By Carrie Tait, The Globe & Mail | FULL STORY
Candidates endorsed by a populist group focused on personal liberty and freedom that has ties to the protests that earlier this year blocked the U.S.-Canada border swept the recent election for the board of Alberta’s governing United Conservative Party.
Take Back Alberta claims to have sent hundreds of people to the UCP annual general meeting last month and endorsed all nine candidates who were elected, including some who are members of the group. The group’s leader said the board elections are part of a longer-term plan to wield power over democratic institutions, including UCP constituency boards and riding-level nomination battles, ahead of next year’s provincial election.
David Parker formed Take Back Alberta, or TBA, last December, with an eye on dislodging then-UCP leader Jason Kenney from power. Mr. Parker gave a speech Feb. 13 in Milk River, Alta., where demonstrators gathered on Highway 4 in support of those blocking the border 20 kilometres south in Coutts, to recruit for his budding advocacy organization. In August, Marco Van Huigenbos, one of the leaders at Coutts, whom RCMP have since charged with mischief over $5,000, introduced Mr. Parker to a crowd gathered in a farm shop near Lethbridge.
Now Mr. Kenney is gone; Danielle Smith, with the support of TBA, has replaced him as UCP Leader and Alberta Premier; and half of the UCP’s board is controlled by directors endorsed by the right-wing group, including Elbert Van Hierden, who hosted TBA’s August rally in his shop.
TBA draws support from across the province and is especially attractive to those who feel vaccine mandates and public-health restrictions related to COVID-19 were wrong. The protests in southern Alberta, and the convoy that took over downtown Ottawa, revealed a pool of people frustrated with government but unaware of how to effectively accomplish their goals; Mr. Parker said he harnessed that energy and showed hundreds of political neophytes across Alberta how to exert influence over institutions, such as the UCP’s board and constituency associations, they previously did not know existed.
“Your democratic system is not broken. You are,” Mr. Parker told the group in August, echoing the message he delivered months earlier. “Democracies don’t work when citizens don’t show up.”
Roughly 1,800 UCP members attended the party’s annual meeting in late October at the River Cree Resort and Casino on the Enoch Cree Nation adjacent to Edmonton. Mr. Parker said roughly 850 to 900 TBA members were in attendance, with the group covering registration fees for about 100 delegates who could otherwise not afford to go. (Mr. Parker said TBA has about 30,000 members.)
The UCP’s board consists of 18 voting members, including the party’s leader. Nine seats were up for grabs at the AGM, and TBA endorsed a slew of candidates. All of the winners enjoyed the organization’s blessing, although not all of the new directors are closely affiliated with the group.
The board oversees the party’s governance and finance but does not direct the Premier on policy – a limitation that could create conflict if Ms. Smith does not live up to TBA’s expectations. Mr. Parker supported Mr. Kenney, before turning on him because of the government’s response to COVID-19.
Jarrad McCoy, a carpenter and music pastor in Milk River, protested in Coutts and has since morphed into a political organizer under Mr. Parker’s tutelage. At the UCP AGM, the McCoy family camped about 20 minutes outside Edmonton, where TBA booked about 20 sites for supporters who did not want to stay in hotels.
Mr. McCoy credited Mr. Parker for teaching him and others how to create political change. “Coutts was frustrating because they didn’t know necessarily how to do it,” Mr. McCoy said in an interview. “Now they know how to basically get involved and make democracy work.”
Mr. McCoy and Mr. Van Huigenbos are TBA’s southern regional captains. Mr. Van Huigenbos, a Fort Macleod town councillor, is scheduled to appear in court Nov. 4. He declined to comment on those proceedings and the allegations have not been tested in court. He is also scheduled to testify at the Emergencies Act inquiry in Ottawa next week.
Mr. Van Hierden, the businessman and egg farmer who held a TBA gathering in his shop, is now a UCP southern director. In a campaign video before the vote, he fretted about an authoritarian entity creating an emergency in order to strip people of their liberties and freedoms.
“We have all received certain God-given rights, among which are life, liberty, personal autonomy, the pursuit of happiness, the right to assemble, and the right to worship publicly,” Mr. Van Hierden said in his pitch. “Those rights are inalienable – meaning they may never be surrendered, since they are given to us by God, not by man.”
Mr. Van Hierden, in a statement, said TBA consists of Albertans united by a “fierce love of freedom.” TBA, he said, is the vehicle that “educates them as to how to get involved.”
Vince Byfield is the UCP’s new director for Edmonton and Mark Hunt represents the northern zone. Both were TBA regional organizers. Neither returned messages seeking comment.
Abigail Schimke used to limit her politics to voting in general elections. But she was frustrated by the Kenney government’s vaccine requirements, and Mr. Parker’s pitch for continual grassroots political engagement inspired her to get more involved. She decided in March to run for the board.
Now she’s the new UCP director for central Alberta. She does not believe the board is there to direct Ms. Smith, but to keep her in check.
“I see the board as keeping her accountable,” Ms. Schimke said in an interview. “We want to make sure she’s doing what we want.”
Peter Weichler, the UCP’s newest Calgary director, said today’s governments seem to be managed more by bureaucrats than elected representatives, something he believes is wrong. He said directors backed by TBA “each feel the need for government to be responsible to the rights and freedoms of the individual.”
Patrick Malkin is now the party’s vice-president in charge of membership, after serving as the constituency association president for Red Deer-South. He noted that while TBA endorsed him, he was not closely tied to the group during the director race. He says rural Albertans felt under-represented on the board and the AGM corrected that.
Mr. Malkin said TBA deserves recognition for recruiting and organizing members, but he is careful not to give the group exclusive credit for the outcome of the board vote. “Those people were conservatives first and they were Take Back Alberta second,” he said.
Ken Engler joins the board as treasurer, after serving as Ms. Smith’s chief financial officer during the leadership campaign. Samantha Steinke, who previously served as the constituency association president in the riding represented by MLA Todd Loewen, is now vice-president of communications. Mr. Loewen was the UCP leadership challenger most closely aligned with Ms. Smith and the pair both enjoyed TBA’s approval in that race. Raymond Strom is now vice-president overseeing policy and governance. These directors did not return messages seeking comment.
Since January, the RCMP have made two sets of arrests related to the protests at Coutts and Milk River. Four people have been charged with conspiracy to commit murder, with the force alleging a faction within the protest wanted to kill Mounties. Others are facing lesser charges related to mischief. None of the allegations have been proven.
The Premier’s Office directed questions about the new board to UCP spokesman Dave Prisco. He did not return a message seeking comment.
With a Premier and board that aligns with its values, TBA is now focusing on the 2023 general election.
“Phase 4 of our plan is defeat the NDP,” Mr. Parker said
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