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Two Alberta UCP members kicked out of caucus after challenging Kenney’s leadership

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EDMONTON — Members of Premier Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party caucus have voted to turf two of their own for challenging the leader.

Backbencher Todd Loewen was ejected Thursday night after publicly announcing earlier in the day the party is adrift and out of touch under Kenney and that the premier must quit before things spiral further.

Backbencher Drew Barnes had been the most vocal critic of the government’s COVID-19 health restrictions, saying they are of questionable effect and an intolerable infringement on personal freedoms. He was also voted out.

“Members recognize the need for government caucus to remain strong and united behind our leader, Premier Jason Kenney, as we continue to fight through what looks to be the final stages of the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond,” UCP whip Mike Ellis said in a statement.

“There is simply no room in our caucus for those who continually seek to divide our party and undermine government leadership, especially at this critical juncture.”

Kenney’s spokeswoman, Jerrica Goodwin, added in a statement: “The premier is proud to stand with his caucus colleagues and lead Alberta through the greatest health and economic crisis in a century.”

Loewen, representing the northern rural riding of Central Peace-Notley, had been the chair of the UCP caucus. Barnes represents Cypress-Medicine Hat in the south.

Loewen and Barnes join a third backbencher, Pat Rehn, who was expelled earlier this year after his constituents complained he wasn’t doing any work or listening to their concerns.

Weeks of bubbling internal discontent within the caucus boiled over into an open challenge by Loewen in a public letter to Kenney published on Loewen’s Facebook page in the pre-dawn hours Thursday.

In the letter, Loewen called on the premier to resign, saying he no longer sees a commitment to teamwork and party principles.

“We did not unite around blind loyalty to one man. And while you promoted unity, it is clear that unity is falling apart,” writes Loewen.

He accused Kenney and his government of weak dealings with Ottawa, ignoring caucus members, delivering contradictory messages, and botching critical issues such as negotiations with doctors and a controversy over coal mining in the Rocky Mountains.

“Many Albertans, including myself, no longer have confidence in your leadership,” Loewen says in the letter.

“I thank you for your service, but I am asking that you resign so that we can begin to put the province back together again.”

In a radio interview later in the day, Loewen said he wanted to stay in the UCP and that he was not seeking to split the party but save it from looming disaster in the next election.

“The people are upset. They are leaving the party,” Loewen told 630 CHED. “We need to do what it takes to stop the bleeding.

“We need to have our constituency associations strong. We’ve got to quit losing board members.”

Loewen later received a message of support from a second UCP backbencher, Dave Hanson.

Hanson wrote on Facebook: “Todd, I applaud your courage and stand behind your decision.

“I hear the same thing from our supporters in my area. I along with many of our colleagues share in your frustration.”

Hanson, Barnes and Loewen are three of 18 UCP backbench members who broke with the government in early April over restrictions aimed at reducing the spread of COVID-19. The group said the rules were needlessly restrictive and infringed on personal freedoms. Sixteen wrote an open letter expressing those concerns.

Since then Barnes has remained vocal, actively questioning why the regulations are needed in low-infection areas and demanding to see data underlying the health decisions.

Kenney tolerated the open dissension for weeks. He has said he believes in free speech and that backbenchers are not in cabinet and don’t speak for his government. But Loewen was the first to openly challenge Kenney’s leadership.

Kenney’s poll numbers, along with party fundraising contributions, have dropped precipitously during the pandemic while those of Rachel Notley’s NDP have climbed.

Notley said regardless of Kenney’s internal political troubles, Albertans need to see him focus on governing the province.

Alberta has seen in recent weeks some of the highest COVID-19 case rates in North America that threaten to swamp the province’s health system.

“It’s not looking good,” said Notley.

“What we need as a result is for the premier to clean up his house, get his house in order and provide the kind of leadership that Albertans desperately need during one of the most challenging times in our history.”

There were rumours of a widening internal UCP breach two weeks ago when Kenney suspended the legislature’s spring sitting. He said it was to keep staff and legislature members safe from COVID-19.

On Wednesday, the government extended the hiatus for another week.

Political scientist Duane Bratt said Kenney had little choice but to expel Loewen but noted it took several hours of debate among the caucus to get there.

“This is not a good day for Jason Kenney. He is wounded by this. And I don’t think it’s over,” said Bratt with Mount Royal University in Calgary.

