A small Alberta group that most Canadians have never likely heard of has inspired tens of thousands of followers who are feeding a growing anger in the oil-rich province.
This emerging political movement is expanding as Alberta faces a dramatic restructuring of its fossil fuel-dependent economy triggered by the 2014 collapse in global oil prices. The year 2015 was Alberta's worst for job losses since a major recession in 1982, and the province lost another 39,000 jobs in resources and manufacturing in 2016.
Voters kicked out the province's 44-year-old Progressive Conservative (PC) government in 2015 and chose the left-leaning New Democrats. The new government then found itself saddled with a collapsing economy that, according to data from Statistics Canada, lost about 86,000 full time jobs in 2015 and 2016.
Against that background, the small but influential group has vaulted into the public debate as one of the NDP government's harshest critics. Formed in 2016, the group calls itself Alberta Can't Wait, and they're blaming the NDP for "trying to kick us when we’re down," co-founder Prem Singh told National Observer.
The self-described grassroots, volunteer-supported group was one of the early drivers of the unite-the-right movement in Alberta, which aims to unify conservatives under one party and defeat the NDP. Singh and Alberta Can't Wait were early supporters of former federal Conservative cabinet minister, Jason Kenney, who is now running for the PC leadership.
Two years after the NDP’s huge win in the 2015 election ended a 44-year PC dynasty, many Albertans are feeling “a lot of angst,” Alberta Can’t Wait co-founder Prem Singh told National Observer.
The NDP has introduced dramatic shifts in government policy, such as an aggressive climate change plan that includes a tax on carbon pollution for consumers as part of a strategy to diversify the Alberta economy and free it from its dependence on oil.
But Singh says the current government is spending and taxing too much, and not doing enough to support the province's energy industry. For her, Notley’s support for the oilsands and new pipelines is overshadowed by the NDP government’s tax hikes – and in particular what Singh calls the “$3 billion job-killing carbon tax.”
Over 50,000 followers to spread political message
Backing the group are many prominent members of Alberta's conservative old guard, shut out of the new political order in Edmonton since the 2015 NDP wave.
And already, the group has amassed a following of over 50,000 users on Facebook — more than the governing NDP or Opposition Wildrose or PC parties. They rapidly attract dozens of shares and likes for just about every online attack of an NDP government policy or the media.
Their political messages have also been promoted across the province with some modest advertising, both on billboards and television, financed by a few thousands dollars worth of donations from individuals, Singh explained.
She hasn't identified individual sources of the group's donations, but said that all of the donors are individuals, not corporate donors, and "are not big by any means."
Members of the group include veterans of both the Progressive Conservative party, which dominated Alberta politics for over four decades, and the Wildrose Party, which surged to become the largest opposition party in the 2012 election, the second in which the party competed.
One of the group's big-name supporters is Preston Manning, former leader of the Reform Party and the Canadian Alliance, a predecessor of the current federal Conservative party.
Singh said he hasn’t donated to the group. Manning, who supports carbon pricing, did not respond to National Observer's request for comment.
The group also counts among its supporters former PC Energy Minister Greg Melchin, current Conservative MP Chris Warkentin and Calgary city council candidate Jeromy Farkas, as well as a handful of PC riding association veterans and several unsuccessful candidates from both sides of the province’s conservative opposition.
Small group of about 40 volunteers
But at its core, Alberta Can’t Wait is a relatively small group entirely staffed by volunteers, Singh told National Observer: about 40 regular volunteers, with a half-dozen core supporters doing most of the day-to-day organizing.
“It’s a good opportunity for us to create something new and bold, and have the small-c conservative family unite,” Singh said. She said the movement wants to replace Alberta's NDP government with “a fiscally responsible, competent and principled alternative.”
Recent polls suggest she could be onto something: according to a poll released on Tuesday, 58 per cent of Albertans aren't happy with how the government has handled the economy.
The next provincial election is more than two years away, but Singh said she thinks that without a united conservative front, the NDP could win a second mandate. She and Alberta Can’t Wait are pinning their hopes on a common front of PC and Wildrose supporters, and have endorsed PC leadership candidate Jason Kenney's plan to unite the two parties as a new, third party.
