Saskatoon StarPhoenix - - NP - Stu­art thom­Son Na­tional Post sx­thom­son@post­media.com

Leela Aheer was stand­ing in the mid­dle of a rapid­lyemp­ty­ing con­ven­tion cen­tre, still di­gest­ing the re­sults of her party’s first ever lead­er­ship vote, when she got word that the win­ner wanted to speak to her.

A lit­tle be­wil­dered, she agreed, and they set up a meet­ing. The next day, Ja­son Ken­ney, the newly-elected leader of the United Con­ser­va­tive Party, was at Aheer’s house. He had taken a look at his new cau­cus and re­al­ized he needed her help to fix a ma­jor prob­lem.

“I in­her­ited 27 guys and two women, which is ridicu­lous,” Ken­ney told the Na­tional Post in a re­cent in­ter­view. “We don’t be­lieve in quo­tas but, by gosh, we need to do a bet­ter job of re­flect­ing di­ver­sity by merit. I’ve been a bit ob­ses­sive about this, to be hon­est.”

The MLA for Ch­ester­mere-Rocky View, Aheer had sup­ported Brian Jean in the lead­er­ship race, her former leader in the Wil­drose Party and Ken­ney’s main ri­val. Even in the whiplash world of pol­i­tics, where peo­ple go from fren­zied com­bat to smil­ing con­cil­i­a­tion in a mat­ter of days, Ken­ney’s ges­ture sur­prised her.

The UCP formed in July 2017 through a merger of the grass­roots Wil­drose Party, led by Jean, and the scat­tered re­mains of the on­ce­dom­i­nant Pro­gres­sive Con­ser­va­tive Party, led by Ken­ney. Both fe­male MLAs came from the Wil­drose side of the merger.

Like any op­po­si­tion party, the UCP ex­pects to form gov­ern­ment af­ter the next elec­tion, and if Ken­ney de­feats Pre­mier Rachel Not­ley and her NDP next year and gets to build a cabi­net, he wants op­tions. So, in his mis­sion to re­build the prov­ince’s con­ser­va­tive po­lit­i­cal ma­chine, he made it an im­me­di­ate pri­or­ity to pull ca­pa­ble peo­ple into the party — with an em­pha­sis on re­cruit­ing fe­male can­di­dates.

The door, Ken­ney said to Aheer, would be “swung wide open.”

The meet­ing lasted about an hour and a half, and when it wrapped up, Aheer tack­led her new man­date — to help Ken­ney re­duce the gen­der dis­par­ity within the UCP ranks — with gusto. She says she’s had se­ri­ous con­ver­sa­tions with more than a hun­dred women, some of whom are now of­fi­cial UCP can­di­dates, some are en­gaged in nom­i­na­tion con­tests and oth­ers are knock­ing on doors, fundrais­ing or vol­un­teer­ing.

Ken­ney has done the same thing, seek­ing out strong can­di­dates at ev­ery event or func­tion he at­tends and mak­ing a point to per­son­ally en­cour­age fe­male can­di­dates.

Aheer is a former mu­sic teacher, and if she hears some­one sing a note or two with a lit­tle bit of tal­ent, she can’t re­sist telling them they’ve got some­thing. So now she does the same with women who would make strong can­di­dates. “When you see some­one who has that gift, you have to tell them,” says Aheer.

The UCP is loath to ad­mit it, but it’s im­pos­si­ble not to see this as a re­ac­tion to the Al­berta NDP and Justin Trudeau’s fed­eral Lib­er­als.

The Not­ley’s 53-per­son cau­cus in­cludes 25 women and nine fe­male cabi­net mem­bers. Not­ley her­self was the sin­gu­lar po­lit­i­cal force that lifted the New Democrats to gov­ern­ment in 2015 and al­most all the pow­er­ful fig­ures in her cabi­net are women. Sarah Hoff­man is the deputy pre­mier and health min­is­ter, Kath­leen Gan­ley is the jus­tice min­is­ter and Shan­non Phillips is the en­vi­ron­ment min­is­ter, tasked with rolling out the gov­ern­ment’s car­bon tax and en­vi­ron­men­tal poli­cies. Danielle Larivee plays the role of fixer, car­ry­ing the load on com­pli­cated leg­isla­tive ef­forts like up­dat­ing the Mu­nic­i­pal Gov­ern­ment Act and then wrestling with is­sues in the scan­dal-plagued child wel­fare sys­tem — both port­fo­lios lit­tered with trip­wires.

The women on the gov­ern­ment’s front bench look across the floor at a sea of men who sur­round Aheer and Air­drie MLA An­gela Pitt on the op­po­si­tion side of the leg­is­la­ture. Three NDP cabi­net min­is­ters have had ba­bies while on the job and the party gives off an aura of fam­i­lyfriend­li­ness. Once, dur­ing a scrum with re­porters, Hoff­man si­dled up to Brandy Payne, then her as­so­ci­ate min­is­ter of health, lifted Payne’s baby from her hands and bounced the in­fant in her arms as she walked into the cabi­net meet­ing. Payne smiled, but seemed un­fazed as she con­tin­ued an­swer­ing ques­tions.

