The United Conservative Party of Alberta's History
Here you will find a detailed history of the UCP's history in Alberta, including their origins, significant moments, and significant figures. It is important to note that while this is a fairly comprehensive history, it is not the entirety of the story, nor is it necessarily perfect. If flaws are found, they will corrected as soon as possible. These histories are the best presentation of the facts as APAH could find, but will be updated and improved as time goes on and more resources become available.
The United Conservative Party of Alberta is the result of the July 2017 merger between the Progressive Conservative Party and the Wildrose Party. While the merger had been called for previously - most notably by Danielle Smith when she resigned as leader of the Wildrose Party and crossed the floor to join the PCs in government in 2014 - talk of a merger didn't truly begin until after both parties lost to the NDP in 2015. When Smith made her original proposal, the suggestion was dismissed by the Wildrose; the party didn't believe that a merger would fairly represent them. After the NDP upset in 2015, the Wildrose held more than twice the seats in the Legislature as the PCs in addition to being the Official Opposition, and under these new conditions, talks of a merger resurfaced. Under the new PC leader Jason Kenney and Wildrose leader Brian Jean, the two parties would merge to form the UCP and a united Official Opposition in 2017, which would come to be led by Jason Kenney.
The history of the UCP follows two main threads - that of the Progressive Conservatives of Alberta, whose origins stretch all the way back to the founding of Alberta with the Conservative Party, and that of the Wildrose Party, whose origins are tied to the Alberta Alliance Party, which itself was founded by former Social Credit leader Randy Thorsteinson. This history will follow the Progressive Conservative/Conservative path until it reaches the turn of the century, at which point it will look at both paths simultaneously.
It’s also worth noting for those unfamiliar with political slang terms that Conservatives are frequently referred to as “Tories” - it’s an old term that comes from Irish and Scottish terms for an outlaw, or in the Irish case “pursued men”. It was originally an insult, but has come to be a term used to refer to both small-c and big-c conservatives. In Canada, we also have Blue Tories, Red Tories, and Pink Tories, which are used to refer to economically right-leaning conservatives, economically left-leaning conservatives, and a socially liberal conservative, respectively. This history will avoid using every colour of the rainbow for them unless necessary, but will use the term “Tories” throughout.
With that, we turn back to 1905 and the creation of the province of Alberta. When Alberta and Saskatchewan were split from the Northwest Territories and established as separate provinces, the Conservative Party was also born from the Northwest Territories Liberal-Conservative Party. Despite being called a “Liberal-Conservative Party” this party was decidedly conservative, and had won the last two elections before the provinces were divided. In Alberta, the Liberals were appointed by Liberal Prime Minister Laurier until the first election could be held, with that temporary government being positioned in Edmonton.
This was actually critical for the Tories, as they had put their support behind Calgary to become the capital of the province. The Liberals would go on to win the 1905 election, but the results were heavily contested. Several Liberals were arrested for vote tampering and stopping Conservatives from voting, particularly in Calgary. However, it was likely unnecessary, as the Liberals took twenty-three ridings total (the Conservatives won High River and Rosebud), and from there, the Liberals would reinforce their power position. The Liberals had supported Edmonton’s bid for capital, and after winning the election, the city was declared the capital of Alberta - yet another battle in the rivalry between Edmonton and Calgary that we still see to this day, although in modern times it’s usually relegated to sports events.
In 1909, the Conservatives once again saw themselves only electing two candidates, but in 1913 the party took a sizable chunk out of the Liberal caucus by winning seventeen seats and forty-five percent of the popular vote - even with this, the party still remained firmly in the Official Opposition. In 1917, the Tories took two more seats from the Liberals, but this would be their last solid showing for decades. In 1921, the party fractured into two groups - traditionalists and radicals - and got decimated in the election for it, with the Tories only sending one person back to the Legislature. However, they weren’t alone in this - 1921 saw Alberta’s first-ever change in government, with the newly formed United Farmers of Alberta Party sweeping the election in a massive upset. If you’re curious, the UFA are still present today, and you’ve likely seen them around - after their end in politics in 1935, they shifted their priorities to become the agriculture-focused retail chain and gas station company of the same name with the iconic orange, white, and green colour scheme.
The UFA also dealt a massive blow to the Conservatives by taking one of the defining parts of the party’s platform - giving control of Alberta’s natural resources back to Alberta - and actually achieving it in 1929. For the remainder of the UFA’s time in government, the Conservatives never managed to elect more than six MLAs at a time, always falling below the Liberals. In 1935, the Social Credit Party - a right wing party who believed in an economic policy of social credit - would follow in the UFA’s tracks and sweep them out of government almost immediately after being created. The UFA lost every single seat in a brutal defeat, and would dissolve by the next election.
