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Take Back Alberta, a movement built on anger at COVID-19 restrictions, is organized and raising eyebrows about its leader’s claimed kinship with the Premier

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David Parker, founder of Take Back Alberta, speaks to a small audience in the basement of Deer Run Community Centre in Calgary in April 2023.Jude Brocke/The Globe and Mail

Jarrad McCoy stands under a Canadian flag hanging on the wall of a brightly lit farm shop in southern Alberta. About 60 people, including a smattering of teenagers, catch up in English and low German before taking a seat in the rows of plastic chairs. Mr. McCoy, a carpenter, father of six, and budding activist, is here to introduce the political organizer shattering Alberta’s conservative order.

Mr. McCoy first leads the group through song and prayer.

“The part I love about O Canada, my favourite line, is ‘God keep our land glorious and free,’ ” he says.

After the anthem and amens, Mr. McCoy joins the assembly to listen to David Parker, the leader of Take Back Alberta. It is a snowy Wednesday in March, just south of Taber, a town of about 9,000.

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Mr. Parker’s campaign to get Albertans involved in politics at all levels is motivated by the belief conservatives like him have been shoved from power.Jude Brocke/The Globe and Mail

“Religious freedom is the cornerstone of western civilization,” Mr. Parker tells the crowd, which is sprinkled with Mennonite women wearing black head scarves.

“If we don’t have the freedom to believe what we want to believe, we have no freedom at all. And if we don’t have sovereignty over our own bodies, we have sovereignty over nothing.”

Take Back Alberta is an ambitious effort to influence power and remake society’s institutions to reflect the values that thread its followers together.

It is a network of people united by an individualistic understanding of rights and freedoms that is pulling Alberta’s governing United Conservative Party further to the right. Alberta Premier Danielle Smith on May 1 will officially trigger a provincial election, scheduled for May 29. Her ties to Mr. Parker, and TBA’s impact on the UCP, are increasingly divisive in the province and her party.

Mr. Parker’s campaign to get everyday Albertans involved in politics at all levels is motivated by the belief conservatives like him have been shoved from power. And he wants to spread TBA’s brand of activism to the rest of Canada.

While some celebrate the crop of newbie political practitioners under TBA’s guidance, mainstream conservatives – including some in the UCP caucus – fear their party is being taken over by an uncompromising sliver of society uninterested in a comprehensive agenda with broad or lasting appeal.

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Mr. McCoy, a carpenter, father of six, and budding activist, livestreams from a TBA rally on a private farm near Lethbridge, Alta., in Aug. 2022.AMBER BRACKEN/The New York Times News Service

Mr. Parker co-founded TBA in 2021, capitalizing on anger toward then-premier Jason Kenney and the government’s COVID restrictions. TBA has since morphed into an unpolished but influential faction within the UCP. For example, Mr. McCoy, who along with others at the meeting in Taber protested COVID rules by blocking the U.S-Canada border near Coutts last year, now holds a position of authority in the party.

TBA is political but unconcerned with policy. Association with the network is based on values, rather than membership rolls or legislative goals. Mr. Parker’s speeches are ideological homing beacons for the right flank of the conservative movement.

“A small fringe minority with unacceptable views has taken over all of your institutions,” Mr. Parker says, explaining why a pastor was arrested in Calgary for protesting a library program where drag performers read stories to audiences of all ages. “They’ve taken over your legal system, they’ve taken over your education system. They’ve taken over your medical system.

“And they are dictating to people what is true – what you’re allowed to believe.”

Today’s decision makers, they aren’t the majority, Mr. Parker says. “The majority of people are like us. Just regular common-sense people who just want to live their lives. But we don’t show up.”

And so Take Back Alberta, Mr. Parker explains, means shaking off the apathetic attitude that he believes keeps conservatives isolated from power. It is not so much about the outcome of this election, but a bigger strategy to take over political-party boards, school boards, library boards and other spheres of influence, so they are the ones shaping society’s systems.

Conservative operatives in Ottawa and Alberta shun Mr. Parker for his tactics and political bent.

