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To win over New Brunswickers with an anti-carbon-tax message, volunteers from a pro-Conservative group with a history of oil-industry support have been canvassing across the province for months. Now, a Liberal MLA is accusing them of ‘unethical’ tactics in 2018′s provincial election

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Federal Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, right, is greeted by New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs before delivering remarks at a town hall event in Fredericton on Feb. 11. Federal Conservatives in the strategic Maritime province have been getting help from New Brunswick Proud, whose volunteers also canvassed for the provincial Progressive Conservatives in an election last September.James West/The Canadian Press

In the battleground of New Brunswick, the Conservatives are campaigning with the help of a group that has been door-knocking and doing get-out-the-vote spadework for months. With a history of support from the oil industry and armed with an anti-carbon-tax message, New Brunswick Proud is among a clutch of like-minded, right-leaning third parties across the country that share one common goal: to defeat the Liberals in the federal election.

Last week, the province’s Chief Electoral Officer, Kim Poffenroth, was asked to investigate whether the group had breached New Brunswick’s elections law.

Liberal MLA Robert McKee accused the group of “unethical” and “potentially illegal” activities during last September’s provincial election campaign. In one example, Mr. McKee noted that a director of New Brunswick Proud and at least one other individual affiliated with the group actively campaigned for Progressive Conservative candidates, raising questions about whether the two were sharing information.

And the overlap between PC Party officials and New Brunswick Proud has continued. The man in charge of New Brunswick Proud’s door-knocking campaign was also a riding association president for the PC Party. Alan McCann left Proud in late July after The Globe and Mail raised questions about his dual position.

Mr. McCann declined to comment when reached by Facebook. Connor MacDonald, the current head of New Brunswick Proud, said while there was nothing technically illegal about Mr. McCann holding both positions, it ran counter to the spirit of the law, which is why Mr. McCann is no longer with the group.

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A Sept. 6 Facebook post from New Brunswick Proud touts Canadian natural resources as more 'ethical' than those from other oil-producing nations.Facebook/New Brunswick Proud/Facebook/New Brunswick Proud

For the past several months, volunteers with New Brunswick Proud have been surveying thousands of residents about their views on the carbon tax, Energy East pipeline and resource development, while also collecting valuable voter-identification information that can be used to pull out likely federal Conservative supporters on Election Day.

According to one individual who canvassed with the group this summer, New Brunswick Proud has been targeting areas where the Conservative candidate may not visit − for example, in sparsely populated, rural locations.

“Amongst the Proud network, there’s just a really strong belief that we needed to reach out to voters," Mr. MacDonald said. "We need to find the voters who may have strong views … who are turned off [by the current political system] but who might vote.”

For his part, Mr. McKee said part of the reason that he filed his complaint now was because of New Brunswick Proud’s actions during this federal campaign. “They are acting like a political party in their method of gathering information, in identifying supporters of a specific ideology … They seem to have Conservative ties. It all seems a little cozy,” he said.

When asked about Mr. McKee’s complaint, Mr. MacDonald said his group has made every effort to follow the legislation. “Elections are an important time and belong to the people. It’s ironic that politicians would be making complaints about others speaking out at election time.”

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These are some of the memes New Brunswick Proud posted on Sept. 16-17, targeting Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and his aide Gerald Butts, top right, while promoting Mr. Scheer's Conservatives.Facebook/New Brunswick Proud

In an election that polls suggest is a close race between the Conservatives and Liberals − even after Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau’s blackface controversy − New Brunswick is a province where Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer is hoping to pick up seats. In the 2015 federal election, the province did an electoral about face − going from only one Liberal member of Parliament to 10 Liberal MPs, a complete sweep of the province’s ridings. The region continues to be politically divided. In the provincial election, a number of seats were decided by fewer than 100 votes.

It is these tight margins that has pushed social-media driven political-advocacy groups such as New Brunswick Proud, which is officially registered as Proudly New Brunswick, to expand its tactics to on-the-ground campaigning.

New Brunswick Proud is affiliated with a network of Facebook-based political-advocacy groups − Canada Strong and Proud, Fièrement Nouveau-Brunswick, Nova Scotia Proud, NL Strong, Quebec FIER, Quebec Proud, Alberta Proud, BC Strong and Ontario Strong − that are deploying similar strategies in their respective regions.

