All these years later, the Oakville-born Alberta premier still has an eye, and an ear, for the GTA.
Now he wants to be heard.
Not just by the Bay Street crowd who rewarded him with standing ovations during a lunchtime speech on Alberta’s energy woes, or from the smiling Ontario premier who pledged his support Friday (after bearing a private grudge against him for years — more on that later).
The new premier is getting his message out any way he can, not least in the pages of the Toronto Star. Which is why he sat down for a wide-ranging interview about Alberta’s plight, his political fight, and his plan to disrupt Canada even if it means talking up disunity in a country that still frets about national unity.
Ontarians, he says, should hear him out.
“Obviously, Ontario is sort of the elder brother of the federation, and I think it can play a role,” he tells me. The response at Friday’s business lunch showed “they get what Alberta is going through.”
Many politicians lay claim to a 100-day plan of action. Kenney, however, has unveiled a 100-hour agenda of disruption that he has spent years mapping out.
And he is just getting started — threatening B.C. with a fuel blockade and confronting Prime Minister Justin Trudeau with a constitutional challenge over control of energy resources.
Never mind that the first provincial legal challenge against a federal carbon tax, led by Saskatchewan, but emulated by Ontario and promised by Alberta, fizzled on Friday with a court decision backing Ottawa’s authority.
Like Ford, Kenney isn’t giving up: “We want to coordinate our legal strategy on this.”
While the premiers of Alberta and Ontario can both be described as disruptors, there is a difference.
Kenney is a populist with a plan.
Unlike Ford’s follies, there is method to Kenney’s madness. He knows how to pick fights, but he also has the political smarts to win an audience, whether in the press or the public service.
He wants all Ontarians to know how bad it is: Albertans are so frustrated that they are flirting with separatism as Quebecers once did.
A country that once worried about “Two Solitudes” is now facing several solitudes squabbling on multiple fronts, with Kenney at the locus of loquaciousness — confronting British Columbia, countering Quebec, and condemning Ottawa for either standing in the way of Alberta’s interests, or not standing up for them.
Alberta feels politically landlocked, and will do what it must to break out.
“My message today is, ‘Let’s be partners in prosperity in responsible resource development, which means pipelines and market access.’ ”
How can he get Ontario onside?
“By working with your government, which does want to help us,” he says.
Yet Ford is today less popular than Kenney’s predecessor as premier of Alberta, Rachel Notley, and hardly has the hammerlock on public opinion that Kenney has at home. Ford Nation cannot deliver the province.
Which is why Kenney wants to speak directly to Ontarians “by being here and communicating the message — it’s not a coincidence, here I am, in downtown Toronto, three days into being premier of Alberta,” he says. “And you’ll be seeing a lot more of me …. I look forward to my first editorial board meeting (as premier) with the Toronto Star. I’m not kidding.”
Kenney is at home in Ontario, as if he never left. He worked the banquet circuit hard as minister of multiculturalism, turning up at public events across the 905, and at party fundraisers in most ridings.
“I’ve been away, but I do understand the 905, I think, and the GTA and Ontario pretty well,” he muses.
Now he wants to be sure Ford understands what Alberta is up against: “I wasn’t sure the degree to which he was aware of that.”
They emerged earlier Friday with Ford beaming about their bond in the fight against a carbon tax. Even if their populist play may soon peter out, they cast themselves as comrades in a shared battle.
“I can’t even wipe the smile off my face,” Ford said in his Queen’s Park office as he posed with his Alberta visitor. “What a great ally!”
But as Kenney acknowledged in our interview, it wasn’t always smiles between the two politicians.
“Yes, you recall,” Kenney mused, when asked about his public denunciation of Ford’s late brother Rob in 2013, in which he called on the younger Ford to step aside as then-mayor of Toronto as he became increasingly erratic in his public antics: “I think there is a dignity in public service and elected office and he is doing, regrettably, dishonour to that high office,” Kenney told reporters at the time. “I personally think he should step aside and stop dragging the city of Toronto through this terrible embarrassment.”
He was the first Harper minister to speak out, clearly disturbed and offended by the then-mayor’s behaviour.
It left the mayor’s defenders furious, not least Ontario’s present-day premier.
“We had a tense …. He had some choice words for me” six years ago, Kenney said Friday, choosing his words carefully. “But I think both of us implicitly just allowed bygones to be bygones,” and there was no discussion Friday of “that unfortunate incident.”
Kenney’s decision to speak out at the time was a reflection of how seriously he takes Canada’s governing institutions, notwithstanding his populist rhetoric and partisan cloak. Perhaps it’s because he has seen politics from different perspectives and provinces; he was born in Ontario, raised in Manitoba, settled in Saskatchewan, moved to Alberta, all the while shifting from the Liberal Party to Reform, the Canadian Alliance, the federal Conservatives, and now Alberta’s United Conservative Party.
It underscores how he cultivates the bureaucracy, rather than bulldozing it, as Ford’s Progressive Conservatives do in Ontario.
In Ottawa, Kenney tapped into the civil service expertise to undertake major immigration reforms, a point he stressed after his new cabinet was sworn in by inviting his former federal deputy to an orientation session in Alberta: “I expect our ministers to work collaboratively with the public servants, and I walked them through my very productive, symbiotic relationship … to do good policy.”
While some populist premiers tout the unrivalled power of social media in bypassing mass media, Kenney prefers to reach the biggest audience.
“It’s still important to communicate through the mainstream media; most people still get most of their information, I think, from it,” he says.
“I try to be accessible, probably more than most in my walk of life.”
Martin Regg Cohn is a columnist based in Toronto covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @reggcohn