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Take Back Alberta pushes out one premier, aims to make its voice heard in election

EDMONTON — David Parker is a shadowy figure hiding in plain sight in Alberta’s political scene, now roiling in a May 29 election campaign deemed too close to call.
Take Back Alberta founder David Parker pictured in Calgary, Friday, May 12, 2023.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

EDMONTON — David Parker is a shadowy figure hiding in plain sight in Alberta’s political scene, now roiling in a May 29 election campaign deemed too close to call.

He organized a grassroots movement called Take Back Alberta, which took down one premier, and current premier Danielle Smith attended his wedding. 

He also organized the vote to elect half the board of Smith's governing United Conservative Party.

To some, he is on a noble apolitical mission to return power to the people. Take Back Alberta is a registered third-party advertiser in the election. Its goal, says Parker, is taking Albertans back from apathy.

To others, he’s a master string-puller of a far-right band of religious fundamentalists, COVID-19 anti-vaxxers and convoy supporters using the back door to storm the apex of the province's political power structure.

“We're not the UCP,” Parker says in an interview. “We're an educational society that is seeing the people that go through our program be very successful.

“The people are taking back control of their own party.”

The bearded, 34-year-old home-schooled son of a preacher has logged thousands of kilometres across Alberta in recent months, speaking to crowds in town halls, farm houses and churches.

His stump speech is both self-aggrandizing and self-effacing, chronicling two decades of success and failure in the political ground game for conservative politicians – former prime minister Stephen Harper, former federal Conservative leader Erin O'Toole and former Alberta premier Jason Kenney. 

Parker’s world view begins with religious freedom, individual rights and the fight against big government.

He rages against Alberta’s NDP with the heat of a thousand suns, labelling socialism as nothing short of a “disease” ravaging liberty. 

He worked for Kenney and helped him form the UCP in 2017. But when Kenney began imposing rules and jailing pastors during the pandemic, Parker organized against him. 

Parker created Take Back Alberta and helped deliver party member votes that resulted in an anemic 51 per cent support for Kenney in a party leadership review last May. Kenney saw the writing on the wall and quit.

The victory is not about ego, Parker says in a speech to an audience in Grande Prairie on March 21, but an illustration: if a workaday schlub like me can take down a premier, so can you.

In his speech, Parker stands onstage, microphone in hand, without notes or a podium, encouraging, applauding, hectoring and finger-pointing a simple message: if you want to change things, you have to show up.

If you don’t, then don’t complain. Because in politics, as in life, sheep get sheared.

“The leaders come and go, folks,” he tells the crowd. “We need to control the party that's in power.”

Take Back Alberta has, by Parker’s estimation, 30,000 members.

Since rallying to knock out Kenney, it has continued organizing within the UCP, winning positions on constituency boards and supporting candidates, including Chelsae Petrovic in Livingstone-Macleod and Eric Bouchard in Kenney’s old riding of Calgary-Lougheed.

In October, Take Back Alberta mobilized en masse to vote in half the governing board of the UCP. The second half comes up for election this year, and Parker says that’s the next goal – the very fulcrum of the party.

“(The board) can remove the party membership of any member with a majority vote — including a leader,” Parker tells the Grande Prairie crowd. “They determine nominations, they determine disputes. 

“I want as many people that are freedom-loving with principle on it as possible to hold our politicians accountable.”

So what is Take Back Alberta?

Parker says if it’s a monolith, it’s one of practicality, not ideology. Members hold a range of views along the political spectrum – pro-life and pro-choice, for example – united only in their desire to have their voices heard.

Not so, says political scientist Duane Bratt.

Take Back Alberta, Bratt says, has scrubbed its website to keep a low profile in the election. But it has fought restrictions on COVID-19 and taken sovereigntist positions: having an Alberta police force and a provincial pension plan, along with more privatization and less bureaucratic control in health care and education.

Some senior members were tied to last year's blockade at the Canada-United States border crossing at Coutts, Alta., held to protest COVID-19 measures.

Parker is blunt. Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, he says, is "the prince of woke.” 

“You can vote your way into socialism,” he says in his speech. “You almost always have to shoot your way out.”

Society, Parker says, is under attack. “A small fringe minority with unacceptable views has taken over all of your institutions, your legal system, your medical system (and) your education system. They've taken over your churches, to some degree.”

Parker came under recent criticism for comments that surfaced in which he equated families not having children and women putting careers before kids as a “war between the pro-humans and anti-humans.”

In the interview, Parker says his words were twisted. 

He is not anti-human, he says, more like pro-procreation. He is against policies that discourage women from having children and a culture that devalues the elderly by shutting them off in care homes.

“It is absolutely anti-human to teach people that they shouldn’t have children."

Otherwise, Parker shrugs, the leitmotif of Tack Back Alberta is what it is.

“I grew up in rural Alberta and these are my people,” he says. “Are they more Christian and right wing, by and large, (and) in rural Alberta? Absolutely. But I was seeing them being completely pushed out of society.”

Take Back Alberta supported Smith in her successful run to win the UCP leadership. She ran on a platform of Alberta sovereignty measures. She promised to redress concerns of the COVID-19 unvaccinated.

Smith won’t comment on what influence, if any, Take Back Alberta has with her or her government. She has answered in recent weeks that the UCP is an egalitarian “one member, one vote” party.

Bratt says Smith’s fortunes are tied to Take Back Alberta, because Parker has made it clear the goal is to make the premier accountable.

“She is very beholden,” says Bratt, with Mount Royal University in Calgary.

“(Smith) doesn't want to talk about (Take Back Alberta) during an election campaign, but she's going to be forced to do that by TBA when the election is over, if she wins.”

NDP Leader Rachel Notley calls Take Back Alberta a radical fringe group with extremist views and says the mainstream UCP that people voted into power in 2019 no longer exists.

Kenney was blunter on his way out the door in March.

“The lunatics,” he said, “are trying to take over the asylum.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 14, 2023.

Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press

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