As the race to replace Jason Kenney heats up, the Star is talking to the candidates seeking to become the next leader of Alberta’s governing United Conservative Party — and premier. This is one piece in that series of conversations.
EDMONTON—It’s a revealing moment when the composed Travis Toews is asked in a downtown Edmonton coffee shop if he ever seriously considered resigning from cabinet during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“No,” says Alberta’s former finance minister — now in the running to be premier of Alberta.
“But believe me, there were days.”
Many could relate to the sentiment; the pandemic took its toll on us all, although it really wore on the United Conservative Party cabinet that Toews served in under Premier Jason Kenney. Months of political turmoil over the handling of the pandemic and the premier’s leadership style took its toll especially on Kenney, who announced his resignation, igniting the UCP leadership race Toews now hopes to win.
“I deeply believe that I was more effective around that table than resigning and calling out the government,” he said, adding that there were times he disagreed with the government’s direction.
“Speaking out against the government is not an option when you’re a cabinet minister, when you’re a director on a board. Your option is to resign.”
Toews is tall and looks at home in a suit. A man seated outside the Second Cup looks impressed with him and asks what he does for business. A longtime accountant, Toews indulges and stops to chit-chat before jetting off to another engagement.
It’s a selling point for Toews: “I’m comfortable in downtown Edmonton, Calgary, you know, even New York.”
But Toews also likes to point out that his roots are those of a rancher from near Grande Prairie and that he’s relatively new to politics, having only jumped in for the 2019 provincial election. While some Alberta politicians try to cosplay as a cowboy, he’s the real McCoy. That kind of thing can go a long way in this rodeo province, which has a sharp urban-rural divide, and Toews says he’s “uniquely positioned” to bring the two factions together both inside and outside caucus.
It still might be a tall order. Recent polling and party insiders put former Wildrose Party leader and political veteran Danielle Smith at the head of the pack of seven candidates. Toews, third in the latest polls, does have the backing of much of the UCP caucus, though it’s hard to say if that’s necessarily a good thing in a race with its origins in grassroots dislike of the government’s track record.
Controversial statements Smith has made in the race so far have garnered her much attention. She has long been a provocative critic of Alberta’s approach to COVID-19 (she once had to backpedal after suggesting ivermectin could be used to treat an infection) and takes a stance on the province resisting Ottawa that isn’t far off from full separatism.
Before sitting down with the Star, Toews’ campaign had just gone after Smith for appearing to propose that Alberta introduce a provincial sales tax (known to pundits in these parts as the Political Suicide Tax) in a column published in September 2020.
“That’s noteworthy in this province,” he says, adding that, of course, he wouldn’t introduce a PST — seen as being capable of raising $5 billion a year — even though he’s been quoted in the past musing about one without totally ruling it out.
Smith has since said she wouldn’t bring in a PST either, but has pledged to bring in a “sovereignty act,” a bill that would, theoretically, let Alberta ignore federal laws it doesn’t like — something Toews, along with many experts, has called a pipe dream.
“I will not be disingenuous with Albertans … certainly some of the policy positions that Danielle Smith has taken, my only conclusion is that, on some of those, she’ll be unable to deliver,” he said. “I’m not going to do that to Albertans. That results in further disillusionment with politics.”
But he has more than just Smith to contend with — there’s also COVID-19 policy.
It’s a weak point for the former minister amid some UCP members who are still angry over the Alberta government’s pandemic response. It also appears to be where Smith is strong.
In some ways, the Kenney government’s COVID-19 choices put Toews in the position he’s in now — running to be UCP leader and premier come Oct. 6. But he was at the table helping to make all those decisions, many of which led to Kenney’s ouster.
Insiders note how angry some UCP members are with the government, still, over the public-health policies brought in during the pandemic. Vaccines passports, mandates, social distancing, work-from-home orders. Each one took its toll as the months dragged on, particularly in rural areas away from cities.
Those times around the decision table were “the toughest hours and days of my life,” Toews reminisces.
“We did it very imperfectly,” he said. “There’s things that I look back on that I believe were ultimately the wrong direction.”
The first lockdown in the spring of 2020, for instance. Or when his government closed mom-and-pop businesses but kept big-box stores open, he said.
Toews brings up the summer of 2021 when Kenney, infamously, declared it the “best summer ever”: there would be no more lockdowns, COVID-19 was essentially over, and no vaccine passports would be brought in. Kenney went on to reverse course on all three as another wave of infections crushed hospital capacity in August and September.
“In this case, it broke trust with so many Albertans,” Toews said. “I am careful not to make definitive statements.”
He also wants an independent third-party review of the government’s COVID-19 response.
On fighting back against the federal government, Toews says he wouldn’t push for separatism or support a Smith-style sovereignty act, but would win gains from Ottawa by “being strategic” and using points of leverage like an Alberta pension plan (potentially pulling the province from the Canada Pension Plan).
Separatism? “That’s not my style,” says Toews.
“We’ve made far too many gains economically to see that all eroded for political bluster and gain.”
Rather, it’s nuts-and-bolts policies that he seems excited about. He talks child tax credits and easier licensing for drivers. He also thinks an Alberta police force, replacing the RCMP, could help combat rural crime problems that have been a big issue for years.
Health-care capacity should be expanded and it should also be easier for workers in the field to get accredited, he added.
For all his proposed changes, though, Toews is seen by many as Kenney’s guy, a member of the inner sanctum and the “establishment” candidate that would continue in the direction set by Kenney.
Toews responds to this by saying what the other candidates also say: He’ll bring a different “leadership style, tone and approach.”
Still, he was famously captured by a mysterious photographer atop the notorious Sky Palace — a controversial reno job of a penthouse launched by former premier Alison Redford and now a symbol of political entitlement.
The photo appear to show Toews, Kenney, and other inner-circle members enjoying a boozy meal together — all while their own COVID-19 restrictions appeared to forbid such a gathering.
Toews has since apologized.
“The last two years were an impossible time, politically, in Alberta, I would say, for a conservative government.”
But “I’m very different than the premier.”
That’ll be good for him if he wants to outdo Kenney. The premier got barely more than half of the party’s support in May’s leadership review, before quickly resigning.
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