Doug Schweitzer is Alberta's minister of jobs, economy and innovation. Photo: The Canadian Press/Todd Korol

The education of Doug Schweitzer

How a promising Red Tory became Kenney’s attack dog.

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How did Doug Schweitzer go from being a mild-mannered moderate to Premier Jason Kenney’s fire-breathing loyalist during his tumultuous 15 months as justice minister?

In 2017, Schweitzer differentiated himself from UCP leadership race frontrunners, Jason Kenney and Brian Jean, by insisting the party must create as broad a tent as possible by taking a firm stand in favour of LGBTQ2S+ and women’s rights.

“I think people as a whole are sick and tired of attack politics,” he said in an interview with Don Braid for the Calgary Herald for a story headlined: “Doug Schweitzer’s anti-anger, pro-LGBTQ leadership campaign.”

In another interview with the Herald, Schweitzer said he wanted to be a voice for those “sick and tired of hyper-partisanship.”

His mandate changed to preside over Kenney’s fight back” strategy.

But there was a discernible shift away from the post-partisan, conciliatory rhetoric Schweitzer espoused during the leadership campaign once the new government was sworn in on April 30, 2019, and Schweitzer assumed his first prominent cabinet portfolio.

A radical rhetorical shift

Although it would be an oversimplification to present Schweitzer’s campaign as a total break with conservative orthodoxy, once the rookie MLA was brought into Kenney’s cabinet as the minister of justice and solicitor general, his mandate changed to preside over Kenney’s “fight back” strategy against perceived enemies of oil and gas development.

But it’s tough to oversee a “fight back” campaign against perceived enemies while remaining above the fray. Schweitzer started engaging in some of the “Ottawa-style of attack politics” and partisanship he lambasted Kenney for in the leadership race.

After Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi criticized UCP cuts to municipal funding in October 2019, Schweitzer tweeted, “Trudeau’s mayor is out to lunch.” Doubling down during question period: “Our mayor of Calgary loves Justin Trudeau.”

Asked about this rhetoric by reporters, a visibly irate Schweitzer proceeded to read out headlines from stories about Nenshi reaching out to work with Trudeau after the federal Liberals were shut out of Alberta and Saskatchewan in the 2019 election.

More recently, Schweitzer purged the Provincial Court Nominating Committee (PCNC) of its NDP appointees and replaced them with conservative loyalists appointed through an opaque informal process. One of these appointees, Leighton Grey, resigned in June after he was found to have posted anti-Semitic, racist and sexist content on social media.

When NDP MLA Irfan Sabir asked Schweitzer in the legislature to condemn a specific Grey post about there being too many female judicial appointees, the minister called Sabir’s line of questioning “absolutely disgusting” before reading off the names of past PCNC appointees and the amounts they donated to the NDP.

It appears Schweitzer has returned to the more optimistic, conciliatory rhetoric of his leadership campaign, speaking of Alberta’s bright future.”

On August 25, Schweitzer was shuffled to the newly-created ministry of jobs, economy and innovation, tasked with overseeing economic recovery from COVID-19. He was replaced at justice by the equally-pugnacious minister, Kaycee Madu.

It’s too early to say definitively, but it appears Schweitzer has returned to the more optimistic, conciliatory rhetoric of his leadership campaign, speaking of Alberta’s “bright future” and the need for collaboration across economic sectors, demonstrating his talent for code switching when necessary.

The UCP kamikaze campaign

Schweitzer’s shifting approach to allegations of electoral misconduct during the 2017 leadership campaign reflects a broader shift in tone and substance.

The Kenney campaign is alleged to have fraudulently used PINs from other candidates’ supporters to boost Kenney’s vote count. No criminal charges have been laid in relation to that investigation.

As candidates, Schweitzer and Jean each called for the leadership vote to be delayed days before it occurred based on how easy it was for anyone to receive a PIN for online voting. Both were mum after the fact. But while Jean left politics, Schweitzer was left to pick up the pieces of the broken leadership race.

Schweitzer previously confirmed that he was interviewed by the RCMP in relation to this criminal investigation. His office did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

But that was not the only problem with the leadership race. There was also an investigation by Alberta's elections commissioner, Lorne Gibson, into former Wildrose Party president, Jeff Callaway, running as a “kamikaze” candidate for Kenney in the leadership race, for which the commissioner handed out 15 fines totalling $207,223.

In November 2019, the UCP tabled the omnibus Bill 22, which eliminated Gibson's office.

When NDP MLA Shannon Phillips suggested that Schweitzer should recuse himself from the legislation, given his involvement in the leadership campaign—which was also a recommendation of the elections commissioner—Schweitzer responded on Twitter with a Trump-like declaration: “NO CONFLICT.”

