‘Enough with the old boys club’: Half of UCP leadership race candidates are women

Half of the candidates currently running to be the next leader of the United Conservative Party, and become Alberta’s next premier, are women.

Some people are celebrating what looks like a move toward gender parity in Alberta politics, but as some experts tell CTV News Edmonton, the roster raises questions about the state of the party and the odds of success for women long-term.

During the last UCP leadership race in 2017, the three final candidates were all men, including Jason Kenney, Brian Jean, and Doug Schweitzer.

Now four women have registered with Elections Alberta to make a bid for the party’s top job, including former Wildrose leader Danielle Smith and cabinet minister Rajan Sawhney.

‘I DON’T HAVE TIME FOR THAT’

“Enough with the old boys club and the infighting,” said Rebecca Schulz, former children’s services minister. “I don’t have time for that.”

When asked what half the field of candidates being women means to her, Schulz said that marks a strong future for the party.

“As someone who has continuously pushed to get more women and young people involved in conservative politics, I think that’s exciting,” she said.

“This is going to be an exciting race and at the end of the day, party members are going to choose a leader who is competent, strong, and can lead us into the next election.”

Leela Aheer, a UCP backbencher representing Chestermere-Strathmore, was an original member of Kenney’s first cabinet but was removed after criticizing the government’s COVID-19 response in 2021.

Aheer says the women running to be the UCP leader represent “one heck” of a competition that “elevates” the party.

“It’s amazing,” Aheer told CTV News Edmonton. “If you think about the opportunity this presents to be able to see a different level of reflection in the legislature, and potentially leadership, what that means to the next generation of young girls who will be coming forward.”

For Aheer, another important factor is that two of the female candidates are people of colour, showing how conservatism in Alberta is growing.

“We are a force, even just as a group,” Aheer added. “No matter what ends up happening at the end of the day for who has the win, we’ve already won by putting our names forward.”

CTV News reached out to Sawhney for comment.

‘STATUS QUO IS A POWERFUL TOOL OF INTIMIDATION’

With the premier’s office facing a lawsuit by a former staffer alleging workplace harassment, Aheer said having a woman as premier presents an opportunity for complete culture change.

“People who have been impacted have to be able to tell their story to a space where that situation can be dealt with, and we can fix the culture right away,” Aheer said.

“This long time between when the situation happens to now, the amount of pain and hurt and inability to actually acknowledge and change the culture, that’s why the status quo rules,” she added. “That status quo is a powerful tool of intimidation.”

Smith told CTV News Edmonton that more representation would bring forward better policy ideas to meet the needs of Albertans.

“Women are going to be looking for someone who can also express both sides,” said Smith. “How can we keep our economy strong so our kids stay here when they graduate from school? But, how can we also make sure we are addressing the social needs.”

‘A VERY MASCULINE IMAGE’

Lisa Young, University of Calgary political scientist, said the UCP under Jason Kenney projected a “very masculine image.”

“We have seen pictures of the Sky Palace where he’s surrounded with his inner circle and there are no women there,” Young said. “We’ve seen videos that the government puts out about getting back to work, and they’re virtually all men.”

For Young, the leadership race will provide an interesting insight into how the different women will grapple with a UCP that was “built by” and “dominated by men.”

“There’s been this real sort of old boys insider male approach to government,” Young added. “I think it’s interesting that as the party looks for something different, a new approach, they’re turning to potentially female candidates.”

For Melanee Thomas, U of C political scientist, Albertans should celebrate the fact that half the leadership field are women while also recognizing the larger context of why this could be the case.

When it comes to potentially rocky political futures, Thomas says trends worldwide indicate women are more likely to consider running for leadership posts in political parties — often described as the gendered political opportunity structure.

Thomas cited the examples of the U.K.’s Margaret Thatcher and Germany’s former four-time chancellor Angela Merkel, who first emerged as a leadership frontrunner after a “major party scandal.”

“Because most of the likely leadership candidates were tainted badly by scandal, and she (Merkel) wasn’t, it made her look like a likely leadership context when otherwise she would never have been given the opportunity,” Thomas said.

“Expectations about politicians are strongly structured by gender,” Thomas added. “People still think that the best politicians, quote, end quote, are men. And that women are good placeholders when it looks like dirtier, harder work.”

“That’s sexism,” she said. “It’s because Canadian politics is still strongly structured by things like sexism and racism.”

Thomas added that the women competing in the UCP leadership race face an uphill battle, as each candidate requires to raise $150,000 over time to be included on the final ballot — twice what was required in 2017.

“That’s a steep fundraising fee,” Thomas said, adding that studies show women in the U.S. already face “a much higher bar” to demonstrate conservative credentials.

“There are so many Canadians who aren’t white, and there are so many Canadians who aren’t men,” she said. “All of those people deserve to see themselves in these kinds of positions of political power.”

A successful female UCP leader would mark the third woman premier in Alberta’s history, following Alison Redford in 2011 and Rachel Notley in 2015.

Alberta’s next premier will be elected by UCP members Oct. 6 before the next general election slotted for May 2023. 

With files from CTV News Edmonton’s Alex Antoneshyn

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