Kenney, formerly a trusted minister under former prime minister Stephen Harper, will find out at the PC leadership convention this weekend if the first step in his plan to take over Alberta's conservative parties has been a success.
He hopes to win the leadership of the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party, then shut it down and join forces with the opposition Wildrose Party to create a united conservative alternative to Premier Rachel Notley's NDP.
With just three candidates left, the question of unity has proved to be the most divisive issue in the race. Edmonton Journal columnist Graham Thomson described it as "a runaway train filled with dynamite that’s rushing down the tracks towards a bridge that’s on fire. And everyone on board is having a fist fight."
Two candidates remain to challenge Kenney on March 18: Byron Nelson, a Calgary-based lawyer who stood as a PC candidate in the 2015 election, and Richard Starke, the current PC MLA for Vermilion-Lloydminster, in eastern Alberta.
“We run the risk of the NDP having another term. And if there’s even a one per cent risk that that could happen, that’s one per cent too much. So in our minds, failure is not an option,” Singh said.
A spokeswoman for the premier did not respond to National Observer's request for comment on the unite-the-right movement. But Notley has repeatedly said that her priority is to bring good jobs back to Alberta. She has also emerged as an aggressive supporter of Alberta's oilsands, and said in a statement on March 2 that her government would go to court to defend the recently approved Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain expansion project which would nearly triple the capacity of a pipeline that carries oil from the Alberta oilsands to a port in Burnaby, B.C.
Alberta Can't Wait supporter and former president of the Canadian Cattlemen's Association, Travis Toews, told National Observer that he was concerned about new taxes introduced by the NDP government, including the carbon tax introduced at the beginning of 2017. He also said the government had introduced too many new regulations, including Bill 6, which expands protections for agricultural workers by requiring farms and ranches to conform to health and safety regulations and hold WCB coverage for workers.
“This is a government that has a tendency to over-reach, to be quite involved in our affairs, and a government that’s prone to lots of regulation,” Toews said in an interview.
But in the last election, Toews said he heard grumbling about the PCs among conservative Albertans. “They seemed to have drifted from their conservative roots. They were large, they spent a lot of money and they weren’t what you would consider a small, nimble, focused, fiscally-responsible government,” he said.
At the same time, Wildrose Party leader Danielle Smith's decision in 2014 to cross the floor with eight Wildrose MLAs and join the PCs was “quite distasteful,” and left a mark on both parties, he said.
Jason Kenney plans to shut down PC party
Both parties have “brand damage,” Singh said. “We’re not denying that the past 44 years of government made mistakes,” she said. “There were a lot of things that should have been done. There was a lot of bureaucratic bloat that should have dealt with, a lot of wasteful spending.”
“Long term, it concerns me to continue to split the vote of a group of folks who managed to work reasonably well under one party for quite some time,” Toews said.
Kenney is the only one of three PC leadership candidates who has supported unifying the two parties as a single new party. That idea has attracted support from interim federal Conservative leader Rona Ambrose, and from Wildrose Party leader Brian Jean, who said in January that he is willing to step down and run for the leadership of a new version of the Wildrose party, which would change its name and welcome ex-PC members.
A new poll suggests Jean might be a more popular candidate than Kenney in the eventual leadership race for that new party – although “not sure” and “someone else” were both more popular choices than Jean and Kenney in the poll, which was commissioned by Postmedia.
Kenney's plan to shut down the party and start a new, third party has run into strong opposition from some PC and Wildrose members, as well as both of his opponents in the tough leadership race.
Calgary-based lawyer and former PC candidate Byron Nelson is one of two PC leadership candidates opposed to the idea of dissolving the party and unifying with the Wildrose.
“It’s a reasonable opinion, but from my perspective the myth of conservative vote splitting is just that – a myth,” he told National Observer. “I was on the ground in that election, and what really happened is people turned against the PCs,” said Nelson, who ran in Calgary-Bow as a PC candidate in the 2015 election.
He said he thought that over four decades in power, the party lost touch with voters and members. “We created a sort of Mount Olympus in Edmonton,” he said. “Voters turned away from us, who traditionally supported us. That’s our fault, that’s not their fault.”