This election would prove to be an unusual one - in 1940, the remains of the UFA joined forces with the Conservatives and the Liberals in an effort to defeat the overwhelmingly popular Socreds. It’s important to note that while none of these parties had many seats before 1940 (combined, the three had held seven of the sixty-three available seats) they had respectable numbers in the popular vote. In 1935, all three parties combined were less than 4% short of the Socreds - by not competing with one another, the goal was to harness their popularity and concentrate all of their resources on a few Independent candidates in what would be called the Independent Movement.
This movement was fairly successful - taking nineteen seats and only a thousand less votes than the Socreds - but it was hindered by the Liberal Party not fully buying into this alliance. The Tories chose to not run any candidates in three elections (1940, 1944, and 1948), but the Liberals only sat out of the election in 1944. By 1948, the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (or CCF - the predecessor to the NDP and successor to the UFA) had begun to seriously contest elections, and after leaving the alliance shortly after the 1944 election the Liberals had begun doing so too.
In 1952, the Conservatives re-emerged to run five candidates, winning one seat. At the same time, the Progressive Conservative Party ran seven candidates and also won themselves a seat, leading to the interesting situation where two Conservative parties each held a seat but remained separate. In 1955, the Conservative Party took home three seats, and in 1959, the Conservative Party of Alberta became the Progressive Conservative Association of Alberta - or as they were more commonly referred, the Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta.
The name change was done to maintain an association with the federal party, although they were several years late. The federal party had changed its name in 1942 after the leader of Manitoba’s Progressive Party had made it a condition for himself becoming the party’s leader, but the Alberta Conservatives didn’t change their name for nearly two decades. Under their new banner and led by future Alberta Supreme Court judge Cam Kirby, the new PCs contested the election only to be soundly slapped down by the Socreds in one of the most dominant elections in Alberta’s history. The PCs ended up with only a single seat, as did the Liberals, an Independent Social Credit candidate, and a Coalition member.
Not to rest easy, in 1963 the Socreds would go on to the actual most dominant victory that they would ever see. The party had been talking about “63 in ‘63” their plan to win all sixty-three seats in the Legislature and completely shutting out every single other party - a feat that has yet to be accomplished in Alberta, although there have been several close calls. They would fall short by three seats - two Liberals and a Coalition member won their seats, and the PCs were shut out once more.
However, the Progressive Conservatives would immediately begin climbing their way out of the valley, winning six seats in the 1967 election. The party took advantage of the fact that the Socreds were, at their core, a rural party, and Alberta’s demographics were rapidly shifting to favour the cities. In 1971, the Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta would finally assume power, winning forty-nine seats and ending the thirty-six year reign of the Socreds in only the third change in government in Alberta’s history.
A bit of a fun fact: the Progressive Conservatives presently hold the longest record in Alberta for the time between their first contested election and their first time forming government, having gone sixty-six years before winning an election. The NDP are a close second, going fifty-three years from their creation in 1962 to their election in 2015, but every other party that's formed government has done so almost immediately after their creation.
Another fun fact: this election would also see the NDP win their first seat in an election, with then-leader Grant Notley taking a seat. In an interesting coincidence, forty-four years later, his daughter would be the one to helm the NDP when they ended the reign of the PCs.
The PCs gained a lot of their popularity by campaigning on the idea of increasing Alberta’s influence in Canada - something which was an increasingly prevalent issue for Albertans who felt slighted by Pierre Trudeau’s Liberal government. Indeed, the PCs would enjoy massive success throughout the entirety of Trudeau’s time as Prime Minister, while the Alberta Liberals would fail to win a single seat throughout Trudeau's reign. During this time, the Social Credit Party also saw its base collapse, and the party would maintain a low single-digit presence in the Legislature before finally being eliminated in 1982. Since then, the Socreds have failed to elect a single candidate.
Over the years, the PCs were relatively unchallenged. Under the original leader, Peter Lougheed, the party was fairly moderate - they were a clear example of Red Tories. Lougheed’s Tories were absolutely dominant, never experiencing an opposition of more than six MLAs combined. One of Lougheed’s most notable causes was his fight with the federal Liberals over Alberta’s control of its own natural resources. Lougheed would win this fight, finally following through on the party’s decades-old campaign platform of taking control of Alberta’s resources. Maintaining control of the province's oil and gas gave rise to an economic boom.
As a side note, this is a large part of the reason why Alberta is currently the only part of Canada to not have a provincial sales tax - revenue from the oil and gas industry has meant that a PST has never been necessary, meaning that Alberta's 5% GST is the lowest sales tax in the province.
