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New MLA sworn in; expects to sit in UCP caucus despite his dislike of Alberta premier


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By Dean Bennett in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

Premier Jason Kenney’s arch foe is now a member of the Alberta legislature and expects to sit at the United Conservative caucus table despite his public displeasure with the party’s leader.

“I won a (party) nomination fair and square, a competitive nomination, a pretty tough nomination,” Brian Jean said in the legislature’s rotunda Thursday after being sworn in as the member for Fort McMurray-Lac La Biche.

“I ran in the election under the UCP banner and I won an overwhelming majority. And I believe the people of Fort McMurray-Lac La Biche want me to sit as a UCP MLA and work on the mandate that I gave (them).”

That mandate is to fight to have Kenney deposed as party leader based on Jean’s stated belief that Kenney’s policy failures, along with tone-deaf, top-down management, are alienating grassroots supporters and inviting an Opposition NDP win in the 2023 provincial election.

Jean said he has been given an office and put on the caucus mailing list.

Kenney’s spokesman and a representative for the UCP caucus did not return requests for comment on whether Jean will be allowed to remain a caucus member in good standing.

The pattern of who stays and who goes has been confusing and contradictory.

Almost a year ago, Todd Loewen was voted out of caucus after openly calling for Kenney to quit. He accused the premier of hollowing out the party by failing to listen to the grassroots. Another UCP member, Drew Barnes, criticized multiple Kenney policies and was also shown the door. Both now sit as Independents.

Others have openly challenged Kenney and his policies, including Leela Aheer and deputy speaker Angela Pitt.

Two weeks ago, Jason Stephan and Peter Guthrie publicly urged Kenney to resign to allow for a party leadership race. All have remained in caucus, although Kenney removed Aheer from cabinet last July.

Kenney and Jean have their own tangled and bruising history.

The two co-founded the UCP in 2017 by merging Jean’s Wildrose Party with Kenney’s Progressive Conservatives. Jean lost to Kenney in an inaugural leadership race bedevilled by accusations of collusion and underhanded activities. The race remains the focus of an RCMP investigation into possible voter fraud.

Kenney tweeted a congratulatory note to Jean after his byelection win three weeks ago but has otherwise remained silent.

The premier was absent from the house soon after when Jean was introduced as a guest of the legislature and received applause from all sides.

“I haven’t spoken to the premier directly in four years,” Jean said Thursday.

He said he will continue to try to round up party members to vote against Kenney in a leadership review. It begins Saturday with a virtual speech by Kenney to members followed by a distribution of mail-in ballots.

They are to be mailed back and results announced May 18. Kenney needs majority support or a leadership race must be called.

The vote itself has been fraught with controversy.

It was supposed to be in person in Red Deer on Saturday. Two weeks ago, the UCP board changed it to a provincewide mail-in vote. The board said widespread interest — with 15,000 party members expected to cast a ballot — made the one-day in-person option impossible.

Kenney opponents say they suspect the change came at the behest of his camp because Kenney didn’t have numbers on his side and needed to broaden the vote to more than those willing or able to travel to Red Deer.

The premier has been facing lagging popularity numbers and confrontations with party factions, constituency presidents and caucus members over his leadership and COVID-19 policies.

Kenney, in turn, has said the leadership review is a party proxy hijacking and his opponents are “lunatics” who espouse hate and racial and religious bigotry.

Jean, who said Kenney couldn’t win a fair vote, has concerns the voter registration rolls aren’t on the up and up.

“I’ve received a lot of lists for memberships over the years. I’ve never had them sorted by first name (along) with paper copies and the rest mixed up,” he said.

“This is not a list that can be used.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 7, 2022.

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‘Short-term pain’: Group of Alberta lawyers escalate job action over legal aid cases

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By Bill Graveland in Calgary

Alberta criminal defence lawyers are taking another step in their dispute with the provincial government over the amount of compensation paid by Legal Aid Alberta.

Organizations representing lawyers in Edmonton, Calgary, Red Deer and southern Alberta began job action Aug. 8 by refusing to accept certain bail and duty counsel files from legal aid.

The lawyers also began refusing certificates for new cases for the most serious criminal charges, including sexual offences, firearms-related crimes and homicides.

Beginning Monday, they say all services will be withdrawn.

“We’re going to stop taking all certificates. That will include some our prior job actions still allowed us to take certificates for people who are already existing clients and there will be a very, very limited set of circumstances now where our members will do that,” said Kelsey Sitar, vice-president of the Criminal Defence Lawyers Association in Calgary.

