Rural Alberta gets a voice in UCP leadership race

By Catherine Griwkowsky June 7, 2022

Amisk Mayor Bill Rock wants rural Alberta to get attention in the UCP leadership race to replace Premier Jason Kenney.

Rock, the fifth and least-known contender to register for the leadership race with Elections Alberta, said he didn’t anticipate Kenney’s resignation and is still figuring out the details of his campaign, such as his team members and which riding he would run in if his underdog bid is successful.

Rock has served on council in the east central Alberta village for eight years, five of them as mayor. He ran in Wetaskiwin—Camrose for the Wildrose Party in 2015, placing third with 21.5 per cent of the vote, having stepped in after the previous Wildrose candidate got swept up in the floor crossing movement to join the PCs. Rock was a Wildrose member since 2011 and participated in the vote to unify the parties in 2017.

Upon news of Kenney’s resignation, Rock stepped down from Agricultural and Forestry Minister Nate Horner’s constituency association board so he could run in the leadership race.

The mayor said he doesn’t believe the other candidates have been standing up for rural Alberta when it comes to pressing issues such as rural crime, health care and getting a “fair deal.”

Amisk Mayor Bill Rock is the fifth and least-known contender to register for the UCP leadership race.

Rock recalled how Kenney, during his own leadership bid in 2017, brought up a 17-year-old working at an Esso gas station in the nearby town of Hardisty to support his family when speaking about the importance of getting pipelines built.

“He’s never come back,” Rock said of Kenney.

The region’s contributions to Alberta — such as wealth generated through the pipeline terminal in Hardisty — are often taken for granted, he said, noting RCMP responses can still take up to 45 minutes.

He said there are estimates that $430 million worth of oil flows through the terminal daily, nearly as much as the goods flowing through the port of Vancouver.

“And we can’t get an RCMP officer,” he said.

Despite concerns with rural crime, Rock said he still has problems with the UCP’s proposed provincial police model, adding it was about seventh on the list of “fair deal” solutions proposed after consultation with Albertans.

Crime response times are not the only problem facing rural Alberta. In Hardisty, the emergency room has been closed for two years, one of many rural centres that have lost service due to a lack of staffing.

Amisk is one of four towns in the province that still has a volunteer ambulance service, but dispatch was centralized under Alberta Health Services.

“They’ll get a call and they’ll want the ambulance to go from here to Edmonton to transfer somebody to Calgary,” Rock said. “They’re gone for 14 hours.”

He said Hardisty’s school division shut down a school two years ago after cutting programs and special needs students don’t have full-time aids.

Rural infrastructure deficits, like the lack of a long-term plan for sewer, roads and bridges, are also among the problems he wants to see fixed.

One of five registered — so far

Danielle Smith and UCP MLA Brian Jean, both former Wildrose leaders, have each registered with Elections Alberta, as has Independent MLA Todd Loewen. Former Finance Minister Travis Toews, who stepped down to launch his leadership bid, has the endorsement of 23 UCP MLAs.

UCP MLA Leela Aheer, who was shuffled out of cabinet after criticizing Kenney, confirmed Tuesday morning she’s in as well.

Registering intention with Elections Alberta is only the first step and does not guarantee acceptance by the party. The UCP’s Leadership Election Committee has yet to determine rules for the race including entrance fees and timelines, but the founding leadership contest in 2017 required a $75,000 entrance fee, plus a refundable $20,000 “good conduct” charge.

“I’m not too, too concerned about raising the funds,” Rock said.

He doesn’t believe Wildrose Independence Leader Paul Hinman or Alberta Party Leader Barry Morishita can organize a team of candidates and platform in time to stave off the NDP. He thinks it is possible to instead fix the UCP in order to win the 2023 election.

Tire kicking

Several other conservative politicians have either expressed interest or are rumoured to be running.

Children’s Services Minister Rebecca Schulz and Transportation Minister Rajan Sawhney are both mulling a bid but have not made final decisions. CPC MP Michelle Rempel Garner is said to be considering a leadership bid.

UCP caucus chair Nathan Neudorf told Lethbridge News Now he will run again in Lethbridge—East and but not for the leadership.