“It’s been an in­cred­i­bly marked con­trast look­ing across the floor at two women,” said Larivee. “I’m glad to see they’re try­ing (to re­cruit fe­male can­di­dates) but it’s very much a pol­icy prob­lem on their side.”

The UCP is a party with “more Richards and Ricks than women,” she said, be­cause they don’t con­sider the needs of women and fam­i­lies.

As an ex­am­ple, Larivee pointed to a re­cent gov­ern­ment bill that would cre­ate a 50-me­tre no-protest zones around abor­tion clin­ics, which the UCP has re­fused to de­bate or vote on. Ken­ney has de­scribed the bill as a po­lit­i­cal stunt and di­rected his cau­cus to walk out of the leg­is­la­ture when­ever votes are held.

And that’s not just a zippy one­liner by Larivee — with Ric McIver, Rick Strankman and Richard Got­fried out­num­ber­ing the two women, it’s lit­er­ally true. If Richard Starke hadn’t re­fused to make the tran­si­tion from PC to UCP, the Ricks and Richards would have dou­bled the num­ber of women in cau­cus.

The op­ti­mism that ac­com­pa­nied the birth of the UCP, and its con­sis­tently sunny poll num­bers, have sparked a rush of po­ten­tial can­di­dates who see a quick path into gov­ern­ment. About 280 peo­ple reg­is­tered across the prov­ince seek­ing to be the party’s stan­dard-bearer in one of Al­berta’s 87 rid­ings, ac­cord­ing to data from Elec­tions Al­berta. But go­ing into this week­end, of the 36 can­di­dates the UCP had al­ready nom­i­nated, only nine were women.

The dis­par­ity il­lus­trates two cru­cial ob­sta­cles for the party in its at­tempt to di­ver­sify, with the first be­ing the power of in­cum­bency. Ken­ney may be gen­uinely con­cerned at the cur­rent gen­der bal­ance in his cau­cus, but those men are al­most all tri­umph­ing in their nom­i­na­tion con­tests. Re­mov­ing the in­cum­bents from the list leaves seven women and 13 men.

The sec­ond ob­sta­cle is the party’s prom­ise of open nominations, which leaves can­di­dates al­most en­tirely to their own de­vices as they battle for the nom­i­na­tion and the leader un­able to make en­dorse­ments.

Along with the ex­plo­sion of fe­male can­di­dates, there are many younger can­di­dates vy­ing for UCP nominations who may be sur­prised by the fe­roc­ity of these races. With­out party sup­port, it means these can­di­dates are left to duke it out on their own.

“I respect that. I wouldn’t want to run in a nom­i­na­tion where I was given an ad­van­tage be­cause I was fe­male,” says Tanya Fir, who re­cently won the nom­i­na­tion in Cal­gary-Peigan.

She says the party could have made an “easy fix” and just ap­pointed fe­male can­di­dates, but chose to do it in a way that stays true to con­ser­va­tive prin­ci­ples. It may take longer to change the party’s face, but in the long run, it means the UCP “will at­tract peo­ple who want to win it on their own mer­its,” Fir says.

Many of the women in nom­i­na­tion con­tests were en­thu­si­as­tic about She Leads, an or­ga­ni­za­tion that sup­ports con­ser­va­tive women as they ven­ture into pol­i­tics spear­headed by Lau­reen Harper and former fed­eral Con­ser­va­tive leader Rona Am­brose.

The party hopes it will fill the gap dur­ing the nom­i­na­tion con­test black­out, es­pe­cially for women com­pletely new to pol­i­tics who need ad­vice on how to run a cam­paign. Ken­ney says he en­cour­aged Am­brose and Harper to start the group and cred­its Am­brose for con­vinc­ing him that the re­cruit­ment drive had to start with the party leader.

“There are no se­crets to nom­i­na­tion races be­cause it all comes down to hard work sell­ing mem­ber­ships, fundrais­ing, putting a team to­gether and of course a get-out-the-vote pro­gram for the day of the race. Our goal is to help women with this,” said Harper, via email. “And women new to pol­i­tics who may be in­ter­ested in run­ning need some help fig­ur­ing this out.”

The UCP has also been pay­ing at­ten­tion to re­search show­ing a woman gen­er­ally needs to be asked a few times be­fore she agrees to run. Aheer says she has first­hand knowl­edge of this, say­ing that women come to her and ask, “Should I run?” while men tend to ask, “How should I run?”

When she was first asked to run for the Wil­drose nom­i­na­tion, Aheer de­scribes a group of seven party mem­bers sit­ting her down — al­most like an in­ter­ven­tion — and con­vinc­ing her to run.