Pollster Janet Brown said the open dissension magnifies Kenney’s leadership woes. Brown said a premier relies on three pillars of support: party fundraising, caucus support and support in the popularity polls. Any one of those three can help offset crises somewhere else.

But Kenney, said Brown, doesn’t have support in any area right now.

“If you’re down in the polls, if you don’t have the confidence of your caucus and your donors are keeping their hands in their pockets, what’s your justification for continuing?” said Brown.

“It seems like he’s failing with all three audiences.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 13, 2021.

 

Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press

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Alberta

Hemp having a moment as farmers try to grow niche crop into $1-billion industry

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CALGARY — Not that long ago, Rod Lanier could count on an annual spring visit from the police. 

The southern Alberta farmer has been growing hemp for 12 years, and in the early days, the distinctive odour that wafts from his fields when the crop is in flower would invariably catch the attention of area residents.

“For years each spring, the police would have to come out to ask, ‘Mr. Lanier, is that hemp or is that marijuana?’ ” Lanier recalls. “And I would answer, ‘if it was marijuana, would I grow a mile by a mile field of it, right beside the highway?” ” 

Today, Lanier is far less likely to get a knock on his door just because the wind is blowing a certain way. Once considered a bit of an oddity, Lanier is now one of about a dozen farmers in the Lethbridge area growing industrial hemp — and the sight and smell of the distinctive, jagged-leafed plant are far less likely to attract unwelcome attention.

In fact, hemp, which is part of the cannabis family but contains no THC (the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana), is enjoying a bit of a moment. Across the Prairie provinces, new businesses are popping up to process and market different parts of the plant. 

Hemp farming is still a fledgling industry, but some proponents believe it has the potential to move from a niche crop to a staple of Canadian agriculture. 

“How do we turn hemp into the next canola? How do we turn hemp into a 500,000 acre crop in the next 10 years?” says Andrew Potter, chief executive and president of Blue Sky Hemp Ventures. 

“I believe it’s very, very doable.”

According to Health Canada, which licenses and regulates the industrial hemp industry in this country, there were about 22,000 hectares (50,000 acres) of hemp seeded in Canada in 2020, up from just 2,400 hectares (5,900 acres) in 1998. Alberta leads the way in hemp production, followed by Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

The growth in acreage is due to multiple factors, including growing interest in hemp seed as a nutritional “superfood” as well as the legalization of cannabis in 2018. That opened up a new source of revenue for farmers, as hemp growers can now harvest flowers for CBD, the non-intoxicating cannabinoid that was once illegal without a medical prescription.

Blue Sky, which was founded in 2017, believes the key to expanding the hemp industry is “whole plant utilization.” The company already has a CBD extraction facility near Saskatoon and another facility in central Saskatchewan is capable of processing 5,500 tonnes of hemp seed annually into food products like protein powder and hemp seed oil.

Blue Sky is also on the verge of announcing its plans for a large-scale “decortication” facility, which Potter says will process the hemp plant’s tough stems and stalks into fibre products. Hemp fibre can be used to make everything from building products and insulation to textiles.

Dan Madlung, president and chief executive of BioComposites Group, which runs a hemp fibre processing plant near Drayton Valley in central Alberta, says developing this third plank of the hemp industry is crucial. In the past, most Canadian farmers growing hemp for seed have had no buyer for the stems and stalks, and have had to let that part of the plant go to waste.

Building out decortication capacity across the Prairies would give farmers a third revenue stream and a much greater incentive to grow hemp, Madlung says. He adds BioComposites Group already has plans for a new, larger second facility to be built in a yet-to-be-announced Alberta location.

“We have what it takes right now to develop a new industry,” Madlung said. “But there’s tons of interest across North America . . . others may beat us to the punch.”

There are still many challenges that must be overcome before hemp farming becomes truly mainstream. While farmers no longer have to undergo a criminal records check to grow industrial hemp (it was required before cannabis was legalized), they still face other regulatory requirements such as Health Canada licensing. 

The industry also needs to invest in market development and commercialization, says Manny Deol, executive director of the non-profit Alberta Hemp Alliance. Many consumers don’t know quite what to do with hemp hearts or hempseed oil, so there’s room for the development of more customer-friendly products.

