Alberta Votes·Reporters Notebook

Alberta Votes 2015: A reporter's day on the bus with Jim Prentice

Edmonton to Grande Cache, stopping in Spruce Grove, Edson and Hinton along the way. A look inside the Jim Prentice campaign on the first day of the Alberta election.

CBC digital reporter Michelle Bellefontaine shares her thoughts from the campaign trail

Alberta Premier Jim Prentice and his wife Karen Prentice arrive for the announcement of an election in Edmonton, on Tuesday, April 7, 2015. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

On Tuesday, Progressive Conservative leader Jim Prentice announced Albertans would go to the polls on May 5. CBC digital reporter Michelle Bellefontaine spent the day with Prentice. Here are her impressions of the PC leader on his first day of the campaign.

When the PC party sent the press release on Monday that pretty much flagged the start of the election, one phrase stood out:"Following the announcement, media are invited to travel to Grande Cache via the leader's bus."

That seems different, I thought. 

Turns out my suspicions were right. 

Having reporters on a campaign bus is standard in other provinces. Not so in Alberta, at least for the PCs. A veteran reporter later told us (and Prentice) that in all his years of covering Alberta elections, he had never seen a PC party leader allow people on a campaign bus -- not Redford, not Stelmach, not even Klein.

Spruce Grove:

After leaving the Crestwood Community Hall, the media contingent — me, a photographer, and three other reporters, all from other outlets piled onto Prentice's bus. We settled in at the front; Prentice, his wife and a small entourage sat towards the back of the bus. 

About 20 minutes after leaving Edmonton, we arrived at Jack's Drive-in in Spruce Grove for an election photo-op.  A small crowd was waiting for Prentice, along with Ken Lemke and Stephen Khan, MLAs for Spruce Grove and St. Albert, respectively. 

After making his way through the crowd outside, Prentice entered the tiny burger joint. He charmed the counter staff and then strolled into the kitchen to greet the cook at his grill. 

Another classic campaign photo-op. 

It started to feel a bit weird after everyone got back on the bus.  The reporters were at the front, Prentice at the back. The bus was silent for some reason.  We started to make quiet inquiries about whether we could talk to Prentice, who seemed to be keeping his distance. I was beginning to wonder if this was how he was going to be all day.

I got bored and snapped a selfie to see if I could get Prentice in my shot. Nailed it!

We had WiFi on the bus but the reception was sporadic. I used the periscope app on my phone to do my own little live stream, describing my day on the road and the kick-off to the election. 

I noticed a bunch of suit bags and shirts in dry cleaning bags hanging from a rail across the aisle from where I was sitting. The Alberta hockey jersey Prentice wore at the PC AGM in November was also on a hanger.

Edson

In Edson, another small crowd awaited. Prentice was met by Finance Minister Robin Campbell, the MLA for the riding. After more meeting and greeting, everyone trudged over to Eddie the Squirrel for the obligatory "Premier comes to Edson" photos. Thumbs up, everybody!

Hinton 

By this point, I had a headache that refused to go away which I attributed to a general lack of coffee. Prentice's staff promised us that there would be coffee at the next stop, the Old Grind. 

Inside the cafe, Prentice and his wife Karen moved from table to table, chatting up the patrons. Campbell also got into the act, taking questions about the budget from one table of particularly engaged people. It wasn't clear to me whether they were invited to attend or were party supporters. 

My suspicions about Prentice eased a bit. The campaign got us coffees and the premier stood at the back of the bus, taking requests for the number of creams and sugars each person wanted.  He poured milk into mine. A sure sign an election is underway.

Hinton to Grande Cache

After turning off Highway 16, the bus started heading down the road towards Grande Cache. The mountains were now in full view and the scenery was a little wild. The bus slowed to avoid hitting two deer on the highway. WiFi and cell service became sporadic. 

Prentice made his way to the front and started to talk to the reporters. I asked him about his time in Grande Cache, his family's first home after moving from Ontario. I knew he moved there when he was 13. I wasn't clear when he left.

That's when Prentice launched into telling me and another reporter all kinds of things we had never heard before. He lived there until he was 18, when he left to attend university. His parents moved to southern Albertan when he was in Grade 12. Instead of following them, Prentice elected to stay behind and finish his final year of high school in Grande Cache, where he graduated with 10 other students.

He told us later that he wanted to stay behind and play hockey with the men's team he was on.

The politician side of him came out as well. As a single industry town which had a transient population when he lived there in the early 1970s, Grande Cache was also prone to the booms and busts in the economy. A reason, he explained, for why he wanted to lessen Alberta's dependence on oil.

Grande Cache

The bus pulled into Grande Cache just before 6 p.m. When Prentice jumped off the bus, he enthusiastically greeted a man who he later explained was an old hockey friend from his Grande Cache days.

Prentice was in Grande Cache to speak at a Rotary Club dinner. However, reporters were only allowed in for a few minutes. Once we took our pictures, we were escorted out.

However, that wasn't the last we saw of the PC leader. The media crew had dinner at the hotel Prentice was staying at. He was dining at the other side of the room and insisted we join him for a drink.

Which we did. Of course.

That's when we saw the relaxed yet personable side of Prentice people talk about.

He went around the table asking each and everyone of us stuff about ourselves, starting with where we were from and taking the conversation from there.

A politician for sure. But will he be able to charm the Albertans disenchanted with his government's new budget or the PC party in general? 

The campaign bus makes a stop on Wednesday at the Grande Cache Mine before taking the reporters back to Edmonton. The Prentice campaign will then continue on to Ponoka. 

It's not yet clear whether the media will be invited to keep on rolling with the campaign bus. 

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