But he claims kinship with the most powerful politician in Alberta: the Premier.

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Alberta Premier Danielle Smith speaks at the Canada Strong and Free Network in Ottawa on March 23, 2023. Mr. Parker claims kinship with the most powerful politician in Alberta, Premier Danielle Smith, who attended his wedding in March.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Ms. Smith attended his wedding to a reporter from a right-wing media organization on March 18. Mr. Parker denies this reflects an inappropriate coziness between himself and the Premier even though he publicly says TBA could turn on her if she strays too far from its ideals.

“She’s my friend,” Mr. Parker explains over lunch, adding he populated his side of the guest ledger with people he worked with on “projects.” About 75 people attended the ceremony in Canmore.

“I lead an organization that has significant clout in terms of politics in the province, but I don’t think it was an influence thing,” he says. “We have very similar passions.”

Dave Prisco, a spokesman for the UCP, confirmed Ms. Smith went to the wedding. He did not address questions about concerns voters may have over her ties to Mr. Parker.

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Mr. Parker delivers his hour-long TBA pitch to a small audience in Calgary in April. He says he addressed 70 TBA meetings between Jan. 7 and April 27, reaching about 5,000 people.Jude Brocke/The Globe and Mail

The Globe and Mail attended TBA meetings in Calgary, Coaldale and Taber in February and March. Mr. Parker delivers the same hour-long pitch at every meeting, like a politician delivering the same stump speech hundreds of times during a campaign.

He put 130,000 kilometres on his blue F-150 over the past 15 months, zigzagging the province to speak in community halls, churches and farm shops. He says he addressed 70 TBA meetings between Jan. 7 and April 27, reaching about 5,000 people.

At the meeting near Taber, there is hot coffee, fresh veggies and cookies on a counter in the shop.

Mr. Parker starts TBA presentations by talking about himself. To cheerleaders, his political war stories and biographical tidbits establish credibility. To detractors, they are narcissistic and manipulative.

The son of a pastor and homeschool facilitator, Mr. Parker at 14 was elected vice-president of Wetaskiwin’s electoral district association, the federal equivalent of a provincial constituency association. This, he tells followers, happened not because he is a political savant, but because he showed up.

He eventually worked for former prime minister Stephen Harper in Ottawa. But when detailing his political background, Mr. Parker focuses on stories where he slays, rather than elevates, conservatives.

He says he was behind the revelation in the media that Andrew Scheer used party money to pay for his kids’ private schooling. Later, frustrated over Peter MacKay’s distaste for social conservatives, he signed on as Erin O’Toole’s national director of field operations.

“I want you to imagine how hard it is to sell Erin O’Toole,” Mr. Parker, 34, says. “That’s how good I am.”

And then there is what Mr. Parker views as his most significant trophy: Jason Kenney.

Mr. Parker organized for Mr. Kenney in his quest to become the first leader of the UCP, after the Progressive Conservatives merged with the Wildrose Party in 2017. But the UCP’s public-health restrictions changed everything.

“I declared war on Jason Kenney,” Mr. Parker says. “I would not rest until he was no longer the premier.”

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Maria Siemens, a part of the Take Back Alberta group in Taber, Alt. on April 20, 2023.TODD KOROL/The Globe and Mail

Maria Siemens is a reflexologist and deep muscle therapist from Burdett, about 45 kilometres east of Taber, and bubbly recounts her clashes with school authorities over pandemic rules. Her husband hauls RVs across the U.S. border and was among the protesters blocking trade and travel at Coutts, about 95 kilometres south of Taber, for two weeks in early 2022.

The couple, frustrated with Mr. Kenney and the UCP, flirted with the Alberta Prosperity Project, a separatist startup. But they wanted more than to rehash the perceived harm governments inflicted on citizens through COVID.

“We wanted to be more educated on how politics works,” Ms. Siemens says. “We wanted to know: What’s the step forward?”

