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From Kenney's downfall to Smith's rise, Alberta's political landscape has changed dramatically

Alberta's provincial flag flies on a flag pole in Ottawa, Monday July 6, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld Alberta's provincial flag flies on a flag pole in Ottawa, Monday July 6, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
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Alberta's political landscape has changed dramatically over the past couple of years, most notably during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

And from the downfall of Jason Kenney to the rise of Danielle Smith as UCP leader, grassroots group Take Back Alberta has claimed a pivotal role.

In 2017, Kenney pledged to unite Alberta conservatives and lead the province to prosperity. 

"We are one step closer to renewing the Alberta advantage," he said at the time.

Two years later, Kenney became premier.

But COVID-19 derailed things.

Kenney was caught at a boozy sky palace dinner, where he and cabinet ministers gathered while Albertans were banned from getting together with friends and family. 

Then, his "best summer ever" backfired, leading to high hospitalization rates and health restrictions just months later.

"He made so many enemies, right, left, centre, not just even among the traditional people who might not have voted for him, but many of his own supporters, particularly in the rural ridings," said Trevor Harrison, political sociologist at the University of Lethbridge.

Three and a half years into his term, after receiving a slight majority of support in his leadership review, Kenney quit. 

"And that is why tonight, I have informed the president of the party of my intention to step down as leader of the United Conservative Party," he said at the time.

Take Back Alberta (TBA) says it is responsible for ousting Kenney. 

TBA is a registered third-party advertiser and bills itself as a movement getting people involved in democracy.

Right-wing activist David Parker started TBA last year to push back against COVID-19 measures. 

Marco Van Huigenbos, the group's chief financial officer, was a Coutts border protester.

He is one of three people charged with mischief over $5,000 in connection to the blockade. 

The case is still before the courts.

He says he joined TBA with the goal of toppling Kenney. 

"Jason Kenney had lost the trust of Albertans through COVID. He has backtracked, he had lied ... started to call his supporters names, rural Alberta names, started to call us crazy, started to call us lunatics, wanted a new base," he said.

And TBA says it backed Danielle Smith as Kenney's successor, in part because of her views on pandemic policies. 

"She spoke out against the COVID response, she spoke out against vaccine mandates, she spoke out against government and the influence government has on our lives," Van Huigenbos said.

Smith went on to win the UCP leadership race in October. 

"Now is not the time for settling old scores or rivalries. This is why as premier and leader of this party, I am wiping the slate clean," she said at the time.

TBA leaders say their affiliates either control or have candidates in seven of the 87 UCP constituencies and boast volunteers in every riding.

The group also occupies half the UCP board.

"In modern politics, if you are very dedicated and aggressive enough, a small group can begin to take over a party and I think we're actually seeing that," Harrison said. 

"Everything we know about them is definitely fairly extreme fringe ... They have assisted in the continuing kind of the hysteria and the polarization, really, of politics in this province."

Smith's campaign has been controversial, with rumblings of replacing her, but TBA says it will continue to stand by the leader.

"Until Danielle Smith starts to govern and starts to go down the way of previous premiers or previous governments, until we start to see a large mismanagement or a large misrepresentation of Albertans, TBA's position is not that we're looking to remove Danielle Smith," Van Huigenbos said.

Still, even if re-elected, one expert says Smith will likely face similar challenges to Kenney.

"The fringe is going to demand certain things because she's promised it and the more moderate traditional conservatives are going to shy away from that. So, I think we're potentially in for a very, very rocky, if interesting, period of time in the next years," Harrison said.

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