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Political Science Canadian


Jason Kenney's Pursuit of Power

by (author) Jeremy Appel

Dundurn Press
Initial publish date
Feb 2024
Canadian, Conservatism & Liberalism, Political
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    Feb 2024
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    Feb 2024
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The harsh moralistic worldview of Jason Kenney has spurred right-wing populism to the mainstream in Canadian politics, but he unleashed forces he couldn’t control.

From Jason Kenney’s days as an anti-abortion activist at the University of San Francisco, and through his years as a Canadian Taxpayers Federation lobbyist, Reform MP, top cabinet minister in the Harper government, and Alberta premier, he has been single-mindedly driven to bring his harsh moralistic worldview into the mainstream.

Kenney took on the old guard of Canada’s liberal consensus and won, playing a key role in shifting the country’s political discussion to the right. But the very right-wing populist forces Kenney cultivated would come back to haunt him.

Jeremy Appel has observed Alberta politics and reported on various aspects of Kenney’s agenda since 2017, when Kenney made his way across the province in his big blue pickup truck to rile up aggrieved conservatives. Kenneyism examines Kenney's political beliefs, his rise through federal political ranks, and his ultimate resignation from the leadership of the United Conservative Party.

About the author

Jeremy Appel has been covering politics in Alberta since 2017. His work has appeared in CBC News, the National Observer, Jacobin, Ricochet, the Breach, the Maple, and the Canadian Jewish News, among other places. He lives in Edmonton and writes the Orchard newsletter on Substack.

Jeremy Appel's profile page

Excerpt: Kenneyism: Jason Kenney's Pursuit of Power (by (author) Jeremy Appel)


When I saw Jason Kenney at the annual Conservative Stampede BBQ in July 2022, I witnessed a defeated man. Two months after he announced his intention to step down as leader of the United Conservative Party (UCP) he created, it was unclear whether he was going to show up or not, but he did, sporting a five o’clock shadow, and I almost felt sad for him. I decided I had to get a picture with the man whose rise and fall I witnessed first-hand covering Alberta politics from 2017 to 2022, having written dozens of unflattering columns about him. I wasn’t sure if he knew who I was or not, but it did seem as if he was avoiding me. After each handshake with a supporter, or former supporter, he glanced in my direction, then walked the opposite way.

While I was following him around, I saw him speak to a young Conservative family that seemed happy to see him, thanking him for his service. He said something to the effect of “All the time, people come up to me and say, ‘Thank you so much for all the important work you’ve done.’” Again, I almost pitied him. Eventually, I got my photo, thanks to one of his handlers I spoke to, who encouraged me to continue following him. When the handler asked my name and I told it to him, he said, “Oh, yeah, I think I’ve read some of your stuff.” I guess he had a good sense of humour. When I finally cornered Kenney, immediately after introducing myself — I didn’t even mention my surname — he had an air of “let’s get this over with,” and we did. Thus ends the one time I met Kenney. Suffice it to say, he didn’t answer my requests for an interview.

Kenney’s downfall was the end of a long and highly influential political career. It’s quite remarkable that after 32 years in public life, from his 1990 appearance on CNN as an “anti-abortion activist” in San Francisco to getting turfed as Alberta’s premier in 2022, there hasn’t been a book written on the man. Throughout his political career, Kenney has consistently been at the forefront of efforts to shift mainstream Canadian politics rightward, whether as leader of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, a Reform and Canadian Alliance Member of Parliament (MP), the architect of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s immigrant outreach strategy, a federal Cabinet minister, and Alberta premier. While there have been a couple of essay collections on the policies he pursued as Alberta’s premier, and he appears in most books about Harper’s time as prime minister, nobody has yet stepped forward to write a cohesive narrative of Kenney’s career.

In February 2017, I moved to Alberta from Toronto, where I was born and raised — less than a year after Kenney announced his return to Alberta. His mission was to unite the Wildrose and Progressive Conservative (PC) Parties after spending the past two decades in Ottawa, where he played a key role in accomplishing a similar feat with the Reform Party/Canadian Alliance and federal PCs. Mine was to accept a journalism job after struggling to find one anywhere near home. I arrived in Whitecourt, a small paper-mill town less than a couple hours’ drive northwest of Edmonton, where I landed a job at the local Whitecourt Star paper, a few months after Kenney accomplished the first part of his plan — winning the PC leadership on the one-issue platform of uniting with the Wildrose.

It was a winter of discontent in Alberta, which Kenney seized on and exacerbated on his path to power. I recall the deep unpopularity of the New Democratic Party (NDP) government in Whitecourt, which had an NDP Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA), Oneil Carlier, as a result of Wildrose and PC voters dividing the right-wing vote. I remember a Chamber of Commerce forum with Carlier in April 2017 in which he sat at the front of the room at town hall as angry residents berated him over the size of the public sector and the $20 per tonne carbon tax his party imposed at the beginning of the year, which became a convenient punching bag for right-wing local officials. Putting an additional price on carbon-intensive products to create a market-based disincentive for emissions, however, was endorsed by neoliberal guru Milton Friedman as an alternative to directly imposing regulations on polluters. Former Reform Party leader Preston Manning, Kenney’s old boss, also endorsed carbon pricing in a November 2014 Globe and Mail op-ed.