TBA, at its most basic level, educates individuals on how to exert influence over politics. It provides followers with a roadmap to power, primarily by getting like-minded people on the UCP’s provincial and local constituency boards.

This contributed to Mr. Kenney’s downfall and Ms. Smith’s ascent. A significant chunk of the UCP’s provincial board now shares TBA’s worldview and interpretation of accountability; TBA affiliates control seven of the 87 UCP constituency associations and, by Mr. Parker’s count, hold seats on roughly 30 of them. A handful of UCP candidates running in the election align with the network. At least four people with TBA ties serve as political employees in the legislature.

At a meeting in Coaldale, one man asks Mr. Parker whether he believes he is a puppet master, controlling the leader. Mr. Parker says wielding pressure is a team effort.

“If we want to get things done as a group, we need to be united and then we need to say: ‘Hey, just like we did with Kenney, we’re gonna hold you accountable.’ ”

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.

Ms. Siemens attended her first TBA meeting at a church in Lethbridge and now, three or four meetings later, is the force behind the Taber event at her sister’s farm. Some Mennonites in southern Alberta, she says, believe the Lord excuses them from voting in mainstream society. The rookie activist doesn’t buy this and is cajoling members of her social circle – a largely untapped reservoir of electors – to get out on election day.

“That’s been my mission: to educate them,” Ms. Siemens says. “Even looking it up in scripture.”

Mr. Parker assigns TBA attendees homework that he believes is more efficient at getting out the vote than knocking on strangers’ doors. Everyone must recruit 10 people to vote for the UCP. The targets must be: 18 to 22, the cohort most likely to lean progressive; an NDP supporter they convert to the right; or someone who generally stays away from elections.

There are 87 ridings in Alberta, with 44 seats needed to form government. TBA is strongest in rural areas where the UCP will win without much resistance, so the network is focusing on 14 or 15 battleground ridings around Edmonton, Calgary and Lethbridge. Its influence will be difficult to measure, given the flood of resources conservatives are directing toward tight races, but TBA gives those on the UCP’s right flank reason to stick with the party.

And that makes some moderates uncomfortable.

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Lisa Sygutek, a lifelong conservative and publisher of the Crowsnest Pass Herald, says TBA, "feels like a far-right wing faction of the UCP."Kyler Zeleny/The Globe and Mail

Lisa Sygutek, a lifelong conservative and publisher of the Crowsnest Pass Herald, scoffs at TBA’s claim to be little more than an educational collective, given its focus on controlling UCP’s provincial board and constituency associations. To her, TBA’s tenets – no vaccine mandates, no lockdowns and no electronic voting or e-counting machines – fall short of a coherent platform.

“It feels like a far-right wing faction of the UCP,” Ms. Sygutek says. She will sit out this election or vote for the Alberta Party. “I cannot in good conscience vote for any party that is comprised of extreme right-wing ideologies.”

The UCP candidate in her riding of Livingstone-Macleod aligns with TBA, which wields power over the party’s local board. Marco Van Huigenbos, whom the RCMP charged with mischief over $5,000 for his alleged role in the Coutts protest, is among its directors. He is temporarily stepping aside as TBA’s chief financial officer so he can be involved in the local campaign. Mr. Van Huigenbos declined to comment on the charges he faces.

Bonnie Meikle is a long-time conservative who felt coerced into getting vaccinated to keep her health care-related job. She and her husband organized rallies against COVID rules in Ponoka before she learned about TBA. Now she is on two constituency association boards in central Alberta and takes offence when critics label TBA as far-right.

“I don’t see why citizens getting involved in their government, in the way that we’re supposed to, is a far-right idea,” she says.

The rise of regular people like her, she says, is reshaping the party.

“The UCP is imploding right now,” Ms. Meikle, who has attended about 12 TBA meetings, says. “It is the establishment versus the old Wildrose.”

Alberta politics: More from The Globe and Mail

The Decibel podcast

Reporter Carrie Tait spent months looking into Take Back Alberta and its plans for the provincial election. She spoke with The Decibel about her findings. Subscribe for more episodes.

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