It took more than five years, two leadership races and one ongoing RCMP investigation, but there’s finally a clear winner in the 2017 merger between the Wildrose Party and the Progressive Conservative Association of Alberta. With Finance Minister Travis Toews announcing he won’t run in this May’s election and Danielle Smith ensconced as premier, the Wildrose faction has emerged as the dominant partner — one that’s set to push the party even further to the right.
Toews is just the latest Kenney-era cabinet minister who’s decided to step aside. Rajan Sawney, minister of trade, immigration and multiculturalism, announced in February that she also won’t be running in the next provincial election. Leela Aheer, former minister of culture, multiculturalism and status of women (and the de facto moderate in the United Conservative Party leadership race), conceded to reality and announced she wouldn’t run after it became clear she wouldn’t even be able to win her own party’s nomination. Doug Schweitzer, former minister of jobs, economy and innovation, got out ahead of the results of the leadership race last August by announcing his own resignation from cabinet. And as Radio-Canada’s Jean-Emmanuel Fortier tweeted, Environment Minister and former energy minister Sonya Savage isn’t expected to run in the next election, either.
Some amount of turnover is expected in any government, especially one that’s been through a period as bruising as the last few years. But this degree of churn among senior government ministers is noteworthy, especially when it turns what was once a nominally united conservative party into one dominated by a small and mostly rural faction within its midst. And while it’s former Wildrose MLAs like Smith and Rob Anderson (Smith’s executive director) who are in charge of the UCP for now, they may soon answer to a group called “Take Back Alberta” (TBA) — one that promises to push the party even further to the right.
Founded in 2022 by right-wing activist David Parker, its leadership team also includes CFO Marco Van Huigenbos, a Fort Macleod town councillor who was one of the anti-government protesters charged last year with participating in the Coutts border crossing blockade. After playing an important role in helping Smith become leader, TBA has since set its sights on local nomination races and internal party executive votes — including trying to force out former cabinet minister and Kenney loyalist Jason Nixon.
As Crowsnest Pass Herald publisher Lisa Sygutek noted in a recent column, the group isn’t shy about throwing its weight around. “What I experienced,” she wrote, “was basically a takeover by the ‘Take Back Alberta’ faction.” Sygutek, a self-described “card-carrying conservative my entire adult life,” said the recent election of candidates for the board of directors on her local constituency association “felt like a coup.” As Mount Royal University political science professor Duane Bratt told CTV, “They really are the power behind the throne of the UCP… Instead of trying to start a third party, they are taking over from within.”
So far, it seems, they’ve been wildly successful. Witness the new nominee for Calgary-Lougheed, the riding held by former premier Jason Kenney from 2017 to 2022. Eric Bouchard, the local entrepreneur who defeated four other candidates to win the nomination, is openly hostile to the COVID-19 mandates Kenney implemented while premier.
Then there’s Torry Tanner, the UCP candidate for Lethbridge-West who participated in an unsuccessful lawsuit against former chief medical officer of health Deena Hinshaw — and who apparently believes “kids, even those attending kindergarten, are being exposed to pornographic materials, or worse yet, having teachers help them change their gender identity with absolutely no parental consent or knowledge whatsoever.”
Albertans probably need to update their understanding of what the UCP stands for, and what it stands against. This is no longer the pro-business, big-tent conservative movement Kenney spent the better part of two years building, one that drew many of its best candidates from Alberta’s major cities. This is not a party that is promising “jobs, economy, pipelines” the way Kenney did so successfully.
Instead, it’s an increasingly paranoid and populist party that leans heavily towards the rural worldview, one that is inherently skeptical of anything resembling progress and is deeply invested in relitigating the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s one that will push Alberta further to the right than it’s ever been. And it promises to challenge any number of established norms, from interfering with the administration of justice to overturning the polluter pays principle.
Danielle Smith may be the premier of Alberta, but it's a small group of far-right activists that are calling the shots in her party right now. @maxfawcett writes for @NatObserver
Albertans are welcome to vote for that, of course. But they should know what they’re actually voting for — and what they’ll actually get if they do. Kenney’s aborted term as premier was bad for many Albertans, but the next four years could be much, much worse.
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