Former federal cabinet minister Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party has won a majority in Alberta’s provincial election, unseating Rachel Notley and ushering in a return to the centre-right for the province.
Kenney’s victory follows an often heated 28-day-long political slugfest, dominated by name calling and personal attacks, allegations of voter fraud and even a last-minute RCMP search of a UCP candidate’s office.
Cheers erupted and chants of “UCP! UCP! UCP!” rang out at Kenney’s election night headquarters in The Big Four building on the Calgary Stampede grounds when news of his victory flashed on a screen in the room.
Driving into the crowd in a UCP embellished blue pick-up truck, Kenney -- who won his riding in Calgary-Lougheed -- waved at his supporters before taking the stage with a fiery speech that thanked voters for their renewed trust in the UCP’s “Alberta advantage.”
“Today our great province has sent a message to Canada and the world that Alberta is open for business,” said Kenney to cheers. “Help is on the way and hope is on the horizon.”
The UCP elected in 63 of 87 seats Tuesday night. The NDP held the other 24.
Kenney called his win a step to getting Albertans back to work, highlighting Alberta’s declining oil and gas industry and the impact it has had on the province’s economy.
When his supporters began to chant “Build the pipe!” -- referring to the Trans Mountain pipeline -- Kenney stopped his supporters to correct them.
“It’s ‘Build those pipes!’” he said, then added that the UCP government will have the lowest tax regime in Canada and will “cut the red tape” he accuses the federal government has tied around Alberta’s economy.
“Today we begin to stand up for ourselves, our jobs and our future. Today we Albertans begin to fight back,” said Kenney, promising to wage war on all who oppose Alberta's oil and gas industry.
In Edmonton, Notley put on a brave face for her supporters, teasing that she will be taking advantage of some of Alberta’s craft breweries later in the night.
“Yes, tonight’s vote is not the result we had hoped or worked so hard for,” said Notley. “But no matter what our role is in legislature, we will not rest.”
She was greeted with chants as she thanked the crowd, reminding her supporters of the work Alberta's NDP government has accomplished in the last four years.
“Four years ago Albertans hired us to do a very difficult job… and we did that job with purpose and we did that job with integrity,” she added. “Today Alberta is a better place because of it.”
Notley said she spoke with Kenney before her concession speech, offering her congratulations and wishing his government well.
"I wish him and his government well. We all do. We must. Because we all love Alberta," she said.
Notley vowed that as the leader of the Opposition, she will do the job to best of her ability and will continue to fight for the values of the NDP Party.
Over the course of the campaign, Kenney tapped into the widespread sense of grievance and alienation that has thrived among Albertans who have struggled since global oil prices crashed in 2015, plunging the oil-rich province into a recession from which recovery has been slow. Many Albertans feel that Ottawa and the rest of the country are unsympathetic to their plight.
He also attacked Notley, whose improbable win in 2015 ended 44 years of conservative rule, for failing to get pipelines built and for her “alliance” with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
“He has run a very hard-edged, but effective campaign,” Charles Bird, a Liberal commentator, told CTV News Channel.
In a statement, Trudeau congratulated Kenney and said he will work with the new government to create jobs, build infrastructure, and grow business and industry.
"Together, we will address issues of importance to Albertans and all Canadians, including ... taking decisive action on climate change while getting our natural resources to market."
Kenney’s victory is likely to be a major headache for Trudeau, who faces re-election in October.
The former federal minister’s first order of business, he said, would be to repeal the carbon tax and to sue the government over its climate change plan.
Kenney has also promised to hold a referendum in 2021 to remove equalization -- a federal government program where “have” provinces give money to Ottawa to distribute to “have not” provinces -- from the Constitution if progress has not yet been made on the Trans Mountain pipeline extension.
The project, which would allow Alberta to ship diluted bitumen to the coast of British Columbia, and then on to more lucrative markets overseas, has faced opposition from environmentalists, Indigenous groups and the B.C. government. The federal government purchased the pipeline for $4.5 billion in 2018 and hopes to resume construction once it meets requirements issued by a federal court judge last year, which found that it failed to conduct adequate consultations with Indigenous people.
During the campaign, Kenney promised to set up a “war room” to go after pipeline critics and to file many legal actions.
He has pledged to roll back many of Notley’s environmental measures and threatened to cut off oil and gas shipments to B.C., which he believes is also responsible for obstructing pipeline construction.
It was not entirely smooth sailing for Kenney, who was forced during the campaign to reckon with his 22-year-long record in Canadian politics, which at times has included opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage.
Protests erupted in major Albertan cities over his promise to allow schools to inform parents if their child is a member of a gay-straight alliance club.
During an appearance on the Charles Adler Tonight radio show, Kenney struggled to answer questions about his record and came under fire for not dropping Mark Smith, a UCP candidate who denounced homosexuality and appeared to compare it to pedophilia, from the party.
A number of UCP candidates stepped down or were forced to apologize after espousing bigoted, white nationalist or homophobic views.
Just last week, Royal Canadian Mounted Police executed a search warrant at the business of a UCP candidate, though it is unclear what prompted the search.
RCMP is looking into whether fake email addresses were linked to the names of real people to boost votes in the 2017 UCP leadership race that Kenney eventually won. The UCP executive director has denied the allegations, saying the “2017 United Conservative party Leadership contest followed the most stringent security protocols of any leadership race conducted in Canada.”
Kenney was elected MP for Calgary-Southwest in 1997 as a member of the Reform Party of Canada. He would go on to hold a number of cabinet positions in Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government, including Minister of Citizenship and Immigration and Minister of National Defence.
Notley’s platform included increased funding for teachers and to build or repair schools, as well as measures to add more long-term beds for senior and to reduce surgery wait times.
She said that her party had done all that it could to get the pipeline built. During her term, she announced production curtailments for Albertan crude and signed a $3.7-billion contract to ship oil by rail to help deal with an oil glut and to get the product to market.
“There was a lot she had to do that was very difficult to do with a tough economy,” Lori Williams, a political science professor at Mount Royal University, told CTV News.
Notley attacked Kenney and his party for its social conservatism and more extremist views, which prompted Kenney to accuse her during a debate of conducting a “drive-by smear campaign” in order to distract voters from realizing that she is “incapable of defending her failed economic record.”
“One really hopes that they will put aside the bitterness that’s come out of this campaign and get down to the interests of Alberta in the longer term,” David Swann, a former Liberal MLA in Alberta, told CTV News.
Nearly 700,000 people cast early ballots, setting a new record, and steady lineups were seen at polling stations across the province.
Those votes, as well as special ballots, will begin to be counted the day after the election.
With files from CTVNews.ca's Amanda Coletta
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