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Alberta agriculture minister quits cabinet amid concerns about drinking

EDMONTON — An Alberta cabinet minister has quit, citing concerns over his conduct and drinking, and Premier Jason Kenney is acknowledging he attended one after-hours office get-together.

EDMONTON — An Alberta cabinet minister has quit, citing concerns over his conduct and drinking, and Premier Jason Kenney is acknowledging he attended one after-hours office get-together.

"This morning, I offered Premier Jason Kenney my resignation as Minister of Agriculture and Forestry and he has accepted," Devin Dreeshen said in a short statement Friday. "I accept that my personal conduct with regards to alcohol has become an issue for the government as a whole.

"I deeply regret that this is the case but have decided that it is best for both myself and the province to resign my position and focus on my personal health and wellness."

Kenney said he has tabbed Nate Horner, associate minister in charge of rural economic development, to take over Dreeshen's duties. Horner is the legislative member for Drumheller-Stettler.

Dreeshen remains legislature member for Innisfail-Sylvan Lake.

The issue of Dreeshen's drinking surfaced last week in a lawsuit filed by a former senior government staffer, who once had a romantic relationship with him.

In a statement of claim, Ariella Kimmel alleges she encountered Dreeshen and others heavily intoxicated in a legislature office last fall.

The document says Kimmel expressed concern about how much Dreeshen was drinking and encouraged him to stop, which she alleges led to Dreeshen publicly berating her until she was in tears and a bystander intervened.

Kimmel, who was chief of staff to Jobs Minister Doug Schweitzer, said she was wrongly fired soon after by the premier's office when she pressed for redress on Dreeshen's behaviour. She said she had also asked that something be done after one of her staff was allegedly sexually harassed by a senior official at another after-hours office get-together.

The allegations have not been proven in court.

Kenney, asked if he had ever attended a gathering held by Dreeshen, said: "I think, yes, on one occasion when he was hosting investors in the lumber industry, the forestry industry, who are looking at about a $200-million investment in northern Alberta.

"I think there was one or two drinks at a social evening gathering in his office that I attended, and that's all I can recall."

Kenney added: "I don’t object to members of the legislature socializing, having a social drink every now and then. Political life is a very social activity.

"But people should be mature and responsible in terms of consuming alcohol, especially in any kind of a workplace environment. We expect all members to demonstrate maturity and responsibility and, of course, respect for others."

Kenney's office has said Kimmel's firing was unrelated to the sexual harassment issue.

Opposition NDP critic Kathleen Ganley said the government, as an employer, has an obligation to provide a safe working environment, particularly one free of harassment.

"They have obviously failed to do that," she said.

"With respect to Minister Dreeshen, I hope that he is able to get the help that he needs to deal with his health issues."

Dreeshen's resignation was another blow to Kenney, whose popularity numbers have plummeted in recent months, mainly over his handling of the COVID-19 crisis. There has been discontent with him in the United Conservative caucus and two members are openly calling for him to resign.

In response, Kenney has agreed to move up a party review of his leadership to this spring.

He is also facing a renewed challenge from a rival whom he defeated in the 2017 race to become leader of the UCP.

Brian Jean announced this week that he will seek the UCP nomination for the vacant seat of Fort McMurray-Lac La Biche, where he lives.

The seat opened in September when UCP member Laila Goodridge became an MP by winning the federal riding of Fort McMurray-Cold Lake for the Conservative party.

Jean, a former MP and one-time leader of the now defunct Alberta Wildrose Party, has promised to run on a platform to unseat Kenney. Jean has said the premier’s performance has put the UCP on the road to ruin in the 2023 election.

Kenney must call a byelection by mid-February and said he welcomes all entrants.

"We hope to have a competitive nomination there," Kenney said Friday.

He said he would sign Jean’s nomination papers if UCP constituency members chose him as their candidate.

"I would endorse whoever the members choose," he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 5, 2021.

Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press