In leadership race, UCP heartland runs down these gravel roads and back highways 28 September 2022 10:14 AM: Far from the Legislature in Edmonton, far from the office towers in Calgary, are the grain fields, cattle pastures and oil pumpjacks whose stewards will determine the next United Conservative Party leader and Alberta premier.

As they seek a candidate to replace Jason Kenney, they're looking for someone who will safeguard their personal liberties and push back harder against Ottawa. If urban Albertans want to know why the focus and rhetoric of the UCP's leadership race has barely covered other issues, the answer's out here.

Rural and small-town Albertans hold the lion's share of UCP members who get to vote for party leader. Two districts, containing Rimbey, in central Alberta, and Cardston, in the province's deep south, have more than twice as many United Conservatives as the provincial average.

At her personalized gift store in Rimbey, Jackie Stratton sells mugs that pay tribute to the trucker-led convoys to Coutts, Alta., and Ottawa earlier this year. (Jason Markusoff/CBC)

The conservative heartland voted overwhelmingly for Kenney's party in 2019, but then growing distrust prompted rural Alberta to help oust him. The UCP's next leader will need to restore these regions' trust, and then somehow hang onto it.

There's a sense among members in these ridings of being misunderstood by urban Albertans and the rest of the country. Often, they said, there's not even a sense their own provincial government understands what keeps them up at night. 

Long COVID memories

Rimbey has a special place in Alberta's conservative mythology. Former premier Ralph Klein was fond of saying the town was Alberta's archetypal community — it wasn't an issue, he'd say, unless "Martha and Henry" from Rimbey cared.

And while talk of COVID-19 may be shifting into past tense in society's lexicon, it's still a common issue among UCP members in these areas. The economic impacts, the societal fallout and the restrictions imposed by the provincial and federal governments in an effort to staunch the virus's spread are all motivating votes in this leadership race.

  • WATCH | Why trust is a big factor in who leads UCP: 

Rural Albertans on UCP leadership race

15 hours ago

Duration 1:54

Rural conservatives from Rimbey, Alta., share their hopes and thoughts on the UCP's leadership race.

In and around Rimbey, the town of 2,500 about 60 kilometres northwest of Red Deer, conservatives harbour lingering resentment about the province's COVID rules. Vaccination rates there are the lowest in central Alberta, about 20 percentage points behind the provincial average.

There's distrust in the science. Mathew Jaycox, a former town councillor in Rimbey, calls it a "plandemic" designed in part to bolster the pharmaceutical industry. There was casual defiance of public health measures, like masking and limited social gatherings. 

"Everybody thought we did, but we didn't," said Pieter Broere, who runs the internet provider for the neighbouring hamlet of Bluffton. "We knew the rules, but nothing was convincing that we should go by all those rules." 

It's a sore subject, even among those who adhered to many of the adjustments during the pandemic. The attitudes — and vaccination rates — are similar around Cardston, which some consider the province's Bible Belt.

Becky Doig, a UCP member from Magrath, says she wants to see the party elect someone who can unite the movement and lead with compassion. (Elise von Scheel/CBC)

"I know people that almost died from COVID, so it wasn't that we didn't believe that COVID wasn't real. It was a factor, but did we go overboard?" said Brad Beazer, an insurance broker and rancher in Cardston.

Many people he knows followed the restrictions and got vaccinated but felt sour about not having a choice. That's why, he said, leadership candidates' pledges to never impose restrictions again are resonating in his community — even though he says that's a tough promise to keep. 

Freedom fighters

In southern Alberta, signs of political tensions — between new and old — dot the landscape.

Fields that farmers have plowed for generations sit next to acres of shiny solar panels and rows of windmills. 

Some hay bales along the rural highways are draped in banners calling for "Freedom" or "More Alberta, less Ottawa."

In downtown Rimbey, the front of the personalized gift store Scratchin' the Surface bears banners hailing February's anti-mandate Freedom Convoy, and it sells pro-convoy mugs and shirts inside.

Jackie Stratton, the store owner, praises the Rimbey residents who joined the protests in Ottawa and near the Alberta-Montana border in Coutts. A "righteous rebellion," she calls the movement.

Everyone had their variations on the definition of freedom. For Joel Mans, a farmer near Nobleford, it's about having latitude to decide what is best for his business and family. 

