On October 18, 2014 George Clark sat beside the deathbed of his mother, Bertha Clark-Jones. Through moments of lucidity, the former Order of Canada winner asked her son to use his knowledge and share his voice to protect the people of Alberta.
"They need to hear what you have to say," he says she told him.
Three days later, she passed away. He's now doing his best to honour her wish.
No one in that room, not George, nor his mother, nor his siblings thought that this would lead him to the place he is at now. No one could have imagined it would lead him to the point where he was threatening to peacefully bring down the Albertan government. No one thought he would be the leader of, as one of his followers brilliantly put it, a possible "kudatah"—which I take to mean is a coup d'etat but with more love and less francais.
George Clark, like all good saviors, appeared to come from out of nowhere at just the right moment. Conservatism in Alberta is in the midst of, for lack of a better term, an existential crisis. For almost half a century Alberta was conservative and conservatives were Albertans. Then an NDP government came into power shaking the status quo, the job market was on the rocks, oil was at a decade low price, and the world made no sense.
This is Clark's moment.
In his words he held the promise that many old school Alberta conservatives wanted to hear—that everything that was happening right now was a mistake that he could right. He told them that if they believed in him and started getting signatures for his petition he had a way to take down this "accidental ideologically driven government."
Together they make Alberta great again.
He would make it like the way it used to be in the good ol' days.
The Albertans First Plebiscite Warriors
At this moment Clark finds himself at the centre of a massive petitiondrive—he claims to have thousands signed up via paper but would not let VICE see the results—which will come to a head on February 9, when Clark plans to present the signatures to the lieutenant governor on the steps of the Alberta legislature. The petition is asking for a plebiscite regarding the proposed carbon tax and the controversial Bill 6 and he promises if his request for a plebiscite is denied he will enact a clause in the Elections Act that will see the end of the NDP reign. But, of course, there's a catch. He's keeping the clause a secret until he finally pulls the trigger.
"I will make the announcement at 12:15, we will be back in control of the government by 12:30," he wrote on Facebook in a Jan 3rd post he has since deleted.
It was these lengthy Facebook posts, shared by scores of disenfranchised right wingers, that enabled Clark to cobble together his support. His posts, usually daily, talk about a range of topics including making, more or less, a two-tiered welfare system that would benefit laid off oil workers instead of "people that have never worked a day in their lives and a large segment of recent immigrants who haven't found work yet," getting rid of the TFW program until all Albertans had their jobs back, and much much more. Clark's message hit a nerve with a certain angry subset of Albertans and utilizing social media—alongside those crazy kids at ye olde Rebel Media who shared his message of course. The National Post went so far as to call him "the avatar of angry Alberta."
Clark took this wellspring of online support, and started an online grassroots movements called "Albertans First" and has taken to the road for a 50-town tour—about 100 people showed up at one rally—in an attempt inspire people to stand up and take the province back from the NDP. He now commands a sizable following, that he claims to number in the thousands—he's dubbed these followers the "Albertans First Plebiscite Warriors," who gather petition signatures for him. Clark says the Warriors number in the thousands, something that I was unable to verify but it's easy to notice sheer amount of boots on the ground marching to Clark's beat. Stores all over the province have his petition on hand from a farm equipment store in Vegreville to a car wash in Edmonton. His presence on social media, however, is not insignificant either. A December post of his on the issue was shared over 1,100 times. The Warriors have area captains in every major zone in Alberta that each command a sizable group of canvassers, he claims.
"If Lois Mitchell or Rachel Notley refuse to allow the people of Alberta to have a voice in these critical pieces of legislation, or another piece of legislation that they may want to bring forward, that clearly doesn't have the support of the majority of Albertans then there are democratic, legal, and non-violent methods that we can engage in which will see her removed from the Premiers office," Clark told VICE in an interview late last week.
If the plebiscite doesn't get accepted that well, Clark has a rather extreme Plan B ready. This is when things go off the rails. Clark states that he has some sort of mechanism, which he found in the election act, that will essentially begin the process toppling the current government. He is threatening to use this if the plebiscites aren't called—a threat that has been roundly mocked online, partly because Clark won't say what it is, partly because it almost certainly won't work, and partly, of course, due to one follower's egregiously terrible spelling of coup d'etat ("kudatah"), and another follower's attempt to explain it away by saying he "spelt (sic) it in english not French." Clark states that he can't tell people because "the government might exercise illicit power to prevent it." Paranoia and poor command of language aside, the plan to demand a plebiscite is something that, frankly, doesn't seem to gel with any reasonable understanding of the workings of Albertan politics.
"I just don't know where he gets these understandings of the lieutenant governor and the premier... I just don't know where these come from. They have no basis in any political reality that I'm familiar with in the province of Alberta," Ian Urquhart, a professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Alberta, told VICE.
"There is no way at all that the lieutenant government is going to do this on her own based on a petition given to her from Clark or anyone else. It would frankly create a constitutional crisis in Alberta because it would be an unheard use of the power of the formal executive of the lieutenant governor in council."
A True Albertan Hero
The man who will take back the province is as Albertan as they come.
