxic behaviour, it is obvious the allegations about some of his chosen colleagues and the possibility he may have known about and tolerated unacceptable behaviour has further wounded his already badly tarnished United Conservative Party government.

Soon after the CBC published a story yesterday morning outlining the allegations made by Ariella Kimmel, chief of staff to Jobs, Economy and Innovation Minister Doug Schweitzer until she was fired last February, former UCP deputy leader and status of women minister Leela Aheer began openly calling for Kenney’s head.

Aheer, who was kicked out of cabinet by Kenney in July for criticizing his boozy mid-pandemic Sky Palace patio party, tweeted: “Premier Kenney-you knew! Step down!” 

Later, calling the situation “a failure of leadership,” the UCP caucus member and MLA for Chestermere-Strathmore again told journalists the premier should resign. 

There’s more than a whiff of panic in the air as ministers close to Kenney scramble to figure out their talking points amid a burgeoning sense of scandal.

In her tweet, Aheer drew a connection to the tolerance for the misdeeds of Calgary City Councillor Sean Chu, a UCP supporter who shortly before the Oct. 18 municipal election was revealed to have received a professional misconduct reprimand for sexual contact with a 16-year-old girl during his years with the Calgary Police Service.

The government’s foes on the left — on a day they were supposed (according to Premier Kenney’s narrative) to be licking their wounds for their referendum “defeat” — were quick to point out on social media how government House Leader and Environment Minister Jason Nixon, who Kimmel said she approached about her concerns, in 2005 fired a woman who complained about sexual harassment at a B.C. worksite. 

Kimmel’s Toronto-based employment lawyer, Kathryn Marshall, is a high-profile conservative commentator whose opinions appear frequently in the National Post. She is the wife of Hamish Marshall, the Conservative Party of Canada’s national campaign manager from 2017 to 2019. 

“Politicians have to lead by example, and this is going to set a new standard to how political staff need to be treated,” Marshall told the CBC. Her client is seeking payment of her salary until her contract’s end-date in 2023, in addition to $399,000 in damages. 

The CBC reported that Kimmel’s statement of claim says Ivan Bernardo, former advisor to then-health minister Tyler Shandro, made sexually inappropriate comments to staff members. He left his health ministry advisory role after his contract ended. The statement of claim also described Agriculture Minister Devin Dreeshen, with whom Kimmel had a relationship, as drinking in his office. 

Readers who want the details should read the CBC story. 

The important point, though, is that this kind of situation might happen in any government, but it would never be allowed to continue in a properly functioning one.

It appears, however, little was done to stop it on Kenney’s watch.

This piles onto the sense of deep division between pro- and anti-vaccine UCP MLAs, leaving the impression Kenney’s grip on power is growing more tenuous by the day. 

This doesn’t mean, of course, that Albertans are going to wake up to find Rachel Notley and the NDP back at the helm any time soon.

It does mean, though, that very soon we might have a UCP government with another premier’s name attached to it — although it’s far from clear who among the UCP’s obvious potential leaders would be able to hold the bitterly divided caucus together.

Even if Kenney can find a way to hang on and avoid the total implosion of his government that right now appears imminent, it hardly speaks well of the party’s long-term prospects.

In order to survive, Alberta’s Conservatives may have to reach back into their more progressive past to find a steady hand who could present a moderate and competent image to help the disunited party start moving forward again.

Indeed, the UCP may require a few years in opposition before anyone can put Humpty Dumpty together again.

The question is, could the party’s right fringe, which under Kenney has enjoyed great empowerment, tolerate the likes of a competent old Progressive Conservative like Gary Mar or Jim Dinning trying to bind up their movement’s wounds?

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe...