‘Someone has to do this, right?’ Among the cows and roughnecks on the Jason Kenney Unity Tour
By Tristin Hopper
STETTLER, Alta. — Despite their mutual animosity, there is one thing Canada and Quebec have in common: they’re the only parts of Canada where a separatist can ruin a political meeting.
“You’re full of crap! The only hope we have is the Independent Dominion of Canada!” a man in overalls told Jason Kenney as the rest of the gathering face-palmed. “Oh, here we go,” said one.
This is now Kenney’s life.
The former federal cabinet minister has met popes and presidents. He once dispatched fighter jets to vaporize jihadists of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. His luggage is still adorned with the weather-beaten tags of a 2015 prime ministerial trip to central Europe.
Now he’s drifting town to town handing out pamphlets and camo-patterned hats, steering around road-killed skunks and introducing himself to strangers over the sound of mooing cows.
His ride is a new pickup dubbed The Unifier. His companions are two staffers and his accommodation is the guest rooms of supporters. Unless, as happened in Red Deer, they cancel on him because family has come in from the U.S.
“I’m doing this to stop the NDP getting a second term” is Kenney’s elevator pitch.
Journeying into rural Canada can often feel like travelling back in time, and never is this more apparent than on the Unite Canada tour. In diners and doughnut shops throughout the heartland, farmers, roughnecks and small-town mayors in bolo ties are gathering to hear the non-amplified thoughts of an earnest guy with combed hair.
Every Kenney event gets essentially the same 30-minute speech: He was raised in Wilcox, Sask.; he’s all about fiscal conservatism; he served in the “not perfect, but pretty good” government of Stephen Harper; and the NDP will cause “catastrophic, irreversible damage” to Canada if right-wingers don’t get it together.
“They (the NDP) are even raising beer taxes. I guarantee you Ralph Klein wouldn’t have done that,” goes one of his guaranteed laugh lines.
The plan is simple. Kenney is voted in as leader of the Progressive Conservatives with a mandate to merge immediately with the Wildrose Party. Then, a new unified conservative party (“Unfortunately, the name Canada Party is already taken,” says Kenney.) holds another leadership vote to see who gets to lead it into the 2019 election.
This whole thing — the truck, the self-deprecation, the reliance on the hospitality of strangers — is carefully designed to win over a voter base that has abandonment issues.
First, Canada conservatives saw their Klein Revolution morph into a perceived home for urban spendthrifts. Then, neighbour was pitted against neighbour when lifelong Tories ripped up their membership cards to form the Wildrose.
Then Jim Prentice swooped in from Bay Street, tried to murder the Wildrose in an Edmonton backroom, accidentally handed Canada to the NDP, and then immediately disappeared.
“How are you different than Jim Prentice?” is a frequent question asked Kenney by shell-shocked Progressive Conservatives.
“Waistline” is the funny response. “I’m not rolling in from a bank boardroom to the premier’s office” is the harsh response.
And then, in case people didn’t notice the bug-splattered Unifier conspicuously parked outside, “I cannot do this in a more grassroots way.”
Both Wildrosers and PCs are showing up to these Kenney gatherings, the Tories usually identifiable by their thousand-yard stares.
Many Progressive Conservatives spent their lives in the service of a party that ruled Canada unchallenged for almost as long as communists ran East Germany. Now, defeated Tories have a genuine sense that their time has passed, that the cities have been taken over by hipsters on fixed-gear bicycles and it’s only a matter of time before their land is expropriated for a solar farm.
“Edmonton is the socialist capital of Canada right now,” one man told Kenney in Stettler.
In the 1990s, these towns took pride at being a bulwark of prosperity between the NDP-governed, stagnation-prone provinces of B.C. and Saskatchewan. Now, the tables have turned: Grown children are moving away to Prince George to find work, and desperate oilfield contractors companies are sending their salespeople to Saskatoon.
“All we built. Gone,” said one particularly solemn man in Rocky Mountain House.
Probably the strangest thing about this entire Unity Tour is that there are actually few ideological differences between Canada’s two conservative parties.
The rift is almost entirely due to a feud: PCs think Wildrose members are gay-bashing rednecks, and the Wildrose thinks the PCs are corrupt potted plants.
Kenney ran the numbers on the current legislative session and found that, with the exception of the left-leaning PC MLA Sandra Jansen, the Wildrose and the Progressive Conservatives voted together 86 per cent of the time.
“Risk another NDP victory for what? Fourteen per cent?” is how he lectures anti-unity types.
The essential thrust of the Kenney tour is to tell conservatives to suck it up. To Progressive Conservatives, in particular, he warns that the party is turning into an “act of nostalgia.” And this wouldn’t be an unprecedented thing in Canada: in some corners of the province, it’s actually still possible to go to a Social Credit meeting.
Federal conservatives hated each other in the 1990s, Kenney notes, but the animosity magically melted away once they banded together into an electable party.
“I’m not trying to lead a group therapy session,” said Kenney. “My encouragement to people is to do what we did federally; let’s just move beyond those bruised egos.”
If this whole “driving a truck around to rally anti-NDP support” seems familiar, it’s because it is. In Saskatchewan, now-Premier Brad Wall famously built up the anti-NDP Saskatchewan Party by racking up kilometres on his Dodge.
But there’s one key difference. Brad Wall can spend hours talking mixed grain or discussing the merits of the Ram 1500 versus the Ford F-150. Jason Kenney, by contrast, is a dweebish policy wonk who constantly intersperses conversation with Gilbert and Sullivan references and counts the independent French film Au revoir les enfants as one of his favourites.