The NDP government’s plan to protect the local woodland caribou population, which would have restricted the number of trees the local forestry industry could chop down, also came under fire at Carlier’s town hall. One of the first stories I covered was a visit from Environment Minister Shannon Phillips to sell the caribou conservation plan. For that story, I interviewed someone from the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society about how the industry’s own conservation plans were insufficient, because their goal of extracting as much lumber as they could profit from was fundamentally at odds with protecting local wildlife. I got a call from Ray Hilts of the Alberta Forest Alliance, asking me why I would speak to environmentalists — they’re all liars. He became a town councillor later that year. Whitecourt’s local lumber industry was a microcosm of the broader extractive industries, namely oil and gas, that Alberta’s economic fortunes are so tied to.

It’s worth noting that Kenney’s PC leadership win occurred not long after a much more seismic event in international conservative politics: the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States. Trump, the billionaire son of a multi-millionaire father, was an unlikely candidate to position himself as the voice of the downtrodden, left-behind masses raging against a corrupt political establishment. Kenney, a career politician in the strictest sense of the term, was a similarly unlikely choice to channel this populist zeitgeist. But it worked for both, albeit temporarily.

In Whitecourt, I saw the success of Kenney’s unity pitch when the Wildrose and PCs both voted 95 percent in favour of unity. By the time I arrived seven months later in Medicine Hat, a small city of 65,000 in the province’s southeastern “forgotten corner,” the UCP leadership race was in full swing. Once Kenney won, under circumstances still the subject of police investigation six years later due to allegations of electoral fraud, it was clear he was going to be the next premier. The vote split on the right that allowed the NDP under Rachel Notley to sneak up the middle and form a majority government in 2015 was no more. I assumed that once he won the 2019 election, Kenney would be premier for as long as he wanted before going back to Ottawa to lead the federal Conservatives.

The Medicine Hat News was where I really developed my voice as a writer. I covered Kenney’s rise and his attacks on public-sector workers, public education, and the environmentalist movement — the last one of which he approached with an especially vitriolic zeal. I was in a fortunate position that allowed me to deliver blistering criticisms of the government. I was a reporter, yes, who was expected to present the perspectives of others in a relatively neutral, detached way, whatever that means, but I was also permitted to express my view of it all from the opinion page. Medicine Hat was a small enough market that I could say things other people wouldn’t have been permitted to with regularity in larger centres, but it was big enough that when I started to develop my own voice as a writer, people started to listen.

About a month into the pandemic, which ultimately led to Kenney’s downfall, I got laid off from the News, which led me to go it alone as a freelancer. This steered me to Calgary, where I accepted a part-time job covering municipal politics for the Sprawl, an online independent media outlet, moving up to the big city in December 2020 — the peak of the second Covid-19 wave — just as Kenney had reluctantly imposed some relatively stringent but nonsensical restrictions. Private gatherings were forbidden, but malls and churches remained open, which is highly symbolic of Kenney’s approach to social relations in which individuals exist as part of a collective, either as a means of generating economic activity or participating in traditional social structures. This was ultimately not enough to satiate his hard-right base, which wanted a full return to normalcy regardless of the plague.

While this is a story of Jason Kenney, it’s also an account of the success of neoconservative politics in Canada. A pragmatic idealogue, Kenney’s talent as a slick political operator made him a leading figure in pushing ideas once considered on the fringes to the forefront of national discussion. But his is also a cautionary tale of hubris in the face of crisis and the perils of a populism from above.

Editorial Reviews

Appel traces with unsparing candor how a politician who saw himself as the smartest man in the room proved instead too incompetent to hold high office. Ultimately, however, the fall of Jason Kenney is not a tragedy. The tragedy lies in the wreckage he has left in his wake.

Trevor Harrison, author, Of Passionate Intensity, and Professor of Sociology, University of Lethbridge

Piercing through the absurdly generous tributes that greeted its namesake’s political downfall, Jeremy Appel has achieved something vital with Kenneyism; a rigorous critical reflection on one of the most significant reactionary politicians in modern Canadian history.

Luke Savage, author of The Dead Center

A thoughtful, well-researched, and accessible book that sheds sorely-needed light on the pervasive political influence of Jason Kenney.

Steve Sladkowski, musician, PUP

Provocative, insightful and meticulously researched.

Graham Thomson, freelance columnist and long-time Alberta politics observer

An insightful, comprehensive investigation and explanation of the rise and sudden fall of Jason Kenney – one of Canada’s most consequential conservative activists of the 21st century.

Keith Brownsey, Professor of Economics, Justice, and Policy Studies, Mount Royal University

Appel rigorously tracks the rise and fall of one of Canada’s most prominent politicians. It’s all here: what motivated Jason Kenney, how he became such a successful political strategist and why he was eventually toppled by his own party. A compelling read by a journalist with keen insight.

Gillian Steward, Toronto Star columnist, and former managing editor, Calgary Herald

In this lively and readable account, Appel makes sense of Jason Kenney’s ideology and the legacy he leaves in Ottawa and in Alberta.

Lisa Young, Professor of Political Science, University of Calgary

Jeremy Appel's deep dive into the political life of Jason Kenney illuminates the life and intentions of an important though confusing political operative. All political watchers owe Appel a great debt for this in-depth look at such an enigmatic figure.

Nora Loreto, author of Spin Doctors

One of the first in-depth looks at Kenney’s rise and fall in Canadian politics.

Dave Cournoyer, writer, Daveberta

More than the political biography of one man; it is a history of the populist far-right formations that have been gaining ground in Canada since the 1980s — in which Jason Kenney has been a central figure.

Laurie Adkin, Professor of Political Science, University of Alberta