Cardston County is home to farms, ranches and clean energy projects. The riding of Cardston-Siksika is a mix of Mormon, Mennonite, Hutterite, Dutch Reformed and First Nations communities. (Elise von Scheel/CBC)

"I really look at personal freedom and liberties. That's something that's always at the forefront for me."

"I think the constituents mostly want less government and a strengthening of the family, and that hasn't changed," said Ed Vandenberg, the constituency association president for Cardston-Siksika and farmer near Enchant, a hamlet nearly 80 kilometres northeast of Lethbridge.

The issues that polls say the general public mainly cares about (inflation, health care, education) were raised less often as decision-making factors for rural UCP members, but they were still concerned about them.

"I think we see the issue of sort of freedom and sovereignty and COVID and things pop up more in the southern part of the province, but still the vast majority of people are concerned about other things," said Alberta pollster Janet Brown. 

There's also, Brown noted, some "very sticky internal political party politics" going on in these two ridings that might accentuate some tensions there.

Reunite the right

Tim Hoven, who raises organic beef cattle 60 kilometres south of Rimbey, is a driving force behind the Rimbey area's large membership base. He mounted a nomination challenge to the local MLA, Finance Minister Jason Nixon, until the party disqualified Hoven for past social media activity.

From there, he converted his supporters into voters against Kenney in his leadership review, to rebuke his treatment of the party grassroots. Hoven continues to demand new blood atop the UCP — and doesn't want any of Kenney's former cabinet ministers to become leader. 

Cardston-Siksika had its own internal divisions over a recent nomination contest. MLA Joseph Schow faced a challenge from a county councillor, Jodie Gateman, but she was also disqualified.

Vulcan County is an agricultural hub in the province but has seen movement toward renewable energy projects recently. (Elise von Scheel/CBC)

After much internal party rancour, many UCP members in these areas want unity.

"I'm just interested in having stable, moderate, conciliatory, team-building kind of leadership," said Becky Doig, a seniors' housing administrator in Magrath, about 30 kilometres south of Lethbridge. 

"We need to find a middle ground, or if we don't, I think that we're going to have some trouble … being able to keep all of those different voices in one party."

Broere, from Bluffton, wants a leader who can reunite the UCP, which he worries is divided into its predecessor Wildrose and Tory camps. 

He said leadership candidate Danielle Smith is popular in the region, but he's well aware of many conservatives in the Rimbey area who don't forgive Smith for crossing the floor as Wildrose leader in 2014 into Jim Prentice's Tory government. For many, the move is viewed as helping propel Rachel Notley's NDP to election victory months later. 

In the south, that memory remains close to the surface for many UCP members, including those who have decided to support Travis Toews. 

"Not only do I look to the contender as one that would reflect my values, but also have the ability to unite the party, and I think of Travis Toews," Vandenberg said.

Central Alberta beef rancher Tim Hoven says trust was broken with Premier Jason Kenney, and the same goes for his former cabinet ministers seeking the leadership. (Jason Markusoff/CBC)

It's the same calculation for Beazer.

"What type of business person were they, or what type of politician were they before, or what type of father are they?" he said. "Those are the things that I look for because then I know that their morals will stay true and they'll work hard to get good things changed."

For many leadership voters, it's the first time they've been this involved in politics. 

Though she's a longtime Rimbey Chamber of Commerce director, Stratton wasn't active in the UCP until the pandemic. 

  • WATCH | What people want to see and hear from UCP candidates:

Rural Albertans on UCP leadership race

15 hours ago

Duration 0:49

Residents from Cardston County, Alta., tell us what they hope to see when votes are counted in the upcoming UCP leadership election.

She's backing Smith, whom she admires as a fellow small business owner (Smith and her husband run a High River restaurant). She feels Smith has apologized enough for the 2014 floor-crossing, and others must "get over it."

Stratton also likes her Alberta Sovereignty Act.

"We need somebody who's going to push back for us."

Vandenberg said the controversial idea won't accomplish as much as Smith claims it will, and could create more issues internally. 

"I think we definitely have to quit being divisive within the party because if we are, we do give ground to the NDP."

And the NDP is very much on people's minds in central and southern Alberta. Seven months after they choose the next leader, the UCP faces the NDP in the next provincial election.

So they're choosing carefully.

"A fact about a conservative is if they don't like what they see, they just stay home and they don't go and vote," Broere said. "And that would be a scary thing because we know that everybody who votes NDP will vote NDP."

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