Calgary·In Depth

Why the Pro-Life Alberta party is chasing donations, not votes

Pro-Life Alberta has become a fundraising powerhouse through an appeal to anti-abortion activists, without any mention of candidates, the leader or anything else a normal party might promote.

Once the Socreds, this single-issue group now 3rd-largest fundraiser in Alberta politics

the dome of the Alberta legislature
The Pro-Life Alberta Political Association has emerged from political obscurity to secure more donations than the Alberta Party, the Liberals or any other smaller party in the province. (Juris Graney/CBC)

It's hard to find out much about the leader of Alberta's third-wealthiest political party.

Murray Ruhl appears to have no presence on social media. He's not been quoted in any Alberta media outlet, despite leading the Pro-Life Alberta Political Association for five years.

No photo online, seemingly anywhere. If you looked on the party's website recently, there's no sign of Ruhl, who's also its president.

In fact, the party won't share any details about who the leader is, or even where in Alberta he lives. (Calgary, according to campaign finance documents.) It's inconsequential, because Pro-Life Alberta is a team without emphasis on individuals, executive director Richard Dur said in an interview.

This is just one of the many things that makes Ruhl's party irregular.

It runs political ads on its single issue — opposing abortion rights — but they sound more like third-party advocacy marketing than anything else on the partisan landscape.

There's no mention of candidates or the looming election on the group's website, and Pro-Life Alberta has actually advocated how to participate in the governing UCP's leadership race.

Party time

One thing makes it quite similar to other parties: the prominence of the DONATE button on its website. The party mentions that its donations count for tax credits — up to 75 per cent of a contribution's value — on most of its web pages.

That, the party boasts, gives it a huge competitive edge over Alberta's other anti-abortion groups. "Pro-Life Alberta is Alberta's only political pro-life organization that can issue tax receipts and engage in politics — including during provincial elections," the group's website states.

It's become a fundraising powerhouse, through this appeal to anti-abortion activists, and lack of any mention of candidates, the leader or anything else a normal party might promote. 

Pro-Life Alberta raised $672,000 between 2021 and 2022.

While this is peanuts compared to the millions the NDP and UCP haul in, it's far more than any of the other smaller parties. In fact, it's almost as much as the once-strong Alberta Party and the provincial Liberals combined raised over that period.

Ahead of this spring's election, everything Pro-Life Alberta has done appears to be within the letter of Alberta's election and political finance laws, even if no other party functions like this.

But to a longtime political organizer, it's exploiting the rules of the party system and political contribution tax deductions, for the benefit of a group that's more interested in influencing politics than joining the electoral fray itself.

"I think it is a mockery of what the good people of Alberta that are volunteering in political parties are meant to do," said Troy Wason, former executive director of both the Alberta Party and Progressive Conservatives.

Pro-Life Alberta readily admits it's not a typical party. It's a single-issue group with no intent to form government, Dur said.

But as a party, it's legally allowed to push its single issue during the coming campaign, and intends to. Without an intent to win, it will define success differently.

"The second-best thing to having your own people elected is to influence those who are elected to advocate for those issues that you yourself would advocate for if you were elected," Dur said.

A bearded man stands with baby daughter
Richard Dur, the executive director of the Pro-Life Alberta Political Association, is pictured with his daughter in a handout photo. The party's leader, Murray Ruhl, has no public profile to speak of. (Submitted by Pro-Life Alberta Political Association)

There's a reason other single-issue groups likely do not launch their own parties: the bar is set high to do so. A new party must either have three elected MLAs, run candidates in half the 87 ridings, or gather a petition of more than 8,400 voting-eligible Albertans — then be ready for all the paperwork necessary to launch and maintain such a party.

The Pro-Life Alberta Political Association sidestepped these chores. Its founders simply took over an existing party.

It was formerly the Social Credit party, which governed Alberta from 1935 until 1971, when the Alberta PC dynasty swept them out of power.

The Socreds quickly went from government titan to political non-entity. They hadn't won a seat since 1979, but kept running election candidates, usually getting less than one per cent of the popular vote.