“We need to ask more. It’s as sim­ple as that,” says Aheer. “If no­body had asked me I never would have run.”

Look­ing through the nom­i­na­tion races, and the can­di­dates who have al­ready been se­lected, there is a wide cross-sec­tion of ex­pe­ri­ence that hints at what a pos­si­ble UCP gov­ern­ment may look like.

Tracy Al­lard was re­cently nom­i­nated to be the UCP can­di­date in Grande Prairie and, like many of the can­di­dates, she was sur­prised that Ken­ney him­self made an ef­fort to re­cruit her.

“I keep hear­ing about you,” Ken­ney told her, be­fore en­cour­ag­ing her to seek the nom­i­na­tion. With pri­vate sec­tor ex­pe­ri­ence and an em­pha­sis on “com­mon sense,” Al­lard could be seen as a pro­to­type for the kind of can­di­date Ken­ney has been seek­ing.

‘He def­i­nitely was per­son­ally very en­cour­ag­ing,” says Al­lard. “I can see now he’s been very in­ten­tional to en­gage the right can­di­dates. Peo­ple with the right skill sets, not peo­ple who have to be trained up.”

Al­lard is a Tim Hor­tons fran­chise owner who is dis­mayed by how the prov­ince’s “fi­nances have re­ally de­railed.” Her dad was a con­stituency association pres­i­dent for the Pro­gres­sive Con­ser­va­tives and pol­i­tics has al­ways been part of her life. While speak­ing to a Post re­porter on the phone, she paused for a sec­ond to non­cha­lantly warn her hus­band about a deer car­cass on the high­way.

In speak­ing about what they bring to the ta­ble, many of the can­di­dates em­pha­size “real-world ex­pe­ri­ence.”

Fir brings pri­vate sec­tor ex­pe­ri­ence from oil and gas com­pany CNRL and Sonya Sav­age, who re­cently won the nom­i­na­tion in Cal­gary North­west, also brings decades of ex­pe­ri­ence from the oil and gas sec­tor and a long his­tory of be­hind-thescenes work with the PC Party.

At age 25, Michaela Glasgo is one of the youngest nom­i­na­tion can­di­dates af­ter win­ning the UCP nom­i­na­tion in Brooks-Medicine Hat. She worked on Ken­ney’s lead­er­ship cam­paign and pre­vi­ously for Con­ser­va­tive MP Rachael Harder.

Par­tic­u­larly galling to her is that “the left in­sists on treat­ing women like a lock­step iden­tity cat­e­gory.” Like Sav­age, Glasgo’s fiercest com­pe­ti­tion in the nom­i­na­tion con­test came from an­other woman.

The nom­i­na­tion con­test for Cal­gary Moun­tain View, which will de­cide who runs against Lib­eral leader David Khan, is a battle of two glit­ter­ing re­sumes.

Jeremy Wong, a young pas­tor with a mas­ter’s de­gree in pub­lic pol­icy on top of his mas­ter of divin­ity de­gree, is up against Cay­lan Ford, who has mas­ter’s de­grees from Ox­ford Univer­sity and Ge­orge Ma­son Univer­sity.

Ford, a young mother and po­lit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy junkie, is an­other can­di­date whom Ken­ney per­son­ally urged to get in­volved af­ter she con­fronted him at a meet-and-greet event about his mis­quot­ing of con­ser­va­tive thinker Ed­mund Burke. Ken­ney jok­ingly de­scribed that as “po­lit­i­cal love at first sight.”

Ford is on ma­ter­nity leave from her po­si­tion as a se­nior ad­viser at Global Af­fairs Canada while she vies for the nom­i­na­tion, and has to scramble for child­mind­ing ev­ery time she wants to go door-knock­ing.

Ford says the push for more fe­male can­di­dates is sim­ply about “rec­og­niz­ing that some of your most tal­ented peo­ple are women.”

The fed­eral Lib­er­als and Al­berta NDP have proudly show­cased gen­der-bal­anced cab­i­nets, but ev­ery UCP can­di­date in­ter­viewed for this story re­jected the idea of cab­i­net­mak­ing by quota. Larivee says there was no quota in­volved in the NDP cabi­net and that the gen­der bal­ance was sim­ply a nat­u­ral re­sult of the party’s gen­der-bal­anced cau­cus.

“I’m very op­posed to putting women in cabi­net just be­cause they’re women. It needs to be based on merit,” says Sav­age. “Oth­er­wise it dam­ages it for ca­pa­ble women that come along.”

Glasgo says she’s “very, vo­cally op­posed to quota sys­tems.”

“If one day we have a gen­der bal­anced cabi­net,” she says, “it won’t be (be­cause of ) a quota.”


Al­berta UCP Leader Ja­son Ken­ney en­cour­aged Lau­reen Harper, cen­tre, and Rona Am­brose to launch a group that men­tors women to run for con­ser­va­tive po­lit­i­cal par­ties.

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