As the race to replace Jason Kenney heats up, the Star is talking to the candidates seeking to become the next leader of Alberta’s governing United Conservative Party — and premier. This is one piece in that series of conversations. Second in a series.
EDMONTON — There’s a spark in Rebecca Schulz’s eye when asked if she’s passionate about any potential policies in particular, and she casts a glance at her aide to make sure telling a journalist about them ahead of her platform release is in good order.
“I have a passion for the future of this province,” she says over drinks at a downtown Edmonton coffee shop.
“I chose Alberta. I grew up in Saskatchewan.”
It’s a few hours before a massive, sold out Garth Brooks concert in Edmonton and Schulz — the former children’s services minister for Alberta’s government who stepped down to take a shot at becoming premier — is in town for it.
At 37, Schulz would be a relatively young premier if she wins the United Conservative leadership race on Oct. 6, meaning she would take the wheel from outgoing Premier Jason Kenney, who announced he’d be stepping down in May.
Schulz gets animated when she talks about wanting to see health-care reform in Alberta and says one of her top priorities would be around accreditations for newcomers wanting to work in the field in the province. She also wants to bring in pilot programs that would see mental health hubs setup in schools all over Alberta and in Indigenous communities.
She can’t help but scoop her own platform.
“That is a passion of mine, absolutely,” said Schulz. “But I think also, you know, I can’t take my eye off the ball, which is a stronger economy that enables all of those other things to happen.”
Schulz is in a crowded field of candidates vying to lead the UCP. There are nine in the running as of July 12, with one already having ducked out for not cobbling together the resources needed. Those candidates include some perceived front-runners in former finance minister Travis Toews, and two former Wildrose party leaders in Brian Jean and Danielle Smith.
Schulz seems to have some serious muscle in her arsenal, though, with a high-profile endorsement from former Conservative party leader Rona Ambrose, who is chair of Schulz’s campaign.
“I believe in fierce, smart, compassionate, hard-working women and I believe in Rebecca Schulz,” Ambrose said in a media release when her position was announced.
The UCP has been plunged into division since the pandemic began in 2020 and all UCP candidates will have to deal with it. The caucus is made up of MLAs from two different conservative wings in the former Wildrose and Progressive Conservative parties who used to battle in the legislature.
They were sharply divided over the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, with some staunchly against vaccine passports and mandates, and others for them. They’re also divided along rural and urban lines, as well as social conservative lines. Some of that is healthy to a big-tent conservative coalition, but some of it, especially COVID-19 policy, has become quite toxic for the party as of late and has been credited by Kenney as being the final blow to his leadership.
Schulz, insiders say, is on the more “progressive” conservative end of the spectrum and, if those same insiders are to be believed, has an outside shot at winning on Oct. 6, given the race is being decided via ranked ballot.
But Schulz already has her eye on what she’d start doing as soon as she’s in.
With Alberta boasting a windfall revenue surplus of $3.9 billion, Schulz has pledged to save 35 per cent for the future, put 35 per cent toward debt and use 30 per cent for “urgent needs like affordability, capital, contingency and other priorities.”
But she also wants to see a change of tone.
Schulz brings up media relations — a skill she knows well after having worked in former Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall’s government office. Under Kenney, the government often took an adversarial tone with media, especially when it came to engaging on Twitter.
“We have a unique approach with media,” she said of her former ministry. “We always have. I like to build relationships.”
She styles her overall approach as one of respect, be it with other provinces, the federal government, or media.
It stands in contrast to that of Danielle Smith’s, who has said her first bill, if elected, would be an Alberta Sovereignty Act ostensibly allowing the province to ignore federal laws it doesn’t like. Smith has pledged taking a hard stance against Ottawa and gone so far as to say that there would never be another COVID-19 lockdown under her watch.
Schulz prefers to talk more about youth, health care and education — and Schulz has an understanding of vulnerable youth. Since 2019, she oversaw the children’s services portfolio after the UCP formed government and successfully dealt with the federal government to land a child care deal worth $3.8 billion.
She also faced controversy after her decision to cut the age of access for youth in care to financial support from 24 to 22, although other assistance would be made available.
Now, she’s carrying forward an agenda based on “humility, compassion and common sense,” she says.
Schulz has diagnosed the Kenney government’s issues as being founded in an adversarial approach.
“I hear it from my constituents and people right across Alberta that they want to see a shift in tone,” said Schulz.
As an example of how she would do things, Schulz recalled meeting a woman while door knocking once who told her she wanted a specific piece of legislation.
“I completely understood where she was coming from,” says Schulz. “And I said, ‘I value where you’re coming from. I understand your values. I get your opinion, but I will not advocate for this legislation, and I don’t think I’m your candidate.”
The woman seemed surprised.
“I think it’s important to tell the truth and not make promises that you can’t keep in government,” said Schulz.
A couple of weeks later, the woman came back and said she’d support Schulz because the politician had been truthful.
“She has been a supporter ever since,” said Schulz.
Kieran Leavitt is an Edmonton-based political reporter for the Toronto Star. Follow him on Twitter: @kieranleavitt