With two years to go before the next election, the PC party needs to fix itself, Nelson said, not get tied up in the logistics of creating a new party. “Duct-taping two broken parties together doesn't seem like a good idea,” he said. “You are giving a clean pathway to Rachel Notley for a second term, if you fail, which I would suggest is very likely.”
Nelson suggested that the NDP could also try to take advantage of the situation by calling an early election, ahead of the three-month window in spring 2019 set out by Alberta's elections law. Former premier Jim Prentice did exactly that in 2015, calling an election a year ahead of schedule. "The governing party in these scenarios isn’t dumb," Nelson said.
PC leadership candidate Richard Starke, who is currently a PC MLA in Vermilion-Lloydminster, has also spoken against the idea. A spokesperson for his campaign did not respond to National Observer's request for comment.
“We're about unity, so obviously we support (Kenney's) plan,” Singh said. “We’re quite confident once he wins and we put the vote out, put a referendum out to both parties, we can create this new entity.”
Very smart people who have their finger on the pulse of #Alberta!— Jason Kenney (@jkenney) January 15, 2017
Singh insisted that the movement would have equally supported another pro-unity candidate, but none came forward. Still, some Albertans have questioned the relationship between the Alberta Can't Wait movement and Kenney's campaign.
The group, which Kenney has called “a voice for united conservatives and free enterprisers," has hosted events with Kenney and interim federal Conservative leader Rona Ambrose.
“Aside from Jason being asked to speak at various (Alberta Can't Wait) events, there is no formal relationship between ACW and the Jason Kenney Leadership Campaign,” Nicolle DiNunzio, a spokesperson for Kenney's campaign, said in an email. DiNunzio said that Alberta Can't Wait hasn't contributed money to the campaign, and that Singh is not paid by the campaign.
“We've never accepted any money nor have we given any money to them,” Singh told National Observer. She said the group's members – herself included – are volunteers, and that any money they spend is raised from individual donors. "If we have a project we want to do, we take it around and collect, like with a hat," Singh said. “We don’t have giant corporate companies giving us money, that’s for sure.”
Under Alberta’s new campaign financing rules introduced in December 2016, any group producing political advertising will have to register with Elections Alberta and meet financial disclosure regulations that previously only applied to third parties running advertising during election periods.
Alberta Can’t Wait has also paid for two billboard advertisements and a 10-second ad that ran across Alberta on CTV in December 2016. Those ads, like the rest of the group’s spending, have been entirely funded by individual donations, Singh said. They haven't spent much, she said: tickets covered the costs of two events with Kenney and Ambrose and a donor from Northern Alberta lent the group an RV wrapped in the Alberta Can't Wait logo. In total, she said the group spent less than $15,000 on advertising in 2016.
The CTV ad at the carbon tax, which came into effect at the beginning of 2017: “Alberta's economy is in rough shape, and on January 1, we'll face a carbon tax. We hope you've asked Santa for a new government.”
Viral Alberta attacks on Facebook and Twitter
It’s a similar message to the one Alberta Can’t wait promotes on Facebook and Twitter, where the group regularly takes aim at Notley’s government and at progressive and environmentalist groups.
One post from the group decries Notley’s support for refugees: “Despite around 200,000 Albertans out of work, Notley says Alberta is more than willing to take more refugees.”
In another post on Dec. 31, 2016, the night before Alberta’s carbon tax took effect, a post from the group, which featured a Star Wars image and a reference to “Darth Notley," complained about advertisements for the new tax which were at the time appearing before movies in theatres.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is also a frequent target. His comment in January that the oil sands be “phased out” did not sit well with the group, who responded with “Let’s phase Justin Trudeau out.” In another post, the group argued that Alberta’s oil industry and workers were under attack by “the NDP, Justin Trudeau, the UN and other foreign powers.”
The group also jumped on on NDP deputy premier Sarah Hoffman’s recent comment about Alberta’s opposition “spending a lot of time with sewer rats,” which some conservative Albertans took as a slight.
Singh said she didn't know if the group would run ads during the 2019 election campaign. “We’re not trying to be some crazy partisan vehicle or PAC,” she said.
As for what the group's role will be after the election, Singh said the group is still working that out, but that it won't disappear: “I think that we'll keep it as a mechanism to hold whatever government to account."