Social conservative activist and lawyer John Carpay before the doors of a courthouse. Photo: Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms

John Carpay is a clever man. The high-profile Alberta social conservative leader puts careful thought into what he says and how he says it. A lawyer by profession, he constructs his sentences precisely and deliberately. He knows exactly what he is saying when he says something.

So one has to wonder what Carpay, the founder and president of the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, aimed to achieve on February 9 in Calgary when he publicly stood by his inflammatory comparison of the Nazi swastika flag and Communist hammer and sickle banner to the rainbow Pride flag that has come to represent the LGBTIQ community. The JCCF is a right-wing legal advocacy organization behind a court challenge of Alberta’s Gay Straight Alliance legislation.

Carpay returned to the topic at the conference organized by another right-wing group called the Economic Education Association of Alberta, apparently a creation of Danny Hozack, a United Conservative Party nomination candidate in the Vermilion-Lloydminster-Wainwright riding.

Participants in the event included several of the most well known members of the Alberta right, among them former provincial finance minister Ted Morton, University of Calgary economist and National Post commentator Jack Mintz, private-school lobby Parents for Choice in Education executive director Donna Trimble, and former Wildrose Alliance leader Paul Hinman.

As a way to drum up publicity, Carpay’s look back at the controversial Pride flag comparison he made at a Rebel Media event last fall was worthy of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, of which he was once Alberta director. He certainly knew media was likely to be there.

Speaking on “parental rights in the GSA era,” Carpay told his audience: “So, what did I say at the Rebel speech on November the 10? I’m going to say it again this morning. That the attacks against our fundamental freedoms can come from any source, any direction, any banner, any flag, any colour, any political symbol can be the banner under which our fundamental freedoms are attacked.”

So what was Carpay’s goal when he reminded Albertans of the controversy surrounding his original remarks?

You could argue he was softening what he said last fall just a tiny bit by paraphrasing his previous more outrageous comments and defining them as the same as the original comment. This was the interpretation of the StarMetro reporter who covered the event. He refused to elaborate further when the reporter asked him a follow-up question.

But given what happened between November and on February 9, Carpay had to know he was putting his old friend and ally Jason Kenney, leader of the Opposition United Conservative Party that remains comfortably ahead of the NDP in pre-election polling, in a difficult position.

After all, if Kenney has an Achilles’ heel in the coming electoral contest, it his own history as a social conservative well outside the Canadian mainstream, a fellow traveller with Carpay in just the kinds of causes the JCCF fights for.

When Carpay’s original remark hit the proverbial fan in November, Kenney was widely attacked for several days for allowing his old friend, whom he once compared to civil rights activist Rosa Parks, to remain a member of the UCP.

It got hot enough Carpay apologized the next day for his provocative comparison. “In speaking about the nature of the free society, and attacks on the free society, I referred in the same sentence to the rainbow flag and to the flags representing communist and Nazi ideologies,” he said in a statement distributed to media. “In doing so, I unintentionally drew a broad comparison between the rainbow flag and the flags which bear the symbols of Communism and Nazism. I should not have done so, and I apologize.” (Emphasis added.)

Kenney thereupon defended his refusal to kick Carpay out of the UCP by saying his friend had apologized for the invidious comparison.

Now Carpay has, in effect, withdrawn that apology — in a very public though carefully worded manner.

In these circumstances it is reasonable to wonder if Carpay is trying to box his old friend, to force the UCP leader to publicly stand by his men in Alberta’s social conservative movement over those in the UCP who oppose their project to return the province to the values of the 1950s.

Based on several months of polling, the UCP has acted very confident it will win the general election Premier Rachel Notley is expected to call soon, no matter what.

The party’s supporters, however, remain sharply divided on the social conservative agenda, and Kenney, his longstanding social conservative views notwithstanding has tried very carefully to walk this tightrope without dividing his coalition.

We know that anti-abortion groups, a core component of the UCP’s social conservative base, have been working hard to ensure their candidates dominate the party’s nomination process. Political observers agree this effort has been a success, although no one seems to be sure just how much of one.

Are the social conservatives behind that effort worried Kenney’s political pragmatism will override his traditional support for their values?

Forcing Kenney to choose might not be a bad strategy for a resurgent social conservative right at a moment like this, especially if their calculation is correct that the election is a sure thing for their party.

Surely Carpay is too smart to have said this without thinking through the potential risks and benefits. Calls for his removal are being heard again from LGBTIQ activists and progressive Albertans, including progressive Conservatives. So, WWJD? (What Will Jason Do?)

It’s an interesting question.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga’s blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca

Image: JCCF

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David J. Climenhaga

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 Globe...