I am going to guess that it was about a year and a half ago when Dave Bjorkman called me up at my pub. He explained that he was working to revive the Alberta Independence Party which had essentially been defunct since falling apart under my watch nearly twenty years ago. Dave was asking my permission to use the party name. I have and haven’t had any legal claim to that name since back when I led the party. All the same, I did appreciate his doing me the courtesy of tracking me down and asking. I told him it was his for the taking and wished him luck.
I put it out of my mind after that. I have been sporadically contacted by secessionists over the years who were working to build one separatist party or another. None have really managed to gain much traction.
Well over the coming months I kept hearing from Dave. As a welder he was of modest means and he had little experience in party organization. What I quickly learned though is that Bjorkman is exceedingly tenacious and optimistic. His dogged determination made up for his not having had a large political contact or donor list. Using social media (I dearly wish we had had such tools when I was leading the AIP), Dave gathered a respectable following and built the basis of the Alberta Independence Party.
Dave came out to my pub a few times to chat. He was always in recruitment mode and I appreciate his efforts but I couldn’t be convinced to get involved. I got to see how his stubborn determination managed to get the job pulled off though.
Getting a party registered in Alberta is very difficult to do. One has to either have three sitting MLAs, or get nearly 8000 signatures from registered voters (not online signatures, they must be gathered on paper in person with full address and phone number and in a limited time frame), or have endorsed candidates running in half of the constituencies in Alberta in a general election.
As the election neared last spring, I admit I was pretty skeptical about seeing a registered Alberta Independence Party entering the race.
Well I’ll be damned if they didn’t pull it off and announce 46 candidates on nomination day thus becoming a registered party for the election.
The Alberta Independence Party was in the race.
This was an impressive organizational feat. While the mechanism to attain registration through having candidates in over half of the constituencies has been around for a long time, the Alberta Independence Party was the first party to have ever actually done it that way.
The logistics alone are brutal. While unregistered a party can’t offer tax credits for donors which offers a tough fundraising hurdle. An aspiring party has to round up over 44 people willing to run for them. These people will have to put forth a deposit to run and get the requisite signatures to run in the couple weeks between the writ drop and nomination day. Many people can talk big but when it comes to actually pounding the pavement for signatures and signing a cheque they often don’t follow through. Bjorkman and his party organizers managed to get 46 people to do it. I can only guess how many more they signed up but who didn’t follow through.
There are few people more difficult to organize than separatists who are about as independent by nature as it gets.
Over the next couple weeks the party ran a mostly unnoticed campaign with few to no scandals but they made little to no mark on the ballots when voting day came as well.
To be blunt, the 46 candidates were electorally slaughtered.
The Alberta Independence Party garnered 0.7% of the popular vote. Their best showing was 2% and most candidates struggled to get 1%.
There were a number of factors contributing to the electoral obliteration.
The AIP was technically only weeks old as a registered entity. Nearly nobody knew who the hell they were. They had next to no money and virtually no experience. It is clear that they have some dedicated and gifted organizers among them but there are limits. They didn’t have time to build an actual formal campaign or a way to reach out to the general public. They really could only manage to tread water as a party until election day and they did so as well as they could.
Another and even bigger challenge for the party is that while Albertans will respond favorably to polls for independence, when push comes to shove they are reticent about actually voting for it in an election. Albertans are reluctant separatists at best (for now).
Now the Alberta Independence Party will endure its next test. The doldrums between elections for a fringe party can be brutal. I know this from my years on the board with the Alberta Alliance and then the Wildrose Party. This is the time when the funds are tightest, interest is lowest and infighting can be highest.
The AIP has a diverse group of supporters. They are unified by a shared desire to pull Alberta out of confederation. This does not mean however that they all agree on what an independent Alberta should look like. The current policy direction of the party is unfocused and has something of a shotgun approach. There are many potential flash points for supporters to fight about and they will.
When times are slow, parties can be targets for the more extreme sorts to slip in as well. If the party organizers are not careful, they may find their party taken over by folks who really don’t have their best interest in mind. That can kill a party fast to say the least.
What a new party needs to avoid these pitfalls is strong leadership.
A few weeks ago, interim leader Dave Bjorkman resigned. He is tired and took the party as far as he feels he can for now (at least that’s what I gather, I plan to chat with him).
The AIP can’t afford to drift leaderless for long. It takes far less time to tear down a party than it does to build one up and right now they are vulnerable for an internal explosion.
The party needs a leadership race and it needs it soon. That being said, they have to be careful as their choice of a new leader will be critical for the future of the party.
Support for Alberta independence has been steadily growing for years. Just last week a poll indicated that 30% of Albertans feel that Alberta would be better off out of Canada than within it. Bear in mind this does not mean that these 30% would vote to leave, it just means that they feel we are getting a bad deal. With a good ground game and good leadership, a party such as the AIP could change many of those folks from being soft to being dedicated supporters for independence.
I feel a sense of déjà vu as we head into a general election this fall. In 2000 Canada went to the polls in a terribly divisive federal election. Jean Chretien barely even stepped foot in Alberta during the campaign but didn’t hesitate to take shots at Alberta culture for political gain in the East. Stockwell Day led the Canadian Alliance which was already considered a compromise by grumbling Albertan Reformers. Chretien increased his seat count in that election and Albertans felt that their compromise was for nothing, Separatism flared in Alberta and the Albertan Independence Party of 2001 came into being under a dashing young leader.
As we approach this fall’s election, I feel much deeper separatist undercurrents than I did back in 2000. Alberta has been taken for granted and abused by the federal government and we know it. If (and it looks very possible) Trudeau maintains a majority or even worse, forms a minority coalition with Elizabeth May, we will see a resurgence of separatism in Alberta like none seen since Pierre Trudeau dropped the NEP upon us.
Will the Alberta Independence Party be prepared to capitalize on this though? Will they have a leader or a leadership race under way? Will they have a rational approach or will they be dominated by fringe thinkers? Will Jason Kenny take a strong enough stance in order to keep his party support from bleeding to a new separatist competitor?
There are a lot of questions in the air.
Personally, I don’t think a party approach is the best way to pursue Alberta’s independence but it can be a facet of the approach. I didn’t think that they would get registered either so I can certainly be wrong here too.
With the combination of a Liberal victory in the federal election and a good leadership race within the AIP producing a strong leader, I think we may see the AIP suddenly entrenched as a formidable, long term player on the Alberta political stage.
They could of course implode as well. We will have a much better idea in about four months or so. I look forward to seeing who pursues the leadership of the party when they get the race formally going.
We are living in interesting times.