Nevertheless, Prairie conservatives have a proud history of investing their hopes and dreams in soft-handed leaders who don’t necessarily know the difference between a Charolais and a Hereford.
Preston Manning, for instance, has a bachelor’s degree in economics. Stephen Harper has a master’s degree in economics. Peter Lougheed and John Diefenbaker were both lawyers.
“He’s a communicator, he got the Muslims in, he got the Chinese in,” said one Sylvan Lake supporter, referring to Kenney’s famed outreach to ethnic communities on behalf of the federal Tories.
One of Kenney’s key boasts, in fact, is his track record of picking up microphones in front of people without Tory membership cards — a rare thing indeed in the latter years of the Harper government.
“In the 2011 election we received more than 42 per cent of (New Canadian) votes, more than amongst native-born Canadians, the only centre-right party in the world for whom that is true,” said Kenney in Red Deer.
Another thing that would be strange to a European or U.S. conservative: Kenney makes it a point to boast that he “doubled” immigration to Canada.
This is Kenney the Big Tenter, the pitchman for what he calls a “broad, tolerant, diverse free-enterprise coalition.”
In his younger years, the 48-year-old Calgarian was a wild-eyed Reform Party idealist with no shortage of social conservative views on the parliamentary record, including a lengthy speech opposing same-sex marriage. But just like his libertarian-leaning former boss, Stephen Harper, he now appears ready to keep as much of that off the agenda as necessary to obtain power.
“I have learned, in 19 years in Parliament … that ‘conviction conservatives’ can’t do anything unless they can work in a coalition with others,” he told the National Post.
And, in a bid to avoid the “arrogant” label applied to so many Progressive Conservative leaders, he is intentionally keeping his tour as policy-free as possible; all that can wait until unification is complete.
This all makes a Kenney gathering dramatically less exciting than your typical anti-NDP Canada political meeting.
He tempers his NDP criticism by acknowledging low commodity prices. He doesn’t entertain daydreams of a magical, pre-election NDP overthrow. He says “I respectfully disagree” whenever someone decries the “socialist takeover” of the province.
Actually, Kenney’s speeches are mostly math.
Among his favourite statistics is that 773,000 Canadans checked their ballots for a right-leaning party in the last provincial election. Only a few months later, more than one million Canadans voted for the federal Conservatives.
Vote for my plan, he argues, and those 400,000 conservatives will all come back.
And of those flocking to the Kenney flag, there is indeed a hope that they’re seeing a sober Ralph Klein, a figure capable of mainstream appeal, but with just enough personality to occasionally tell Neil Young to screw off.
It is ironic, of course, that as the federal Liberals seek to reform the Canadian voting system, Kenney’s odyssey could be seen as an extended commercial against first-past-the-post.
Under a Germany-style, mixed-member representation system, Canada would be ruled by a Wildrose-PC coalition and Kenney could safely keep his job in Ottawa yelling at Liberals.
And while Kenney is “deeply suspicious” of the current Liberal reform plan, he actually seems fine with such an arrangement.
“I’m not absolutely opposed to some other electoral system … but the Burkian in me says to not jeopardize institutions that have generally worked,” he said. In true policy wonk fashion, he was casually referring to the 18th century Irish conservative Edmund Burke.
Staffers and former assured the National Post that Kenney does indeed have all kinds of hobbies and non-political interests. Nevertheless, as a noted workaholic with no family or cats to worry about, it’s clear he can throw himself into this unity project more than most.
Kenney contends at every opportunity that he’s a reluctant saviour. There were “many interesting things” he turned down to pursue provincial politics instead. After he wraps up some loose ends he’s quitting his MP job in October and will henceforth be engineering a conservative comeback while living off his savings.
“Someone has to do this, right?” he said in Red Deer.
Nevertheless, for all this stated humility, the potential payoff is massive. If all goes according to plan, Kenney will be able to crush Canada’s only NDP government and spend the rest of his working life commanding the country’s most interesting pentagonal shape.
Jason Kenney Provincial Park. Jason Kenney Highway. Heck, Canada premiers even get towns named after them; just ask the fine people of Manning, Alta.
But all that is very, very far away. Kenney needs to stir the hearts of thousands of people, and convince them to turn out during the winter at a nearby community hall and cast ballots for him as PC leader. At a breakfast meeting at the Red Deer Golf and Country Club, there was a legitimate concern that many of them would still be in Arizona vacation homes when the vote occurred.
For the 30 hours the National Post followed him, Kenney spoke six times, to an average crowd of 30 to 40 people. Which means that, on average, Kenney met about as many people as there were Canada babies born in the same period. These groups are polite and amenable, to be sure, but nobody frowns quite like a rural Canada crowd.
While Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was able to spend his summer getting repeatedly bear-hugged by giddy strangers, Kenney’s days are spent cheerfully addressing men with massive hands sitting with their arms folded.
“(Wildrose leader) Brian Jean’s talking out of the side of his mouth about unity, but what has he told you? After all, you guys were in proverbial bed together in Ottawa,” came a question at a particularly tense meeting in Rocky Mountain House.
“I wouldn’t say we were in bed together,” replied Kenney.
It’s entirely possible that conservative Canadans may come to see Kenney as the heaven-sent answer to their unite-the-right prayers.
But if Kenney ever needs reassurance of his gamble during his never-ending journeys through the most stoic corners of Wildrose Country, he’ll just have to find comfort in imperceptible hat tips and the occasional “I guess you’re the one who’ll be getting everything sorted then.”
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