Skip to main content

Rajan Sawhney shakes hands with Alberta Premier Jason Kenney after being appointed minister of transportation, in Edmonton, on July 8, 2021.JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

A cabinet minister from Calgary has joined the race to replace Jason Kenney as United Conservative leader and Alberta premier.

Rajan Sawhney says if she were to win, she would order a public inquiry into how the province handled the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ms. Sawhney says the health crisis caused much suffering and economic hardship and a full airing is needed to learn lessons and move forward.

“We need to know what we did right. We need to know what we did wrong,” Ms. Sawhney, flanked by her family, said Monday on the plaza in front of the legislature.

“Many Albertans and Alberta businesses suffered during the pandemic and have not recovered. What can we do to help them get them back on their feet?”

Such inquiries are run by an independent commissioner and have the power to compel evidence and testimony.

A new UCP leader is expected to be in place by the fall, but Ms. Sawhney said she wouldn’t commit to hold an inquiry before the next provincial election in May.

“This sort of inquiry will take time. It is going to take at least a year if we’re going to do it properly to ensure that we have all of the stakeholders at the table and we’re looking at all of the data,” she said.

“To rush it is a disservice to the process itself.”

Standing beside Ms. Sawhney was Airdrie-East UCP legislature member Angela Pitt. Ms. Pitt will chair Ms. Sawhney’s campaign. Ms. Pitt has been a vocal critic of Mr. Kenney’s policy decisions on COVID-19, particularly those that curtailed individual freedoms.

“Rajan has a great ability to listen to those who sometimes do not share the same opinion and to find common ground,” said Ms. Pitt.

“We need to unify the party [with a public inquiry] lay it all out on the table. Part of the problem is we haven’t had all the information open and transparent.”

Ms. Sawhney is the first candidate from Calgary in the race and has stepped down as transportation minister to avoid any conflict of interest while she pursues the leadership.

She is a first-term legislature member representing Calgary-North East. She served as minister of community and social services in Mr. Kenney’s original cabinet in 2019 before moving to the transportation portfolio last July.

As social services minister, she was involved in the controversial decision to de-index payments to recipients under the Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped program, or AISH.

Asked about it Monday, she said the province was going through difficult economic times when that de-indexing decision was made. But she said with coffers now looking more robust, “indexing AISH and seniors benefits and [personal income] tax brackets is something that I would do.”

Ms. Sawhney was born and raised in Calgary, gaining a degree in economics and political science at the University of Calgary along with a master’s degree in business administration.

Before politics, she worked for two decades on the economic and business development side of the oil and gas industry.

The leadership race was called almost a month ago, when Mr. Kenney received a lacklustre 51-per-cent support in a party leadership review and announced he was stepping down.

The party is still working on the rules and timelines for the race. Mr. Kenney will step down once the new leader is chosen.

Travis Toews has also announced a leadership bid and has stepped down as finance minister to do so. Other candidates are former Wildrose party leaders Brian Jean and Danielle Smith.

Todd Loewen, a UCP member voted out of caucus a year ago for calling on Mr. Kenney to resign, is also in the hunt, as is UCP backbencher Leela Aheer. Ms. Aheer was removed from Mr. Kenney’s cabinet a year ago after criticizing some of his COVID-19 decisions.

Bill Rock, the mayor of the village of Amisk, has also signed up.

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.