Alberta’s provincial election campaign features a showdown between outgoing United Conservative Party (UCP) premier Danielle Smith’s hard-right populist politics, and New Democratic Party (NDP) leader and former premier Rachel Notley’s center-left politics. This will be the first real test of Smith’s electoral viability since her predecessor, Jason Kenney, was turfed by the UCP for being insufficiently right-wing.
A key player in Kenney’s demise and Smith’s leadership win is an organization called Take Back Alberta (TBA), which is registered as a third-party advertiser — essentially a Canadian political action committee (PAC). But calling TBA a PAC doesn’t do justice to its organizing prowess and the dangers it poses to the social fabric. The group is filling town halls all over the province, seizing on the alienation many feel after three years of pandemic confusion and uncertainty.
Its message is simple — no more pandemic restrictions, no more vaccine mandates, no to online voting, and yes to radical health care reforms, thus paving the way for privatized health care in the province. With Smith in charge, the group is in the process of seizing the UCP machinery and purging it of any remnants of Kenney’s influence.
TBA sent hundreds of delegates to the party’s annual general meeting — weeks after Smith was elected leader — to vote a slate of its candidates to the nine vacancies on the party’s board of directors. All of them won. With eighteen board positions, including the premier, TBA has a majority on the board, allowing it to play a prominent role in shaping the party’s policies.
The group, which claims to have thirty thousand members, has also taken over local constituency associations in several ridings, or districts. One longtime conservative said that TBA’s outsized presence at her local constituency association meeting “felt like a coup,” noting a palpable hostility in the air toward old-guard members like herself. In a highly symbolic development, Eric Bouchard, a candidate who appears to share TBA’s positions, is running for the UCP in Kenney’s old district, which the former premier vacated last year.
The group was born out of the Coutts blockade, which saw militant anti-vaxxers block the Coutts border crossing with Montana in solidarity with the so-called Freedom Convoy that took over Ottawa, the nation’s capital, in late January and February 2022. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), Canada’s equivalent of the FBI, raided trailers near the blockade, where they found a cache of weapons, ammo, and body armor. A seized plate carrier included two patches associated with Diagolon, a militia movement that seeks to create a white ethnostate running in a diagonal line from northern British Columbia to Florida.
The raid led to the arrest of fourteen individuals, four of whom were charged with conspiracy to murder an RCMP officer, while others were charged with lesser offenses. One of those arrested was Fort Macleod town councilor Marco Van Huigenbos, who was charged with mischief. He is also a TBA organizer.
Online news site PressProgress unearthed a February 2022 video of Danielle Smith — who at the time was still a conspiracy theorist broadcaster and corporate lobbyist — expressing her hope that the Coutts blockaders would “win” against supposed encroachment from the federal government. Rob Anderson, who became Smith’s top advisor, is also in the video, calling the blockade a “beautiful thing.”
At the same time, Kenney was calling on the blockaders to go home. One month later, a leaked audio recording revealed Kenney referring to his opponents within the party who opposed the fact that he implemented COVID restrictions at all (however reluctantly) as “kooky people” who held “extreme, hateful, intolerant, bigoted and crazy views.” In the minds of those who opposed COVID restrictions, this made him no better than Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who called convoy participants a “small fringe minority” who hold “unacceptable views.”
TBA: Organized, Motivated, and Zealous
TBA founder David Parker, a former Kenney staffer with deep connections to the Canadian conservative establishment that he rails against, also worked for Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper. Parker leveraged the furor over the blockade and Kenney’s response to it as a recruitment opportunity. In a discussion on a podcast he cohosts, Parker said Kenney’s COVID restrictions on religious gatherings were the catalyst for TBA’s foundation:
My creed is very simple. I have one rule. Don’t mess with my friends. And underneath that is an even deeper rule. Never mess with my family. And when you arrest pastors you’re messing with both my friends and my family. So then it’s very simple, now I must act in a way that will show people that that rule cannot be violated without consequences.
Parker’s vendetta against Kenney is personal. By contrast, Parker has described Smith as a “friend” who shares his “passions.” Smith attended Parker’s March wedding to a blogger for a far-right news site. With a sympathetic ear in government, TBA is moving from advocating against COVID policies to defeating what Parker has called the NDP’s “toxic and disease-ridden ideology” and its “destructive socialist agenda.”
Media interest in TBA has been considerable since Calgary Sun columnist Rick Bell first noted the group’s organizing prowess in a column after it flooded attendance at the UCP annual general meeting. In most of his public appearances, Parker insists he has no ulterior motive — he just wants ordinary people to get involved in politics. “Your democratic system is not broken. You are,” Parker told a rally near Alberta’s third-largest city, Lethbridge. “Democracies don’t work when citizens don’t show up.” At a recruitment meeting in Westlock, a small northern Alberta town, Parker said he wants supporters to know that “if they start to show up, things can change.”
TBA’s organization efforts operate on a points system, with each member expected to accumulate ten points. Supporters get one point for convincing someone between the ages of eighteen and twenty-two, or someone who doesn’t care about politics, to vote, and two points for convincing someone to change their vote from the NDP to UCP. Its fundraising goals are similarly ambitious. TBA wants to have ten thousand members paying $4 a month and ninety-nine businesses paying $500 a month, which would net the group more than $1 million a year.
While TBA presents itself as a purely grassroots phenomenon, the group is not exactly an anarchist collective. Its operations are overseen by a small vanguard of regional organizers, or captains, recruited by Parker, many of whom view him as a prophetic figure. TBA Edmonton captain Vince Byfield — the son of Ted Byfield, publisher of the influential neoconservative Alberta Report magazine — described his first encounter with Parker as “a sign from God.” Calgary captain Roy Beyer has described the Alberta election as “ground zero” in spiritual warfare against the “globalists.”
Through all the theocratically tinged rhetoric, it’s easy to forget that TBA is giving people who feel discarded by the political system a sense of collective purpose. As reporter Carrie Tait wrote in the Globe and Mail, Canada’s national paper of record:
TBA is more complex than a classroom preparing pupils to sit on boards or vote for leaders. It is a community for people who feel ostracized by the political class for their Christian beliefs and social conservative leanings. It is modelled after multilevel marketing schemes, which can have sprawling reach and, at their most successful, thrive without much effort from the top.
This notion of a band of outsiders searching for a sense of belonging is key to understanding TBA’s appeal, and, indeed, is something that should resonate with anyone living through the depredations and difficulty of daily life in late stage capitalism.
Parker’s noxious views aside, there are some lessons here for the Left that have been entirely ignored by the NDP, which is taking the approach of US president Joe Biden in presenting itself as a steady hand in contrast to Smith and TBA’s radicalism. While TBA supports Smith, Parker entertains the possibility of turning against her in the event she transgresses the group’s agenda. TBA’s takeover of the party’s board was one way to avoid that outcome, and the move holds Smith accountable, ensuring she doesn’t take its support for granted. The Left could benefit by taking a page out of this resolute and committed playbook.
Parker and TBA understand that politics isn’t just about electing the lesser evil. It’s about mobilizing people to get involved in the issues they care about and helping them seize the levers of power. If Smith wins the election on May 29, she will have her TBA army’s organizational prowess to thank.