“We are focused on the parts of Canada which will determine the next government," Chris Russell, who runs Canada Strong and Proud, told The Globe in a Facebook message. “We are talking to Canadians in those provinces, we are surveying them on their opinions, we are sharing information with them.”

The Strong and Proud cohort is a splinter group to the original Proud network that Ontario Proud’s creator Jeff Ballingall has been building. Mr. Ballingall launched Ontario Proud as a Facebook page in early 2016 and it soon became famous for posting snarky meme attacks of Liberal politicians.

He later built BC Proud and Canada Proud, and his company, Mobilize Media, has been contracted to do social-media work for other Proud groups, including Alberta Proud and New Brunswick Proud.

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Jeff Ballingall is founder of Ontario Proud and the creator of New Brunswick Proud's Facebook page.Mark Blinch/The Globe and Mail

It was actually Mr. Ballingall who created New Brunswick Proud’s Facebook page in October, 2017, at the request of a client − he won’t say who − and it was also Mr. Ballingall who recruited a woman named Heidi McKillop to run the organization ahead of the province’s election.

Mr. Ballingall and Ms. McKillop met in August, 2018, at an oil and gas conference held by an organization called Modern Miracle Network, a pro-oil not-for-profit based in Alberta. Ms. McKillop was working on a documentary called A Stranded Nation about how Canada’s energy sector was being unfairly maligned by environmentalists.

Mr. Ballingall was speaking on a panel about the ways that third-party groups could be utilized to shift public perception of the industry in a more positive direction. This is the primary focus of Modern Miracle Network, which was founded by Questerre Energy CEO Michael Binnion. Questerre is a Calgary-based company with assets in Jordan, Utah, Alberta, Saskatchewan and the St. Lawrence Lowlands in Quebec.

After Mr. Ballingall’s panel at the conference, Ms. McKillop and Mr. Ballingall got to talking and realized they shared many of the same political views. They discussed the imminent New Brunswick election and Ms. McKillop relayed her thoughts about what needed to happen to secure a Progressive Conservative win. That’s when Mr. Ballingall asked if she would be interested in running New Brunswick Proud. Ms. McKillop was intrigued and quickly agreed.

Things moved quickly from there, she told The Globe. Within a week and a half of agreeing to run the page, they began the incorporation process. Meanwhile, Mr. Binnion – through Modern Miracle Network – connected Ms. McKillop with a half-dozen potential donors.

All were supportive of New Brunswick Proud’s objectives, Mr. Binnion told The Globe, but ultimately none wanted to be publicly linked to the group through a registered donation. “In the end, they didn’t get the support they needed so we ended up helping her directly,” Mr. Binnion said.

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Questerre Energy CEO Michael Binnion, shown in 2013, is founder of the Modern Miracle Network, which connected donors with the woman running New Brunswick Proud.Chris Bolin/The Globe and Mail

New Brunswick Proud only had two donors in the provincial election: Modern Miracle Network, which donated $5,000, and the Manning Foundation, which cut a cheque for $7,000. (Mr. Binnion is also the chair of the Manning Foundation).

Resource development is a hot topic in New Brunswick, which harbours shale-gas deposits. To the annoyance of the energy sector, the previous Liberal government imposed a fracking moratorium (Progressive Conservative Premier Blaine Higgs, whose party won a narrow victory over the Liberals a year ago, has lifted the ban.) Additionally, the now-cancelled Energy East pipeline − which would have carried oil from Alberta refineries to the East Coast − was slated to culminate in Saint John.

It’s unclear who is funding the Strong and Proud network during the federal campaign as none of the groups that are registered as third parties filed interim financial returns.

Mr. Binnion declined to confirm whether Modern Miracle Network continues to financially back New Brunswick Proud −“It will show up in the filings,” he said, adding, “Our main focus has been networking people together who want to have this conversation. That can include some financial support.”

Asked why an Alberta-based oil and gas company would take such an interest in New Brunswick politics, Mr. Binnion said his groups’ mission is to promote an “adult conversation” about energy; a conversation that addresses climate change but also acknowledges the benefits hydrocarbons bring to people’s lives.

“It’s not an Alberta conversation. It’s a Canadian conversation … and New Brunswick is part of Canada,” he said.

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