“The default will be: ‘We are just not taking any new work from legal aid until the problem is fixed.'”

Sitar made her comments at a rally in front of the Calgary Courts Centre on Friday that drew about 50 criminal defence lawyers.

A table with a sign reading “Save Legal Aid” offered bake goods for sale. Lawyers carried signs reading “Access 2 Justice Must be Equal.” Another read: “This sign is too small to fit my outrage.”

“This is drastic. I mean, what we were doing up until now is something I know has happened in Ontario before, it did not last long, frankly,” Sitar said.

“I can tell you that none of us want to be out here. We all want to be in there doing our jobs.”

Justice Minister Tyler Shandro has said nothing is going to be done until a review of the Legal Aid Alberta administrative system is complete, which is scheduled for next month.

He said any budget changes for legal aid wouldn’t happen until next year.

Sitar said the ministry chose to undertake “an incomplete and, frankly, useless review” at a time when the governing United Conservative Party is about to go through a leadership change.

“So we have to act now and they need to respond now,” she said.

Sitar said she understands the people being affected the most by the job action will be people with lower incomes who need the services to afford legal representation.

“It’s short-term pain right now,” she said. “It’s really unfortunate, but I can tell you that most of the people I’ve talked to on the street who are finding themselves caught up in this understand and are grateful that we’re doing it.”

Alberta Opposition NDP Leader Rachel Notley said the problem has been growing over the last three years. She said when her party was in power, it committed to additional funding for Legal Aid, but the UCP government backtracked.

“We simply cannot be asking the Legal Aid bar to be doing what we are asking them to do at the rate that we are asking them to do it,” she told reporters.

“We have the lowest funding for Legal Aid in the country. What that means is that we don’t have equal access to justice. It undermines the integrity of our justice system and, overall, it undermines our ability to build a sense of community safety, community security and an overall respect for the rule of law — all of which are important to community health and economic growth.

“It sounds like a niche issue, but it’s not. It actually has knock-off effects to very, very important issues that affect all of us. So, the government needs to come to the table and negotiate decently with these lawyers.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 23, 2022.

— With files from Colette Derworiz in Calgary.

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‘Kind of like carnies’: International balloon festival returns to High River, Alta.

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By Bill Graveland in High River, Alberta

The windswept prairie east of the Rocky Mountains seems an unlikely spot for a hot-air balloon festival, but the town of High River, Alta., is celebrating the event’s 10th year.

More than 20 brightly coloured balloons — including a pink elephant, a black and yellow bee and the purple and yellow Eye of Ra, named after the Egyptian sun god — took advantage of a lull in the prevailing wind this week to get some up-in-the-air time to mark the opening of the Heritage Inn International Balloon Festival.

“We get about 50 per cent of our flights off. Weather impacts us everywhere,” said event director Jamie Kinghorn, who is also a town councillor.

“This is our 10th. We started in 2013 partly because of the flood that happened. I’d been to a number of balloon events and thought this might lift the spirits of the folks in town.”

The town of 12,000 just south of Calgary gained an international profile in 2013 when flooding in parts of southern Alberta caused billions of dollars in damage.

High River was one of the hardest-hit communities. Entire neighbourhoods were under water for weeks.

“I called in a bunch of friends from the balloon community and they knew what happened, so 20 of them came into High River and we put on a balloon festival that was actually amazing for the community,” Kinghorn said.

“That was sort of the first major thing toward recovery after the flood and we’ve been doing it every year since at the end of September.”

Kinghorn said the festival is a boon to local tourism and there’s not a hotel room to be had in town.

He had his first hot air balloon over the city of Calgary in 1988. A year later he was a balloon pilot.

There are 23 balloons participating this year, including some from the United States, Belgium and the United Kingdom.

Kinghorn said it’s a pretty small community.

“We tend to meet at various events. We tend to travel. We’re kind of like carnies to some extent,” he said with a laugh.

“We travel around to different cities to different balloon events.”

Alan Davidson, who has been involved in the sport since 1977, is one of the volunteers.

He said those who get involved tend to stick with it.

“The amazing thing is that there are still seven or eight of the people I was ballooning with in the ’70s and early ’80s who are still here at this event,” said Davidson. “They’ve been working with balloons for over 40 years.”

Kinghorn, who is the owner and pilot of the Eye of Ra, was the first balloon in the air Thursday morning after a Wednesday evening flight was cancelled due to the wind.

“My God am I glad we got this off,” he said as the flight came to an end.

The festival runs through Sunday.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 23, 2022.

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