UCP dissident Leela Aheer hopes to stay in the running

By Catherine Griwkowsky September 28, 2022

Polls that place Leela Aheer among the least likely to win the UCP leadership race aren’t fazing the candidate.

Aheer told AB Today she is no stranger to being underestimated.

In 2015, after months of convincing from the Wildrose party, she ran a campaign in Chestermere—Rocky View against PC candidate and incumbent MLA Bruce McAllister, who had joined Danielle Smith in crossing the floor the year prior. Aheer defeated the incumbent by 222 votes despite polling showing her candidacy had barely registered a blip on the radar.

In 2019, pundits and pollsters predicted former UCP MLA and then-Freedom Conservative Party leader Derek Fildebrandt would “eat [her] lunch” in her reconstituted riding of Chestermere—Strathmore.

However, Aheer garnered more than 15,612 votes to Fildebrandt’s 1,683.

Aheer said polling that put her behind her competitors in those elections motivated her to do more door-knocking, and the same is true in the UCP leadership race.

“Hard work has everything to do with it,” Aheer told AB Today in a phone interview.

Image provided by the Leela Aheer campaign.

On Covid and being ousted from cabinet

Aheer sat in the UCP cabinet, serving for two years as minister of culture, multiculturalism and status of women, but was shuffled out in July after criticizing Premier Jason Kenney’s Covid policies.

Three of her friends lost their jobs due to Covid restrictions during the same week in which photos emerged of Premier Kenney, UCP leadership contestant Travis Toews and now-Finance Minister Jason Nixon dining on the rooftop patio of the Federal Building. A singer professionally, indoor capacity limits stopped her from singing at a friend’s father’s funeral, which also took place that week.

Aheer blamed her UCP cabinet colleagues for sowing distrust and confusion, while ignoring the voices of rural Albertans, during a tough time for the province.

The resulting political split among the UCP’s base ultimately led to Kenney’s resignation.

“The ground war that was fought by the people of this province between the left and the right, and the use of fear over these last three years — it’s been brutal to watch,” Aheer said.

If Aheer were in charge of the party, she said her philosophy on decision-making would be to take the time to listen with compassion and avoid arrogance in leadership.

“I’m a pro-choice girl on all things,” Aheer said. “I would never force somebody to put something in their body that they don’t want to. But I’m also a huge believer in vaccines. I’m a huge believer in science. I would make sure that we were having really, really honest conversations with people to make sure that they understand what the options are.”

Rocky road in the leadership race

At one point during the campaign at a stampede in Strathmore Aheer grabbed a bull by its horns — literally.

That’s perhaps an apt metaphor for her rocky leadership campaign, which has seen her reveal previously confidential cabinet secrets on a debate stage, as she wrestles against a group of candidates who are more politically aligned than she is.

Aheer represents the socially progressive side of the UCP and, earlier in the campaign, vowed to speak up against any discriminatory policy proposals.

Soon after, her Facebook account was hacked and child sexual abuse images were posted onto her page. Aheer does not believe it is a coincidence the incident happened immediately after she publicly criticized racism.

“Every time a wrench is thrown in, we bounce back,” Aheer said, adding “any language or policy that is anti-human, it’s not human-centered, is not conservative policy.”

Policy proposals

Covid is not the only policy difference Aheer has had with her party or rival leadership candidates.

In her platform, she said she would not pursue an Alberta Provincial Police Service as proposed, would restore Legal Aid funding, and go back to the drawing board with the Kindergarten to Grade 6 curriculum rewrite — planks that are all at odds with the UCP’s official party line.

She has also proposed creating an oil and gas liaison office in Ottawa and Quebec, promoting not only traditional energy, but hydrogen, rare earth minerals and agri-food.

Aheer agrees more needs to be done to create efficiencies in Alberta’s health-care system, with several outstanding recommendations from the EY Canada report that could be implemented, but said the government lacked humility in its negotiations with doctors and nurses.

‘A really boring and awesome government’

Aheer is not only fighting to win the leadership, but is also facing a contested nomination in her riding.

She will soon find out whether she will have the opportunity to run for the UCP again, with local members set to choose between her and rival Chestermere—Strathmore nomination contestant Chantelle de Jonge. (A date for the nomination vote has not yet been set.)

On the leadership campaign trail, Aheer’s riding-level drama was aired by Smith during a testy exchange at a leadership forum in Fort McMurray.

After Aheer expressed concerns about Smiths’ proposed Sovereignty Act and a proposal for Alberta to wrestle control over immigration policies from the federal government, Smith got personal, firing back that Aheer had already lost her constituency association board and risked losing her own nomination.

Aheer said she won’t stop speaking out, even if she isn’t chosen to be the next premier. But she also said she has been working with other campaigns to help to heal the party — and province — after a divisive few years.

“With grace and compassion and competency and calmness, we will be a really boring and awesome government,” Aheer said. “And that’s what a lot of people would like to see.”