After leading the party through elections in 2008, 2012 and 2015, Calgarian Len Skowronski started up the party's annual general meeting in early 2016, like all the humdrum affairs before it. He was surprised by who came in the door, along with a clique of social conservative activists.

"All of a sudden, they brought in a whole slew of young people, mostly university students who were pro-life," Skowronski recalled in an interview

It didn't take many of them — about 20 to 30 party members. They replaced Skowronski and the board with former Social Credit candidate Jeremy Fraser as leader and a new board, with the intent of making abortion the party's sole interest.

"It was a neat takeover. We weren't prepared for it at all," Skowronski said.

Dur, a former provincial candidate for the Wildrose Alliance and a political operations specialist, also calls it "the takeover." He said he was there when it began.

In 2017, Elections Alberta granted Social Credit's name change request to the Pro-Life Alberta Political Association. Ruhl became its titular leader one year later.

Cheques in, tax credits out

This reborn party lay largely dormant for several years, raising virtually no money through 2020, and with only $32.31 in the bank, the group's disclosures show.

In the first quarter of 2021, the cheques and e-transfers began rolling in, totalling $33,384. The proceeds kept growing, reaching $345,187 in total income by year's end.

To hear Dur explain it, an unsolicited $20 contribution inspired Pro-Life Alberta to start this "concerted effort" to fundraise. By 2021's end, a new website assertively promoted the opportunity for donors to claim tax credits, which run as high as 75 per cent for small political contributions, and up to $1,000 for larger ones.

As a party, it enjoys multiple advantages no comparable group has.

"Charitable pro-life organizations can issue tax receipts, but can't engage in politics (they would lose their charitable status)," its website has stated since late 2021. "Other political pro-life organizations can't issue tax receipts, and can only engage in politics outside of provincial elections. Only Pro-Life Alberta can do both."

Elections Alberta law also regulates the contributions and activities of various third-party advertisers, including ones which are organized around single issues like policing, injury law and post-secondary education. Some can only advertise during election periods, and others only outside of them — and neither type can issue tax credits.

But as a party, Pro-Life Alberta gets to do all three. In the last couple of years, the provincial revenue system has given a few hundred thousand dollars in tax deductions to this party's donors.

Text in various sizes, from a website

Asked about the ability to grant tax credits while advocating politically, Dur said: "It's helpful, obviously." And he reasoned that it's unfair other anti-abortion groups are barred from communicating during the campaign, and that's "another of the principal advantages that Pro-Life Alberta has over other political pro-life organizations."

Last year, the party raised $327,590 and spent $324,907. Most of it went to advertising, according to Dur, who said he receives no salary for his role as executive director.

Party commercials run on private radio stations throughout Alberta, with different versions for faith-based stations. On the party's website, they solicit donations with samples of their generic anti-abortion ad about the "preborn" (the group's term for fetuses and earlier stages) and another with New Testament quotes.

"Help build Alberta's most effective pro-life movement at prolifealberta.com … and let the beat go on," the general-audience ad says, with a heartbeat sound effect in the background. (The Christian radio ad's sound effect is a thunder crack.)

Nothing in the radio spots or their online ads suggest this is a political party that runs candidates.

As of now, nobody is registered to run for Pro-Life Alberta. Dur would not directly answer how many will be.

"I can't say too much except to confirm that Pro-Life Alberta will be on the ballot, and we trust it's going to be an impactful campaign for the pro-life cause," he told CBC News.

If a registered party fails to run a single candidate in a general election, Elections Alberta can deregister it.

The 0.003%

In the 2019 election, Pro-Life Alberta did the bare minimum the law requires. A single candidate, Lucas Hernandez, ran in Calgary–Currie.

Without any campaign activity, or materials like his photograph shared with local media — a mere 60 voters chose him. That's the fifth-smallest vote total among all the 492 independent or party-affiliated candidates that ran in Alberta ridings that election — and gave Pro-Life Alberta 0.003 per cent of the provincial popular vote, according to the chief electoral officer's report.