Lougheed's successor, Don Getty, took over the party when Lougheed retired in 1985, and while he maintained the party’s platform, the party would experience a slight dip in popularity - the Liberals took a strong turn to the right under their new leader, Laurence Decore, and accused the PCs of being too-liberal in their approach to the economy. Getty would retire to give the PCs a chance to reinvent themselves, which they did under Ralph Klein, who took over in 1992. Klein’s PCs took a hard turn to the right themselves, coinciding with the Reform Party of Canada replacing the federal PCs as the primary conservative party. While the party did suffer a setback in Klein’s first election in 1993, with the Liberals winning thirty-two seats to become the largest Official Opposition in Alberta’s history, Klein would go on to secure solid majorities for the remainder of his time in office.
Interestingly, the old Liberal-Conservative divide reared up once again in 1993 - and even reflected the old Edmonton-Calgary divide. The Liberal leader, Decore, was the former mayor of Edmonton, while Klein was a former mayor of Calgary. This time, however, the Tories would take the win, with the Liberals arguing that the PCs didn’t have any moral authority left on the issues that they were campaigning on and Klein claiming that the government was “out of the business of business”. For the remainder of the nineties, the Tories would maintain a solid hold on the Legislature.
At this point, it’s time for us to acknowledge Randy Thorsteinson and the Socreds once again. Thorsteinson, a former Reform Party member who had wanted to establish a provincial wing of the party, led the Socreds from 1992 to 1999 before quitting. He would go on to start the Alberta First Party, which he wasn’t active in and which isn’t ultimately relevant to the UCP story, before going on to found the Alberta Alliance Party in 2002. This party never formally associated with the Canadian Alliance, but made efforts to be seen as the informal Alberta wing of the party.
It’s worth taking a moment to discuss Ralph Klein here as well, as he was a massively influential politician for the Progressive Conservatives. Having won four consecutive majority governments and serving for fourteen years as Alberta’s Premier, Klein earned the nickname “King Ralph”. Whether or not it was a compliment or an insult would be in the eyes of the person saying it; the title referred to both his long-lasting and concrete “rule” as the Premier, but is also said to refer to his approach to politics being viewed by many as monarchical or dictatorial. Many of Klein’s policies were controversial - as was his personality - but his time in power indisputably helped shape Alberta's modern political landscape.
These two parties - the Alliance and the PCs - were both right-wing parties, leading to competition between the two over the traditionally conservative province. In 2004, the Alliance would win a key victory in Cardston-Taber-Warner that had been a Tory stronghold for decades - while they would only win that one seat to the sixty-two won by the PCs, it was a notable victory that positioned the Alliance to become a threat in the future. In 2005, Thorsteinson resigned as the Alberta Alliance leader, and was replaced by Paul Hinman. Interestingly enough, one of Hinman’s opponents - Marilyn Burns - would go on to found the Alberta Advantage Party, which was meant to be a return to this party after the merger.
Speaking of mergers, the Alliance’s first attempt was not years later with the PCs; in fact, there had previously been attempts to merge with the Alberta Party (who at the time were right-wing) and in 2005 there were also talks with the Socreds to merge. In the end, nothing happened. That didn’t mean that the Alliance was keeping to themselves - in 2006, Hinman attempted to get his party members to buy PC memberships in order to vote in the leadership race after Klein stepped down. This move didn’t go over well, and the party refused to follow this lead.
In 2008, the Alberta Alliance Party voted to merge with the Wildrose Party - a small, new party who had been founded the year earlier but who had failed to get registered. The party was designed to be a grass-roots party, and in 2008 was absorbed by the Alberta Alliance Party to become the Wildrose Alliance Party. Hinman remained leader, and the Wildrose Party members were given memberships to the new party.
Also in 2008 was the provincial election. The Wildrose hoped once again to upset the PCs, but under their new leader, Ed Stelmach, the Tories would grow their seat count by another twelve, up to seventy-two. Meanwhile, the Wildrose lost Hinman’s seat - and, with that, their only seat in the Legislature. The notable victory of the Cardston-Taber-Warner riding back in 2004 by the Alliance went back to the PCs as they reasserted themselves as Alberta’s favourite. The PCs also managed to increase their share of the popular vote while the Wildrose lost ground.
The next year, Hinman stepped down as leader, but would run again in a by-election in the Calgary-Glenmore riding, where he took a surprise victory and put the Wildrose back in the Legislature. Also in 2009, the party would begin rapidly building momentum as former provincial PC supporters and federal Reform supporters began joining their ranks. In the lead-up to the leadership election, the party increased its membership more than six times over to give them nearly twelve thousand members. The party elected Danielle Smith as party leader, and with her the party would continue to rise as support for Stelmach’s PCs began to fall.
In 2010, three PC MLAs crossed the floor to join Hinman and the Wildrose Party, giving them official party status, and in 2012, it was predicted that the Wildrose Alliance would finally end the thirty-nine year long PC dynasty - every poll conducted between the beginning of the campaign and the day before the election showed the Wildrose with an advantage that was frequently in the double digits. Despite polling the day before the election still showing that the Wildrose would win, the PCs - yet again under a new leader, Alison Redford, pulled off yet another victory. The Wildrose didn’t leave empty handed in 2012, though; the party managed to take seventeen of the eighty-seven total seats, displacing the Liberals as the Official Opposition and marking the first time since 1979 that conservative parties placed both first and second.
