Alberta Premier Jason Kenney calls March 15 byelection, UCP candidate campaigning to oust him

Elections Alberta has announced the launch of the four-week campaign in Fort McMurray-Lac La Biche, with voters in the northeastern Alberta riding heading to the polls March 15.

Brian Jean is running to retain the seat for the United Conservatives

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and Brian Jean have a long history dating back to when they were federal Conservative MPs but most recently when they together co-founded the United Conservative Party in 2017. (CBC)

After a six-month wait, voters in Fort McMurray-Lac La Biche will cast ballots in a provincial byelection on March 15, Alberta's premier announced Tuesday.

Premier Jason Kenney waited until the last possible day to call the byelection.

His former party leadership rival Brian Jean, the United Conservative Party's nominee, will face the NDP's Ariana Mancini, a teacher, Wildrose Independence Party of Alberta leader Paul Hinman, and Marilyn Burns of the Alberta Advantage Party in the northeastern Alberta riding.

Alberta Party leader Barry Morishita says a local candidate will also run under that party banner, but the nomination process is still underway.

Politics watchers have anticipated election call as Jean attempts to re-enter the fray after a nearly four-year hiatus.

"Obviously, this byelection is about stopping the NDP next year," Jean said in an interview on Tuesday. "And starting the process of renewing the UCP this year."

Jean led the Wildrose Party and was Opposition leader until the Wildrose and the Progressive Conservative parties merged to form the United Conservative Party in 2017.

A splinter group of Wildrose supporters opposed to the merger formed the Alberta Advantage Party.

Jean resigned as MLA for the same riding in 2018 after Kenney defeated him in the 2017 UCP leadership race.

Jean has been frank that he aims to sign up new party members, and get them to Red Deer on April 9 to vote against the premier at a leadership review meeting.

Jason Kenney defeated Brian Jean, pictured, in the UCP leadership race in 2017. (Submitted by Brian Jean)

NDP rival Ariana Mancini, a teacher, says a byelection campaign that should be focused on local issues is already being derailed by the UCP's internal tussles.

On doorsteps, she said she's hearing from people struggling with the rising cost of living, and frustrated by having to travel to Edmonton for health-care services, such as an outpatient ultrasound.

"They are not interested in any drama or UCP infighting that's occurring right now," she said.

She said she's confident the NDP will win the byelection, and such a political shift would have implications in the 2023 general election.

Ariana Mancini is a teacher, and running under the NDP. (Submitted by Ariana Mancini)

Wildrose Independence candidate Paul Hinman hopes the byelection is his ticket into the legislature.

He's been living in Fort McMurray since December, door knocking six days a week, and he's pleased with the reception.

The oilsands are Alberta's crown jewel and should be a point of pride, instead of a target of federal and provincial environmental policies, he said.

"I literally look at this as landing on the beach and being in the game," he said. "This will catapult our profile across the province."

Paul Hinman is the Wildrose Party candidate. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

The Alberta Party hopes to have a candidate nominated by the week's end, leader Morishita says. He's in Fort McMurray meeting with prospective candidates.

"There's a lot of people who are frustrated with the legacy parties," he said.

He hopes the Alberta Party can tap into that frustration and reclaim a seat in the legislature after being shut out in the 2019 general election.

CBC has reached out to Burns for comment. 

The Fort McMurray-Lac La Biche seat has been vacant since August, when then-MLA Laila Goodridge abruptly resigned to run as the conservative candidate in the federal Fort McMurray-Cold Lake riding. She won the seat in last October's federal election.

Morishita said Kenney did a disservice to locals by leaving them without representation for so long.

Some of Kenney's critics say it was a tactic to keep Jean out of the picture for as long as possible while Kenney faces a leadership challenge.

Kenney refuted that on Tuesday, and blamed the pandemic.

"We just thought it would send the wrong message for the governing party to have people out there going door to door  and doing community retail events, while we still had pretty stringent public health measures in place and needed to do our part to reduce viral transmission," Kenney said at an unrelated news conference.

Byelection candidates have until Feb. 25 to submit nominations, according to Elections Alberta. Advance polls will be open from March 8 to 12.

With files from The Canadian Press


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