You can take the man out of politics, but you can’t take politics out of the man, or so the old saying goes.
Once a prominent Alberta politician and leadership rival to its now-embattled premier, Brian Jean is returning to the partisan arena after years away marked by tragedy and loss.
His answer when asked about his return to politics is a simple one: “Because people matter,” he says.
But the real reason, some say, is that cracks in Alberta’s governing United Conservatives are growing and Jean, it seems, has decided to shove his boot right into one.
In the coming months, Jean — once the leader of the Wildrose Party of Alberta and a former UCP MLA — hopes to be the nominated candidate for an open UCP legislature seat. He resigned his previously held spot in 2018 after losing the party’s controversial leadership race to Jason Kenney, who went on to become premier.
However, with Kenney now on the ropes politically within his own party and facing plunging approval ratings from Albertans, Jean has made it clear the open seat in Fort McMurray-Lac La Biche is the first step in his plan to take over the reigns at the UCP and ultimately become premier.
Those who know Jean say in many ways he’s the opposite of Kenney. While they’re both Alberta conservatives with an eye toward getting a fairer shake from Ottawa, Jean has more populist appeal in the minds of rural Albertans, insiders say.
Kenney is seen as being all-business and a seasoned politician known for his whirlwind campaigning, captivating speeches and impressive recall of facts — even if he has tried on the rancher look at times.
Jean, meanwhile, is a politician who can pull off the cowboy boots and pickup truck, while staying relatable. It’s the kind of sensibility that can go a long way with Alberta voters.
He’s also more of a hardliner on some controversial policies already afoot in Alberta under Kenney and could prove to be a bigger thorn in Ottawa’s side should he ever become premier.
Unlike Kenney, Jean doesn’t shy away from the prospect of separating from Canada, much like some Quebecers wanted for their province in the 1990s, should it not get more leeway for its oil and gas industry.
Jean recognizes the difference between him and Kenney.
“I’m not the best speaker,” he says. “That’s Jason Kenney. If you want to listen to him, he’s the smoothest talker I’ve ever heard, and I’ve heard a lot of them.”
So, just who is this challenger? And how does he stand to fare against Kenney, a seasoned political veteran who’s only ever known success and ballot-box victory?
Jean, now 58, was a Conservative MP in Ottawa for years before returning to Alberta in 2015 to run for leadership of the Wildrose Party. His focus then was much the same as it is now: shore up the provincial health-care system and rein in finances; although, those two portfolios have taken on extra significance since the pandemic.
“If we’re the most expensive (health-care system), then I’m OK with that,” says Jean, “as long as our outcomes are number one.”
His focus on health care stems from his time spent with his son who fell ill and was in and out of the hospital before he died in 2015 at 24: “I was there for a long time, man, and I got some ideas.”
“I would empower front-line workers, cut the middle and upper management (through attrition, not layoffs),” he said.
Kenney’s political origin story is similar to Jean’s. He came to Alberta to first lead the Progressive Conservatives in 2017, then merge the PCs with Jean’s Wildrose Party into the United Conservative Party later that year.
Jean would go on to lose the United Conservative leadership race against Kenney in 2017, crushed by a political machine backing Kenney, previously a federal minister under former prime minister Stephen Harper.
Allegations of vote rigging and other unsavoury political skulduggery have plagued Kenney in the years following. Kenney’s denied allegations that he stole that leadership race.
From there, the two had divergent paths. Kenney would triumph over Notley’s NDP in 2019 with a united party winning an overwhelming majority on the promise of pipelines, jobs and boosting the economy.
For Jean, this all happened during a tumultuous and tragic time in his life.
In 2015, his son died. In 2016, Jean’s house burned down, along with many other Fort McMurray homes during that year’s devastating wildfires.
Since then, Jean has lost his sister to cancer, his mother, and yet another home he was building in Fort McMurray in 2020 when the city was hit by floods.