The Sprawl reached out to Schweitzer’s justice ministry office for comment on this story, but did not hear back.

The quintessential Red Tory

To better understand who Schweitzer is today, it's worth taking a look back to his career before politics and how that might have informed his approach to running for the party leadership, as well as his time as MLA and cabinet minister.

From 1999 to 2001, Schweitzer played baseball at Cerro Cosso Community College in Ridgecrest, California, a town of 27,000 in the Mojave Desert.

“I could throw really hard, I just didn’t know where it was going,” he recalled in a 2017 video profile for Red Deer’s Todayville during the fateful UCP leadership race. “I would hit a guy, strike out a guy, walk a guy, so it wasn’t really sustainable as a career path.”

Schweitzer presented himself as a fresh face of Alberta conservatism.

After his career was definitively cut short due to a shoulder injury, he spent some time working with homeless and at-risk youth before going to law school at the University of Manitoba in 2003, where he became involved with the province’s PC party and met his wife, Jen.

“He was an interesting guy,” recalls lawyer Blaire Yorke-Slader, who hired Schweitzer as an articling student at Bennett Jones law firm in 2006. “I know him better now, but I do remember him from then, which is meaningful. You don’t remember every single articling student that’s passed through your firm when it’s a big firm.”

Yorke-Slader says Schweitzer had the confident swagger of an athlete, which made him stand out from his peers.

“He has always had this somewhat disarming authenticity about him,” said Yorke-Slader. “He looks you in the eye, and what you see is what you get.”

“He was always a guy who got your attention, because when you talked to him you felt he was paying attention to you and you were getting it straight, no filter.”

Some people ooze the ambition that they want to be a politician. He never had that.

Blaire Yorke-Slader,

Lawyer

Although Schweitzer expressed a keen interest in “politics as a spectator sport,” Yorke-Slader says he never thought of him as the type of person who would run for office.

“Some people ooze the ambition that they want to be a politician. He never had that,” he said.

Upon graduating law school, Schweitzer went on to work at Dentons, North America’s largest law firm. And in 2014, he managed former premier Jim Prentice’s PC leadership campaign.

When he ran in the UCP’s inaugural leadership race in 2017, Schweitzer presented himself as a fresh face of Alberta conservatism with his “New Blue” campaign. He appeared to be the quintessential Red Tory.

His leadership platform called for a $100-million grant to female-owned startups, an expansion of drug treatment courts and taking public 40% of ATB Financial to invest in community infrastructure and venture capital.

Schweitzer spoke with compassion about the party’s need to be on the right side of history regarding LGBTQ2S+ rights.

In the September 2017 Edmonton UCP leadership debate, Schweitzer spoke with compassion about the party’s need to be on the right side of history regarding LGBTQ2S+ rights in general and gay-straight alliances in particular.

“If for some reason my daughters weren’t comfortable coming talking to me, I’d want to make sure they have a place where they can go to get the supports they need,” he said. “Because the biggest nightmare a parent could have is a suicide.”

Throughout the debate, Schweitzer peppered his speech with words like optimism, hope and positivity to drive home the point that the UCP must do more to appeal to a younger demographic.

Stay humble,” he advised his fellow candidates and party members at the October debate in Fort McMurray.

Schweitzer was the ultimate neoliberal — a staunch moderate on social policy, but a firm proponent of siphoning away the public sector.

His fiscal plans, which he billed as “the largest tax relief in Alberta’s history,” involved creating two flat income-tax brackets—9% for those making less than $100,000 and 10% for those making more—funded through a “flat budget” each year of his mandate with significant public sector wage rollbacks. There was also the ritualistic denunciation of the carbon tax and a promise to roll the minimum wage back to $12.20.

In short, Schweitzer was the ultimate neoliberal—a staunch moderate on social policy, but an equally firm proponent of siphoning away the public sector.

‘He just seems like a different person’

Janice Fraser volunteered with Schweitzer’s campaign for a few days leading up to the 2017 leadership vote. But she isn’t your typical UCP volunteer by any stretch of the imagination.

After working as a staffer for former Alberta Liberal Party Leader David Swann, and former NDP MLA Anim Kazim, she ran for the Green Party of Alberta in Calgary-McCall in the 2019 election.

Fraser, who describes her politics as “centrist,” says she was drawn to Schweitzer because she regarded him as a young and enthusiastic outsider who could bring the new conservative party into the 21st century.

It’s a complete shift in personality… He just seems like a different person.

Janice Fraser,

Schweitzer’s campaign volunteer

“I knew that on social issues he was definitely more progressive and had a good platform,” said Fraser. “The ‘New Blue’ campaign was attractive. I thought we could use something different after 43 years of PCs and then the NDP. I thought he was genuine. He had this freshness of perspective.”