Farmers also need to be encouraged to grow a crop that may be brand-new to them, Deol says. Because the hemp plant is also good at sequestering carbon dioxide in the soil — better than many other crops — the industry is lobbying for the creation of a carbon credit for farmers who grow it. That would provide additional incentive for producers looking to branch out.

Canadian hemp exports exceeded $110-million in 2019, and Deol says he believes this country could have a $1-billion industry by 2030, if it does everything right. He says investors appear to think so too, given the number of new processing facilities recently constructed or proposed.

“There is a buzz about hemp right now,” Deol says. “I think farmers and other business people are looking for any diversification opportunities, so they’re watching this crop.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 25, 2021.

Amanda Stephenson, The Canadian Press

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Alberta

Hockey player coming out as gay must lead to meaningful change in game: advocates

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EDMONTON — Advocates say a young hockey player’s decision to come out as gay this past week, just as he is on the cusp of a possible National Hockey League career, needs to be a catalyst for meaningful cultural change in the game beyond Pride nights and rainbow tape.

“It is a phenomenal thing, but it’s not because the (hockey) culture made it safe,” said Brock McGillis, a former goalie who played professionally in North America and Europe.

“For every Luke Prokop there are a thousand (LGBTQ) kids quitting hockey.”

McGillis, who came out five years ago after his career ended, spoke extensively to Prokop before the 19-year-old made his announcement. Based in Toronto, McGillis has become a voice for LGBTQ issues in hockey with the aim of creating safe spaces in the insular world of dressing rooms and rinks.

He has worked on inclusion with individual teams at high levels, but said he has been stymied in bringing in leaguewide changes.

A patchwork approach won’t work, he said.

“You can do all the PR stuff you want … but what are you doing to make that dressing room more of a safe space instead of a space that is filled with homophobic language and where people don’t feel comfortable? How are you humanizing these issues and how are you shifting your culture?”

Prokop, from Edmonton, has been playing junior hockey for the Calgary Hitmen of the Western Hockey League. A defenceman, he was picked 73rd overall by the NHL’s Nashville Predators last year, will go to camp this fall and could become the first openly gay player in the NHL. 

“We pledge to do everything possible to ensure that Luke’s experience is a welcoming and affirmative one,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement.

Las Vegas Raiders defensive lineman Carl Nassib came out last month as the first openly gay player in the National Football League.

Kristopher Wells, an advocate and researcher, says it’s critical to have LGBTQ role models in sport.

“People listen to their heroes,” said Wells, an associate professor and research chair for public understanding of sexual and gender minority youth at MacEwan University in Edmonton.

“When young people see their role models stand up, they want to emulate that behaviour and be a part of those new social norms that are forming.”

Wells said true change starts with a supportive group in the locker room or a captain telling a teammate that homophobic slurs won’t be tolerated.

That way, he said, those who decide to come out won’t have to swap one set of anxieties for another.

“Why Luke’s decision is seen as being so courageous is not just because he’s the first, but (because) all LGBTQ people know the moment you become visible (when) you come out, you’re more likely to be victimized. You become a target. And that’s not easy to deal with.”

Cheryl MacDonald is a sports sociologist who has researched and written extensively on homophobia in hockey. She said Prokop’s high skill levels will serve to insulate him somewhat, but he’ll still have to navigate the bias of some decision-makers who laud inclusivity in public, but act differently in private.

“Luke’s story is evidence that it is becoming safer to be an openly gay man in men’s competitive professional hockey, but since he’s the only one right now, that shows we have work to do,” said MacDonald with Saint Mary’s University in Halifax.

“My research has shown that if you can perform on the ice, what you do in your spare time matters less. (But) at very top levels of the game, it is difficult to be different.”

And that doesn’t just apply to being gay, she added.

“If you are concussed or injured, if you are dealing with drug and alcohol addiction problems, if you have mental-health problems, if you don’t fit in somehow, chances are there is someone that has your skill set and less perceived baggage that will take your job. It’s easier just to stay quiet.

“Until we change this idea that you can’t just be yourself and be taken where you’re at, it’s going to be practically impossible to be a gay man in this game.”

McGillis said the potential is there.

“I think hockey people are really good people. I just don’t think they realize there’s a problem,” he said.

“(They) will rally. We just need to show them this is something to rally around.”

 This report by The Canadian Press was first published on June 25, 2021.

Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press

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