Reflecting on it all now during an emotional interview, Jean said it “sounds kind of funny.”
“You know, sometimes I feel like it’s got to be a made-up story.”
But it’s still difficult for Jean to discuss details without becoming choked up.
Why, then, come back, after all that’s happened?
“I can do it,” he says, plainly. “I’m one of the few people that can. How many people are known for having a track record of building proven, competent teams in Alberta? There’s not very many.
“People matter,” adds Jean. “Albertans matter. Our public service matters. People who work here matter.”
After Kenney won the UCP leadership race in 2017 and Jean later left politics, he watched as allegations, first reported by the Star in 2018, surfaced that the Kenney campaign had used illegitimate donations and run a puppet candidate whose only job was to attack Jean on behalf of Kenney.
Since then, Alberta’s former election commissioner has slapped players in the scheme with thousands of dollars in fines. An RCMP investigation has also been launched and is ongoing, looking into other allegations of identity fraud in Kenney’s camp during that race.
Jean says the RCMP have interviewed him several times as part of their probe.
“It disgusts me,” he said, adding if anyone involved is still around if he becomes leader, they won’t be for long.
For Kenney, things, politically speaking, have gone anything but smoothly. The pandemic has presented him with a test many critics on both ends of the political spectrum say he has failed. Some criticize him for bringing in too many public health restrictions, others for not acting fast enough to save ICUs from being overwhelmed.
Now, people inside UCP circles openly question whether he plans to resign in January or fight it out until a party leadership review scheduled to take place in April.
When it comes to Jean’s return, insiders speculate about whether Jean’s comeback is a form of revenge on Kenney for his alleged actions during the 2017 race, or if he genuinely feels like he has to save the United Conservative Party from fracturing completely.
For either reason, “people get it,” said one former Wildrose Party insider. Even if he’s coming back to settle a score with Kenney, that’s “a very real human emotion.”
The source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal party matters, said that’s Jean’s greatest strength as a politician.
“People have always, for whatever reason, felt he’s humanizing,” said the source.
Kenney appears to have tried to mimic some of that relatable image, they said. On the campaign trail, Kenney drove around the province in a blue pickup truck and was seen at rodeos, attempting to portray that down-home Albertan image.
But that’s not typically the image Kenney’s projected since forming government.
That said, Kenney has — historically, anyway — held a nearly mythical reputation for being a shrewd political operator who’s never lost an election.
In that sense, Jean has a tall hill to climb. He has to win a nomination race to be the UCP candidate for the Fort McMurray-Lac La Biche byelection, then the byelection, then a potential leadership race and then a general election against the NDP, which is consistently ahead of the UCP in polling.
Jean is also not without controversy. Just recently, he came under fire for a Facebook post that highlighted his nomination opponent’s ethnicity, referring to Fort McMurray resident Joshua Gogo as “a Nigerian economist.”
Jean had the comment removed and apologized. He said the post was written by a campaign worker.
He also sports some of the same policies as Kenney but takes an even harder stance on them.
In October, Alberta held a referendum on whether the equalization program — payments from the federal government to economically struggling provinces — should be in the country’s constitution. Kenney has long promised such a referendum and faced criticism from experts who say it’s not a feasible way to gain traction with federal politicians.
But Jean says the referendum was originally his idea. It was to be used as leverage to get Ottawa to the constitutional bargaining table.
If he becomes premier, he hopes to not only continue carrying that torch and getting the federal government to engage in constitutional talks, but also keep the option of separating from the country on the table.
“It’s an option that should be on the table for everybody because if we can’t get along and if we continue to be abused, we’re not going to stay in the marriage,” he said.
Still, Jean says he wants to reach “common ground” with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government and he slammed Kenney’s “controversial, combative approach” to “other levels of government.”
“People want somebody to trust in Alberta, and they do not trust Jason Kenney,” said Jean. “Right now, I’m just hoping that they will trust the UCP again with a different leader.”
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