Clark was born in the northern Albertan town of Manning. He is Metis and grew up hunting and trapping in that area and later, in Fort McMurray. He believes in hard work and the productive power of capitalism. He is proud of his roots and considers himself a staunch environmentalist.
"In 1972 I was one of the only people in all of Fort McMurray [who] literally stood up to Syncrude and forced them to improve all of their smokestack technology and reduce the amount of sulphur emissions they were putting into the atmosphere," Clark said.
Clark also said that when he was 15-years-old, Fort McMurray Today published a poem he wrote about the "need to look after the environment."
Bertha Clark-Jones, his mother, was a well-known advocate for Indigenous women in Alberta. She co-founded the Voice of Alberta Women which, over time, would become the Native Women's Association of Canada, and throughout her life never stopped fighting for human rights. In 2007, she received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation and in 2008 named an Officer of the Order of Canada. She was, by all accounts, a visionary leader and remarkable human being.
It is from his mother's memory where he draws inspiration to keep fighting for the cause. More importantly though it is his mother who makes him fight with the power of love. It's why he doesn't allow his followers to post violent things in his messages online and ends all his messages with "the power of love"—in emoticon format of course. From her deathbed she asked her son to live by this code.
"She told me to do everything I do based upon love, in other words consider my actions and determine in advance that what I'm doing is not out of anger," Clark said, choking up. "That everything is out of love."
It's more than a bit odd that the only political leader he seems to be echoing is the late Jack Layton, while at the same time fighting for the same cause that has seen violent threats thrown against Premier Notley.
Have you tried to live in Alberta without fossil fuels?????????
Love Is Better Than Anger. (False) Hope Is Better Than Fear
Clark has the ear of many powerful conservatives in Alberta. The man can count provincial opposition leader Brian Jean, Wildrose MLA Rick Strankman, and interim PC leader Ric McIver among the Facebook friends who get his daily messages. The interim leader even went as far to write publically to Clark saying "he was doing a great job." (However, the interim leader had second thoughts of supporting a man threatening to overthrow the elected government and quickly deleted the post. You'd think he'd have learned his lesson by now.
Shortly thereafter McIver released a statement saying that he "respects the results of every democratic election," which is a very weird thing for a politician in a democracy to have to say.
While I was trying to talk to some of his canvassers about what it's like on the front line Clark put out an all points bulletin on his Facebook page for his followers not to talk to m until after the 9th. And when one of his area leaders agreed to talk to me someone got in his ear. The Edmonton canvasser was not given a reason, just told not to speak to me.
It may be because Clark is worried about his flock saying too much. As the old saying goes, "loose ships sink ships," well in this case more so "loose lips may fuck up our plan to take down the government." Indeed, the man is so confident in his reading of the elections act that he has shared his mechanism with several of his followers in case something happens to him so the plan can still happen if he's gone.
"I've shared it [the mechanism] with well over 200 of our canvassers that are directly involved with raising our plebiscite so if anything happened to me they know what to do," said Clark. "I began telling people this over the last two weeks and to date not a single one of them has broken confidence and 100% of them have literally almost cried for joy when they saw what it is that we plan to do if the government refuses our request."
The possibility that Clark commands a couple hundred to a couple thousand people who have their hearts set on his scheme is a little disconcerting to other right-wing Albertans. Some feel as though Clark and his group are only going to drive voters away from actual political opposition when his promises are proven false—and that he might simply be using the issue to gain celebrity. Some worry that even though Clark is consolidating right wing support, he will cause more damage than good in the end.
"I do worry about the impact Clark is having, he has given his followers false hope on this," Alberta Libertarian candidate Corey Morgan told VICE. "So when February 9th comes and I don't know what he thinks is going to happen up there, but I do know on February 10th we will still have Premier Notley, there is going to be a lot of disappointed people, and that could just lead to further cynicism and apathy."
Needless to say, Clark has proven to be quite the polarizing figure in Alberta politics. He's somehow managed to build himself a sizable amount of backers while at the same time ostracizing himself from the left, the right, and even the centre. The right-leaning Albertans are equally allowed to have grievances now that a centre left party is in power just like the left had grievances for those 44 years of PC rule. But grievances are one thing: misleading fantasies are another.
"What I really don't like about this business is that, OK, he has his concerns and I treat them seriously I don't think they're trivial. I think they're important ones that should be voiced, but he gives people false hope and he essentially misinforms them when he suggests the courses of actions that he's proposing," Urquhart said.
"If, and that is an important qualification, misinformation is produced and provided deliberately in order to provide political support for a position than let's call it propaganda because that's what it is."
In the end, that's what the fundamental question of George Clark essentially boils down to. He's most assuredly wrong about his "mechanism," and his day of reckoning for the provincial government will likely come and go without anything being toppled but his own ego. But does the man believe what he's saying? Is the man someone who truly believes what he is selling to the public or is he someone who is purposely misleading a subset of lost Albertan conservatives so he can drum up anti-NDP sentiment and make a name for himself?
Is he a willful propagandist or an ignorant populist trying to lead a group of lost right-wing souls back to the promised land through the power of love? Guess we will find out.
Follow Mack Lamoureux on Twitter.