Tornado warnings were issued and the skies opened up in Edmonton the day that Ezra Levant came back to town. Still, that didn't stop his congregation from packing the seats at the Chateau Louis Hotel & Conference Centre in central Edmonton for Levant's "emergency" Alberta town hall meeting to learn how to take the province back from the left.
Like many others, I first learned of the town hall when someone linked me to an incredibly kitschy video advertisement for the event. It's heavy-handed political fear-mongering of the best kind, featuring sepia-toned NDP members, foreboding music, and, at one point, a shattering TV.
It's not quite Gathering of the Juggalos-infomercial amazing, but it was still pretty good.
Levant is what could be best described as a right-leaning shock journalist who works out of Toronto but keeps a keen eye on Alberta. Think of the Canadian Rush Limbaugh with a hard-on for the tar sands. Levant is probably most famous for being the face of Sun Media and for, at times, showing "reckless disregard for the truth."
He currently calls himself the "Rebel Commander" and leads Rebel Media, an online news outlet. Rebel Media is a odd thing: In all honesty, sometimes Ezra does some quality digging, especially during election time, but it often gets lost in the torrent of propagandizing, libel suits, coffee boycotts, and forced apologies.
The one thing he has, though, is a small but die-hard base of extremely rabid and vocal fans. Ones that can sometimes be a little too vocal for their own good.
Walking into the Chateau Louis that evening was akin to what it must feel like when you go to a tent revival mass and the crazy evangelical from out of town was there to speak.
Unsurprisingly, the crowd was dominated by old white people. While there were a handful of visible minorities and young men, they were few and far between. I walked past two of the younger guys and heard them talking loudly about their blogs and that they could never be journalists because they won't tow the media party's line. They were rebels! A lot of people referred to themselves as rebels that night.
It wasn't just bloggers that Ezra draws: dotting the crowd were several right-wing politicians. Federal PC candidate Kerry Diotte was there along with Wildrose MLAs Drew Barnes and Rick Strankman.
My friend and I found two seats to the right side of the stage. Beside me sat a well-dressed older white guy, beside my friend an older white guy who drove all the way from Lethbridge for the event, and in front of us an older white dude who kept sucking his dentures. Behind us we finally had some diversity as there sat an older white lady, who as I would learn throughout the duration of the speech, had herself an affinity for what I can only put as mild racism and blue language.
An older couple behind us scanned the crowd.
"I don't see anyone here I know," one of them said. "I don't know if that is a good thing or a bad thing."
In short order, the room was full and the crowd was all fired up to hear Ezra preach from the book of Levant. When he strode on stage it was to thunderous applause. We were off! Well, we were off right after we all took off our hats and sang "O Canada" first (of course).
Levant started off by showing us a CBC article about a former Notley staffer who disrupted a PC dinner at the Shaw Conference Centre and telling the crowd that something similar happened at the recent town hall meeting in Calgary. He warned us that it might happen here.
"So I tell you this to let you know that we have received warnings that up to five NDP or Greenpeace activists—and there's really no difference between the two—are planning to interrupt this evening with sort of a disruption, panty-raid-stunt like they do."
Everyone looked around. Who among them was the communist? Who among them hated freedom?
But Ezra quelled their fears and told his crowd not to worry, the security handled it well last time. The woman in question was Alheli Picazo, who had her invitation rescinded by Levant after she RSVP'd. She wrote about her experience, saying she was whisked away before the event even started, but she didn't leave and waited for an explanation until cops were called to remove her. Apparently the cops found no reason to arrest Picazo. In a nice little bit of irony, Levant, later on in his speech, spoke of how he went into the headquarters of Tim Hortons (following the short-lived Enbridge drama) and bravely didn't leave until someone came and spoke to him.
"I took a stack of those petitions, I've printed out 8,500 names at a time and I went to Tim Hortons. I wouldn't leave till they met with me," Levant stated beaming with pride. "The CEO came down, he said, 'Turn off the camera.' Yeah, like I'm gonna do that. And we had a conversation."
After the story, Levant carried on his powerpoint presentation, which featured a recurring strategy: Show a video of an NDP MLA and then glean meaning from it. Sometimes the meaning made sense and sometimes it seemed like he made it up out of thin air.
For Premier Rachel Notley, and Government House Leader Brian Mason, Levant had pretty much nothing. All he showed were question period videos that were public record. Multiple times, he showed older videos of them talking about the deaths of 1,606 ducks in a tailings pond.
Early on in the evening Levant made a joke that went over really well about the ducks who died in the tailings ponds, and I guess he decided to keep hammering it home, adding in comments about wind turbines killing that many weekly and how many wings he can eat at a restaurant. It killed each time.
On a side note, the typical Canadian wind turbine kills an average of 8.2 birds a year, a far cry from the estimated 2,000 yearly deaths caused by tailings ponds, but this kind of fact-fudging was typical for the majority of the speech, as Ezra relied on YouTube clips and hyperbole to carry him. At one point he cited the tar sands as the biggest supplier of jobs for Aboriginal people, whereas the last time we had national numbers in from Statistics Canada (2009) the largest employer among aboriginal people was the health and social assistance industry, followed by trade, construction, and manufacturing. There were several other instances like this throughout the speech including repeatedly saying someone who was Albertan wasn't to discredit her.
Shortly after this, Ezra shocked the crowd when he pointed out that at one point Shannon Phillips, the new Minister of Environment and Parks and Minister Responsible for the Status of Women, had written for and worked with Al Jazeera. The name alone drew shudders and gasps from some audience members.
At this, the old lady behind me clicked her tongue in disapproval.
"Fucking Arabs," she muttered.
Levant drove Phillips' connection to Al Jazeera home
"Now, the work she did, I have not found it online. But she wrote a story about it several years ago, about how she worked on this film project for Al Jazeera," Levant said at the front of the stage. "How do you even make that connection? I wouldn't even know how to go about that. How do you let Al Jazeera know that you want to work for them? How does that even come to pass?"
I don't think it would be all that difficult. Al Jazeera is broadcast to 130 countries and 250 million households. It is easily one of the largest news organizations on the planet. Only the BBC has more foreign bureaus than what Levant described as "the state broadcaster of the OPEC dictatorship called Qatar."
At one point Levant actually moved away from baiting the crowd to share some valid points. Among them was a video of NDP MLA David Eggen chanting "no more pipelines," but by far his most damning piece of evidence was that Graham Mitchell, the newly appointed chief of staff for the Energy Minister, is an anti-pipeline activist. He had dug up that Mitchell was a registered lobbyist for LeadNow, an environmental lobby group that is decidedly anti-tar sands. Mitchell's appointment is a poor decision almost any way you look at it, and knowing the fact about LeadNow is important. No buts about it, Albertans have Levant to thank for that.
But by the end of the segment, he was showing tweets that Mitchell had favourited or retweeted and projecting meaning onto them. Levant took one, in which Mitchell spoke of the strong female leaders in Toronto, to mean that he doesn't want to come to Edmonton. It quickly devolved from well-informed and important to silly and irrelevant.
At the end of the speech, two hours in, Ezra took a serious note and returned to his thesis statement of who will be the crowds saviour now that the NDP are in power. The room grew quiet and he leaned forward on his podium, hanging on either side of Levant was an Albertan and Canadian Flag.
"Well, we can't rely on pieces of Wildrose. The media can possibly put a spin on it. The oil patch is terrified and hiding under the desk, so there's NGOs. Who? Who? Who? Who?"
The elderly lady behind me perked up without a hint of sarcasm in her voice.
"You, Ezra. You're our only hope."
Follow Mack Lamoureux on Twitter.