The period between the 2012 and 2015 elections was a chaotic one for both major parties - the Wildrose saw nine more defections from their party over to the Progressive Conservatives, who had replaced Redford as leader with Jim Prentice, a former Member of Parliament for the Conservative Party. Prentice was a self-proclaimed Red Tory, and a former vice-chairman of the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce (or CIBC). Wildrose leader Danielle Smith was one of the MLAs who crossed the floor during this tumultuous period, citing similar ideals to Prentice as the reason for her defection.
Another former Conservative Party of Canada MP, Brian Jean, became the Wildrose leader in early 2015 just in time for the Progressive Conservatives to call an early election. In Alberta, elections are supposed to be held every four years, sometime between March and May at the discretion of the government. Prentice chose to call his election a year early, claiming that he needed a new mandate in order to pass a budget. This election largely caught the other parties off-guard, but ultimately did not benefit Prentice’s Tories or Jean’s Wildrose - instead, the NDP would sweep a surprise majority government despite having polled in the single digits at the last election.
In the lead-up to the election, the PCs were struggling to keep up with the Wildrose until the televised leaders debate, where the NDP swung the odds solidly in their favour. Jean failed to impress, and Prentice’s popularity took a hit after an interaction with Notley where she corrected a statement about the NDP’s tax plan and Prentice responded “I know math is difficult”, which was widely interpreted as a patronizing or condescending remark.
Ultimately, math was on Notley’s side in that election, as her party won a decisive majority, with the Wildrose maintaining their status as the Official Opposition, and Prentice’s PCs taking third - only for Prentice to immediately resign his seat and leave provincial politics. This would also mark only the second time in Albertan history where the Official Opposition remained the same through a change in government, with the only other instance of this being in 1935, where the Liberals remained the Official Opposition after the UFA lost to the Socreds.
In the immediate aftermath of the election, several things happened. For one, shortly after Prentice left office, he was killed in a plane crash in British Columbia. Bizarrely enough, however, he’s not the first party leader in Alberta’s history to die in a place crash. That would be Grant Notley, who died in a plane crash in 1984 (although he was still the leader of the NDP at the time of the crash). For another, the NDP would form Alberta’s first left-wing government since the UFA lost in 1935 - and much like what happened immediately after that election, the PCs once again found themselves in the position of needing to unite against the majority if they were to have a chance to regain power.
Only this time, it would be in the form of a united party - a United Conservative Party. When Danielle Smith left the Wildrose, she’d urged the two parties to unify, something that was shot down hard by the Wildrose at the time, and the PCs had had no desire or motivation to consider merging. After 2015, though, both parties began to reconsider. The deciding factor was the election of Jason Kenney - yet another former Conservative Party of Canada Member of Parliament - as leader of the PCs. Kenney campaigned for the leadership on the promise of brokering a merger, and after winning the leadership, began working to convince the Wildrose to merge. Jean was openly opposed to the merger up until early 2017, when he eventually agreed to open negotiations with Kenney over a merger. The two came to an agreement on May 18th, 2017.
On July 22nd, 2017, both parties met separately to vote. The Wildrose needed 75% to vote in favour of the merger to succeed, and the PCs needed 50%+1. Both parties easily cleared their targets, with the results from both parties being 95% in favour, 5% against. In October, Jason Kenney was elected as leader of the new party, and in May of 2018, the party held its founding convention to set their policies.
Since then, the party has contested three by-elections - Dave Rodney resigned the Calgary-Lougheed seat to allow Kenney a seat in the Legislature, and Don MacIntyre resigned the Innisfail-Sylvan Lake seat amid charges of sexual assault. Devin Dreeshen took his seat. Brian Jean retired and left the Fort McMurray-Conklin seat, which was won by Laila Goodridge. The UCP entered the 2019 election with Jason Kenney still at the helm, but would share the right wing with four other parties: the Pro-life Alberta Political Association, the Freedom Conservative Party (led by former Wildrose/UCP MLA Derek Fildebrandt), the Reform Party (led by Alberta Alliance founder Randy Thorsteinson), and the Alberta Advantage Party (led by former Wildrose leadership candidate Marilyn Burns, designed to be a revival of the old Wildrose Party).
In 2019, the UCP won a majority government, winning the largest-ever vote count and the largest share of the popular vote in years. 2019 had the highest voter turnout since the 1935 election - coincidentally, both elections were considered notoriously nasty. The UCP follows the tradition of the Socreds and the UFA of being elected within just a couple years of being created; however, they're the first party to do so to have actually chosen a leader before winning the election.