Fast Forward Weekly hunts down Calgary’s MIA MLAs
In Calgary, MLAs have a tendency to get themselves elected, then disappear for four years, shunning media attention until the next election when their campaign signs pop up on lawns once again. These backbench MLAs collect up to $150,000 a year, but their names remain unfamiliar to many Calgarians. Neil Brown? Art Johnston? Darshan Kang? Who are these people and where did they come from?
Many are newbies, first elected to serve our province just last year. One MLA believes he’s a Shakespearian jester; another who was fired as chair of the democratically elected Calgary Public School Board has joined the party that turfed her; and one MLA shops and prays in his constituency, but doesn’t sleep there. It really does take all kinds. Read on to find out…
THE MIA MLAs
Moe Amery, PC
Education: General studies classes at University of Alberta
Moe Amery’s name has appeared in the Calgary Herald only three times this year — and for him, that might be a good thing. The veteran backbencher made headlines five years ago, when police charged him with signing a passport form under false pretenses. Amery even penned a resignation letter, but the then-premier, Ralph Klein, rejected it after the charges were stayed. Now Amery, who used to work in the real estate biz before he was elected, mostly lays low. “I’m not a controversial guy,” he says. “I deal with issues in a quiet and effective manner. I don’t go out of my way to get my name in the paper by making outrageous statements.”
Manmeet Bhullar, PC
Education: BA in sociology, Athabasca University
At 29, Manmeet Bhullar is the province’s youngest MLA. He got into the legislature because of a bitter dispute amongst Tories in his riding (a common occurrence in this city), culminating in Premier Ed Stelmach rejecting the candidacy of a local pastor last year and, instead, appointing Bhullar. A former staffer for Calgary federal cabinet minister Jim Prentice, Bhullar says MLAs do a lot of celebrating and grieving. “If it’s the summertime, then you’ve got weddings — and a lot of them,” he says. “In the winter, strangely enough, you attend a lot more funerals.”
Neil Brown, PC
Education: B.Sc. in Zoology, University of Alaska; Biology PhD, McGill University; bachelor of laws, University of Calgary
Neil who? Smith? Jones? No, it’s Brown. “Outside [the communities in my riding], probably a lot of people wouldn’t know who I was,” admits the scientist-turned-lawyer-turned-politician. “You’ve got to remember, there are 23 of us in the city of Calgary. We’re not like the country MLAs. They’re like rock stars compared to us.” Before he went into law, this outdoorsman MLA taught wildlife biology. He’s got more education than most cabinet ministers, but hasn’t made it into the cab-club — a fact he says he’s OK with (though we’re not sure we believe him).
Harry Chase, LIB
Born: Saskatoon, Sask.
Education: Bachelor of education, University of Calgary
This oddball MLA, a former junior high school teacher, brings levity to the legislature by reading poetry and Shakespearian spoofs on everything from electricity transmission to public-private partnerships (P3s). “I see myself almost… in the role of a Shakespearian jester, or a fool kind of thing — the idea being that the wisdom sometimes comes from what appears to be the most foolish of places,” says Chase. A legislative excerpt: “P3, or not P3: that is the question/Whether ’tis nobler in the bind to suffer/The slings and arrows of outrageous private fortune/Or pay now to avoid a sea of future troubles….”
Alana DeLong, PC
Born: Nelson, B.C.
Education: B.Sc. (honours) in mathematics with a minor in theatre from the University of British Columbia
Alana DeLong’s official bio lists an odd accomplishment: vice-chair to the official song committee. “Oh dear, that’s still in there?” asks the former computer salesperson and marketer. The province picked an official ditty for its 2005 centennial, an overproduced and clichéd cowpie of a song. “It was polished,” says DeLong, who briefly gunned for the Tory leadership in 2006 before backing out. A lifelong fan of music and the arts, DeLong now sings in the newly formed PC caucus choir. “Right now, we’re learning some Christmas carols,” she says.
Jonathan Denis, PC
Born: Regina, Sask.
Education: Bachelor of business administration, University of Regina; Bachelor of laws, University of Saskatchewan
Denis, a lawyer, got involved in conservative politics early. “I knocked on my first door when I was in Saskatchewan in my early teens,” he says. Despite running a campaign management company, he struggled to pull off a run of his own. Another right-wing political organizer, Craig Chandler, steamrolled Denis in the riding’s PC nomination race in 2007, but Premier Ed fired Chandler soon afterwards. With Chandler gone, Denis clinched the subsequent Tory vote. What if Chandler runs for the Wildrose Alliance Party in the next election? “Then I’ll beat him again,” says Denis (he beat Chandler — who ultimately ran as an independent — on election day).
Kyle Fawcett, PC
Education: BA in political science and economics, University of Calgary
This former research consultant and school board trustee couldn’t get enough of Premier Ed in February, waxing it on in the legislature: “Our premier is a man of extraordinary vision…. He is a steady hand at the wheel of the ship in turbulent times.” Such high praise! But in September, Fawcett pulled a 180, claiming Premier Ed had “done very little” to instill confidence in his leadership abilities. “I don’t necessarily regret it,” says Fawcett, 30. “I regret my choice of words…. My comments weren’t my personal opinions. They were opinions that I’d been hearing at the door.”
