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United Conservative Party tries to change channel on 'Soldiers of Odin' embarrassment

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UCP Leader Jason Kenney. Photo: michael_swan/Flickr

After a difficult weekend doing damage control about how members of an anti-immigration group with white supremacist links were welcomed to a United Conservative Party beer-and-selfies night last Friday by an Edmonton constituency association, expect the right-wing Opposition party to dip into its strategic playbook to try to change the channel.

UCP Channel-Changing Strategy No. 1, of course, is: Attack environmental activist Tzeporah Berman.

Strategy No. 2: Defame unions.

Strategy No. 3: Disparage teachers.

Expect the UCP to do all three.

After all, the Alberta Teachers Association (ATA), union for the province's 43,000 public, Catholic and francophone school teachers and administrators, has invited the prominent B.C. environmentalist known for her opposition to the Trans Mountain pipeline to a meeting near Edmonton on Saturday. So we can count on the UCP to be even more vocal than usual in its denunciations of Berman, teachers and, by association with both, the NDP.

Expect the full-meal deal -- red meat, not vegan or even gluten-free -- as UCP leader Jason Kenney tries desperately to get Albertans to forget about how all three of his party's candidates in the Edmonton-Henday West Riding invited members of the Soldiers of Odin vigilante group to their Friday night festivities and hung around for selfies with them.

And, yes, the "Soldiers" were invited, Kenney's tweeted denials notwithstanding.

It may have been a mistake, a misunderstanding or a miscommunication, but now that the smoke is starting to clear, it's been proved beyond a reasonable doubt the group's members received invitations from the UCP event's organizers, and that they responded with an RSVP.

So there is really no excuse for Kenney and the three nomination candidates -- Nicole Williams, Lance Coulter and Leila Houle -- to claim the Soldiers of Odin members "crashed" the party. Although presumably it's still possible event organizers didn't know who or what the Soldiers of Odin were when they accepted their RSVP and posed with them.

If so, however, that's hardly reassuring. First of all, the Soldiers of Odin showed up in biker-style regalia. You'd think that would have been a hint, since lots has been written and reported about the group. All three candidates posed for selfies with them. Apparently no one even asked what S.O.O. on their hats and jackets stood for!

As Jim Storrie of Progress Alberta, the group that spotted the photos online and broke the story over the weekend, observed yesterday: It's "pretty hard to believe that not a single person in that group noticed who these folks were -- it's literally written on their hats and jackets."

Storrie continued: "The statement's assertion that Soldiers of Odin were unwelcome and surprised the candidates by showing up -- that's a plain lie, and we've got the receipts." He is referring to a screenshot of the RSVP by Soldiers of Odin members on the constituency association's Facebook page.

Indeed, Tyson Hunt, the president of the vigilante group's Alberta Chapter, told the CBC that members advised the UCP a week in advance that they'd be at the pub night. "So they knew we were there," he said. "We weren't hiding. We never snuck in."

Said Storrie: "Soldiers of Odin didn't crash this event -- they RSVP'd to it. And not in some stealthy way, either. These men literally have Soldiers of Odin written on their profile pictures." He noted that within two hours of Progress Alberta's revelation, the UCP had deleted the evidence.

In fairness, Kenney did denounce the Soldiers of Odin after the brouhaha began. But that still doesn't answer the question why such characters are attracted to the UCP, and seemingly only to the UCP, among Alberta's major political parties.

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley advised the UCP during a news conference yesterday to do something about the unsavoury people who keep showing up at its events. She observed: "If you use dog-whistle politics often enough, eventually, soon enough, people are going to respond to the whistle."

It would be easier to excuse the UCP, Notley observed, if the same sorts of things hadn't already happened eight times.

This made Kenney so angry he accused the premier of "gutter politics."

Funnily enough, though, even Kenney's greatest friends seem to have come to much the same conclusion. Lorne Gunter, one of Postmedia's most enthusiastic UCP cheerleaders, said almost the same thing as the premier, advising his favourite political party that the time had come "to clean up its act."

Well, good luck with that.

There seems to be a sort of hierarchy in the minds of the UCP's leaders about the controversial far-right groups that make up a significant part of their party's base.

Soldiers of Odin are no longer welcome, which represents progress.

Neither are nomination candidates who make anti-Muslim comments, which is also a positive sign.

Funding a Nazi meme website is frowned upon, but apparently still permitted by candidates, though.

Ditto homophobic slurs by candidates.

Climate change denial is standard operating procedure, tolerated without comment, perhaps even encouraged.

Campaigning for Donald Trump is rewarded.

And attacking Tzeporah Berman and the ATA, of course, are standard UCP operating procedure.

This is especially so when the UCP finds itself in a tight corner, as it does right now.

So expect lots of little videos very soon from Kenney about Berman, who once served as the co-chair of the NDP government's Oil Sands Advisory Group at the request of senior oil industry officials.

Berman will address the ATA social studies teachers' group on Saturday morning. She will be rebutted after 45 minutes by Notley, which won't stop the UCP, of course, from pretending that the two are in league. Oil industry executive Chris Slubicki will also be there to back up the premier.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Toronto Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Photo: michael_swan/Flickr

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