FORT MCMURRAY, Alta. – The former leader of Alberta’s Opposition is quitting the legislature, months after losing a bid to lead the province’s new United Conservative Party.
Brian Jean said in a statement that now is an important time to “draw closer” to his family as well as finally rebuild his home, which was destroyed in a massive wildfire that hit Fort McMurray in 2016.
Jean was leader of the Wildrose party in the 2015 election that saw the NDP win power after more than 40 years of Progressive Conservative rule.
His right-of-centre party merged last year with the PCs under then Tory leader and former federal cabinet minister Jason Kenney to form the UCP, but Jean lost to Kenney to become leader of the new party.
“Last fall, I was proud to run for the leadership of our United Conservative Party and was incredibly touched by the support I received,” Jean said in the news release.
“Our members set out a clear direction for our party, and I would like to wish Jason Kenney and the rest of my UCP colleagues the very best as they prepare for the next election.”
Before provincial politics, Jean was a lawyer and businessman who later became a Conservative MP representing the former constituency of Fort McMurray-Athabasca.
Kenney issued his own news release thanking Jean for his contributions to the conservative cause, especially as Leader of the Opposition and as a member of the legislature.
“Today, the conservative movement in Alberta is resurgent, thanks in large part to Brian’s courageous and principled decision to put our province ahead of any political party by pursuing the path of unity,” Kenney stated.
After Kenney defeated Jean in the leadership contest in October, Jean was not given a critic portfolio, which Jean said was his wish.
At that time, Jean said he wanted to focus on his family and his constituents in Fort McMurray-Conklin. He also said he wanted to see what direction the United Conservatives would take at their founding policy convention in the spring before deciding whether to run in the next election in 2019.
Jean won the leadership of Wildrose just weeks before the 2015 election, assuming the helm at a tumultuous time for his family and for the party.
His 24-year-old son, Michael, died of lymphoma during the Wildrose leadership race. In the preceding months, the party’s former leader Danielle Smith and 10 more of its legislature members had crossed the floor to join the Progressive Conservatives under its new leader, Jim Prentice.
That left Wildrose with only five members in the legislature, and many wrote the party off. While they didn’t win the election, they captured 21 seats to remain the official Opposition.
Both Wildrose and the PCs later voted to merge, but Jean didn’t come close to getting the support of Kenney, who received nearly twice as many votes to lead the new party.
“Three years ago, I entered provincial politics because I believed Albertans deserved better from their government — whether it was an unresponsive health care system, irresponsible spending, or suffering from a decline in democracy,” Jean said in his statement.
“We needed to set a bold new direction for conservative politics in this province and I’m proud that during my time as leader of Wildrose and as a member of the United Conservative Party, these policies are closer to coming to reality than ever before.”
Lori Williams, associate professor of policy studies at Mount Royal University in Calgary, said Jean has been invisible since losing the leadership and was clearly devastated by losing.
Williams said the timing of his departure hurts Kenney, who wanted this week to be about his debut as Leader of the Opposition in the legislature on Thursday. She said the UCP also loses in that Jean represented the potential for bridging the two parties.
“This departure is going to be read by many of his supporters as a repudiation of the party and its direction and maybe even its leadership,” Williams said.
Premier Rachel Notley noted that Jean dedicated much of his life to the service of Canada and Alberta, and represented his constituency with great dedication, particularly during the 2016 wildfires.
“As former Leader of the Official Opposition, Brian Jean took over his party at a difficult time and led it ably and conducted himself in a manner that demonstrated it is possible to disagree without being disagreeable,” Notley said.
—by Rob Drinkwater in Edmonton