Art Johnston, PC
Education: Classes toward a bachelor of physical education degree, University of New Brunswick
When he was in his 20s, Johnston wanted to be a cop — but he was too short. “Because I’m only five-foot-seven, police wouldn’t look at me,” says the former military sergeant. “So I basically went into the military until the rules changed.” He spent 11 years in the army, then 25 as a Calgary cop. Before becoming an MLA, he took a stab at running for city council — but lost to another political newbie named Ric McIver.
Darshan Kang, LIB
Education: Pre-med degree, University of Indore
After immigrating to Canada in 1970, Darshan Kang worked as a janitor, a farmworker, a labourer for CP Rail, a welder, a taxi driver, a security guard and a realtor — “whatever I needed to do to put bread and butter on the table.” He lived in northeast Calgary most of that time, but now lives in Chestermere — well outside the riding he represents. “Mentally and physically, I’m there in the northeast,” he says, adding that he regularly shops and goes to his Sikh temple in the riding. “I just go to sleep in Chestermere.”
Dave Rodney, PC
Born: Mankota, Sask.
Education: BA and bachelor of education, University of Saskatchewan; Master of Religious Education, Newman College
Dave Rodney climbed Mount Everest — twice. Then the former educator and adventure guide took the tale of his summits on a paid speaking circuit where “all parties at all levels” of government encouraged him to run for them, he says. But Rodney — who works his Everest shtick into conversations wherever he can — is still on the backbenches after five years. Does the lower elevation bug him? “If I was in the NHL right now and it was overtime of Game 7 of the Stanley Cup playoffs, I would definitely want to be on the ice,” he says. “To get there, though, I’ll just finish with this.”
Teresa Woo-Paw, PC
Born: Hong Kong
Education: Bachelor of social work, University of Calgary
A former chair of the Calgary Board of Education, Woo-Paw oversaw the democratically elected — and thoroughly “dysfunctional” (her word) — school board that was fired by then-education minister Lyle Oberg in 1999. The former social worker now works for the same government that gave her the boot. “I don’t see it that way, because I think I have to admit that there were issues with that board,” she says. “Maybe [replacing the board] was good for the school system.” Woo-Paw ran diversity training programs before getting elected as an MLA.
MEET CALGARY’S MINISTERS
What does it take to become a minister?
The premier picks ministers based on — what? Experience and education? Political loyalty? Too often it’s the latter. Here are Calgary’s six ministers, along with their qualifications (or non-qualifications, as some cases may be). After reading this, there may be more questions than answers, such as, how did a dude who studied criminology and jails end up being Alberta’s minister of culture and community spirit? And, how did a farmer from Saltcoats, Sask. (where’s that?) who took some online broadcasting courses, owned a PR firm and operated a daycare centre, become head of the all-important ministry of Alberta Health and Wellness? It blows our miniscule minds.
Cindy Ady, PC
Minister of Tourism, Parks and Recreation
Born: San Antonio, Texas
Education: Studied communications at Brigham Young University, a private Utah university owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Ady ran a home construction company before jumping into politics (her father-in-law, Jack Ady, was a longtime PC MLA). She also worked as “a self-employed community development consultant” and helped schools with proposals for provincial funding.
Lindsay Blackett, PC
Minister of Culture and Community Spirit
Born: United Kingdom
Education: Studied criminology and corrections at Carleton University
Blackett was handed a cabinet posting a mere 10 days after becoming an MLA — an especially odd appointment, given Blackett’s jail-studying background. Did he have a career in the arts before he was elected? Nope. He was an electronics salesman.
Yvonne Fritz, PC
Minister of Housing and Urban Affairs
Born: Saskatoon, Sask.
Education: Graduated from the Calgary General Hospital school of nursing
Before Yvonne Fritz was a provincial politician, she was a municipal one, working as an alderman in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Before that, she worked as a registered nurse.
Ronald Liepert, PC
Minister of Health and Wellness
Born: Saltcoats, Sask.
Education: Courses with the Columbia School of Broadcasting
Glancing at this pit bull minister’s bio, one might say, “Columbia. Isn’t that the prestigious journalism school in New York?” Actually, no — it’s a mail-in institution (check out the website, which looks like it hasn’t been redesigned since the ’90s). Liepert, who holds one of the province’s most important portfolios, worked in the broadcast industry in the ’70s, then took a job as former premier Peter Lougheed’s press secretary. He went on to run his own PR business and a daycare centre before getting elected and facing numerous PR problems of his own.
Alison Redford, PC
Minister of Justice and Attorney General
Education: Graduated from the College of Law at the University of Saskatchewan in 1988
Redford is a rarity — she’s a cabinet minister whose experience and education actually matches her portfolio. Redford was also picked for cabinet 10 days after she was first elected — but unlike Blackett, she studied law, therefore is the province’s No. 1 go-to lawyer. Redford worked internationally on human rights law and legal policy before becoming an MLA. She also worked as a staffer in former prime minister Brian Mulroney’s office.
Len Webber, PC
Minister of International and Intergovernmental Relations
Education: B.Com. degree, University of Calgary; journeyman communications electrician certificate, SAIT
In his pre-MLA life, Webber worked as an electrician, then became vice-president and director of Calgary’s Webber Academy, a “university preparatory private school.” PC blood flows through his veins — his dad, Neil Webber, was a longtime Tory MLA and cabinet minister.