She says she was taken aback by the aggressive partisan persona Schweitzer adopted after the UCP formed government.

“It’s a complete shift in personality,” said Fraser. “He just seems like a different person.”

Yet Schweitzer still comes off earnestly when serving as a Kenney’s attack dog, she observes.

“He doesn’t seem to be uncomfortable in his skin doing what he’s doing now,” said Fraser, who was also interviewed by the RCMP about the leadership contest. “He’s wearing it really well.”

Yorke-Slader speculated that, as a political neophyte, Schweitzer may not have been fully prepared for the hypercharged atmosphere in the legislature after being thrust into a prominent cabinet role.

“It’s been the education of Doug Schweitzer,” he said. “He ended up in a few partisan dustups not because he set out to do that, I’m quite sure, but because he found himself in an environment that was more partisan than he had hoped for.”

“Left to his own devices, I don’t think he’s a guy who throws a bunch of rocks unless somebody started the rock fight first.”

At the end of the day, the UCP is Kenney’s party, and he runs a tight ship.

Occasionally, Schweitzer’s moderate persona resurfaces.

He was one of the first UCP MLAs to say they wouldn’t vote for Bill 207, a private member’s bill put forward by Peace River MLA Dan Williams, that would have allowed doctors to refuse services on conscientious grounds without requiring them to offer a referral.

“That’s not what I campaigned on locally,” Schweitzer told the Calgary Herald.

In June, when CHAT News revealed that two Lethbridge police officers had spied on Lethbridge-West MLA Shannon Phillips in 2017, when she was environment minister, Schweitzer swiftly condemned the cops’ abuse of power on Twitter, and said a special out-of-province prosecutor would be appointed in the event of a criminal investigation.

However, in the same Twitter thread, he also denied any prior knowledge that this had occurred, although nobody at the time suggested he had. The Lethbridge Police Service said they did inform the ministry, as stipulated under the Police Act whenever there’s a major police misconduct investigation. Schweitzer maintained that although his ministry was notified, he was not.

Saying what Jason Kenney wants

Lori Williams, associate professor of political science at Mount Royal University, says that at the end of the day, the UCP is Kenney’s party, and he runs a tight ship—so Schweitzer had to adapt or learn to swim.

She pointed out that Kenney appointed the chiefs of staff for each ministry after the election, demonstrating his firm grasp on the levers of power.

If you want to be an effective minister, you’ve got to not only go along, but do a good job of saying what Jason Kenney wants.

Lori Williams,

Associate professor of political science at MRU

“He’s directly involved in all departments and aspects of government. It’s very much under Jason Kenney’s control,” Williams said. “If you want to be an effective minister, you’ve got to not only go along, but do a good job of saying what Jason Kenney wants.”

Williams contrasted Kenney’s aggressive messaging with the more conciliatory tone of the province’s last conservative premier and Schweitzer’s former boss, Jim Prentice.

Schweitzer could be going out of his way to adjust to coach Kenney’s particular leadership style. “It may be that he’s just a competitive guy,” Willliams said, referring to Schweitzer’s time on the baseball diamond. “This is a government that not only allows but rewards that.”

But the degree of partisan mudslinging cultivated by Kenney could backfire in the long run, she warns.

“There’s no question that negativity, if managed well, is effective,” she said. “People say they don’t like it, but the reality is if it doesn’t cross a certain line it has an influence on people’s electoral choices. The question is what is that line.”

Schweitzer’s transformation demonstrates the limits of Red Toryism in providing a bulwark against the hard right.

“It depends on who’s doing the criticism, who is being criticized and what are the longer term goals. You might win the next election—and if that’s all you care about, that’s fine—but if you want to actually generate more support for Alberta’s oil industry, it may not be the most effective approach.”

All told, Schweitzer’s transformation demonstrates the limits of Red Toryism in providing a bulwark against the hard right.

Old-style, centre-right conservatives who want to push the new right in a more moderate direction ultimately get subsumed by the forces they’re trying to keep in check.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re a fire-breathing attorney general or a more conciliatory minister of economy, jobs and innovation, because you’re playing a part assigned to you from above. It’s the price of power.

In this sense, Schweitzer serves as a cautionary tale for those trying to work within the system.

Jeremy Appel is a Medicine Hat-based reporter and columnist. He also co-hosts two podcasts—the Forgotten Corner, a regionally-focused current affairs show, and Big Shiny Takes, which skewers the Canadian pundit class.

CORRECTION 26/09/20: This story originally stated that the UCP passed Bill 22 in November 2017; in fact, it was November 2019.

Help us hire another journalist—and get our new zine!

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