Records show Hernandez only spent $500, the amount for the required nomination deposit. Nothing else. Campaign filings show his party didn't raise or spend a single cent on the 2019 election.

This cycle could be different. Thanks to fundraising, the party entered this year with $156,710 in the bank, and a desire to have impact for "the cause," as Dur said.

Party-hopping

While there's long been anti-abortion contingents within Alberta's conservative parties, they've lately had no success getting politicians to endorse or enact any rollbacks of provincial abortion services and rights. Leaders tend to be concerned about blowback from a broader public that backs abortion rights, and they refuse to even discuss the issue politically — much to the chagrin of anti-abortion groups.

"Pro-lifers are often exploited for their vote or financial support by politicians who choose to ignore life issues after an election," Pro-Life Alberta's website says. "But our dedication to right-to-life issues can swing elections, especially in competitive ridings, and in party nominations (internal party elections deciding who will run for a particular political party; when the party candidate is selected)."

As is often the case, Pro-Life Alberta isn't talking about itself as a party there.

Anti-abortion organizations routinely offer supporters their recommendations on how to vote in federal and provincial party leaderships, based on their abortion-related stances. Pro-Life Alberta did the same in last fall's contest to crown Jason Kenney's successor — even though that's one ostensible party encouraging others how to be active in another party, one it's notionally competing with.

A message to the party's email list last fall ranked Todd Loewen, the current tourism minister, as first choice for UCP leader because of his stances on Pro-Life Alberta priorities. It recommended supporters mark Danielle Smith (who identifies as pro-choice) fourth out of the seven candidates on the leadership ballot.

Influencing other parties to embrace abortion issues is a key role of this party, Dur said, "because there's such an absence of advocacy, otherwise, especially by mainstream political parties, on behalf of our pre-born or their moms."

While Dur has a volunteer role with Pro-Life Alberta, he runs a Calgary-based firm called Blue Direct, which offers fundraising and other phone services to conservative political campaigns. Records show Blue Direct has worked with federal Conservative MPs and the provincial Saskatchewan Party, but Dur declined to answer questions about whether he's done contract work for Alberta parties other than Pro-Life Alberta.

(The UCP confirmed Blue Direct is not on its preferred list of vendors, but that does not mean candidates are barred from purchasing services from Dur's firm.)

If Pro-Life Alberta runs at least one candidate, which it stated an intention to do, and stays on top of compulsory annual and quarterly disclosure, it steers clear of the main reasons a party may lose its registered status. However, there is a section in Alberta elections law that permits the chief electoral officer to cancel a party's registration if she or he is "for any reason of the opinion" that a party "is no longer qualified to be registered."

An Elections Alberta spokesperson would not say if that clause had ever been exercised, but noted in an email that any decisions "incorporate a holistic application of the legislation" and would be published online if a penalty or reprimand is administered.

Young women holding signs and shouting behind a metal barricade.
A counter-protest against the March for Life in Ottawa in 2022. There is no single-issue party in Alberta or Canada that advocates for the pro-choice side, in defence of abortion rights. (Patrick Doyle/The Canadian Press)

On the other side of one of politics' most impassioned debates, pro-choice advocates in Alberta have some small charities and non-profit advocacy groups. There are no registered third-party advertisers focused on political messages to defend or expand abortion rights — and certainly no political party that can solicit tax-deductible donations to spread those messages.

"It is essentially a political action committee masquerading as a party. They want the best of both worlds," said Autumn Reinhardt-Simpson, founder of the Alberta Abortion Access Network.

"Probably what they are doing is attempting to goad the UCP further to the right on social issues."

The Pro-Life Alberta Political Association has a six-figure war chest to try to do so in this campaign if it wants. And given how unlikely it is they'd use that to direct votes to their own party, it's worth watching what they do with their donations windfall, built with what in almost any other circumstance wouldn't have come with tax receipts.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jason Markusoff

Producer and writer

Jason Markusoff analyzes what's happening — and what isn't happening, but probably should be — in Calgary, Alberta and sometimes farther afield. He's written in Alberta for more than two decades, previously reporting for Maclean's magazine, Calgary Herald and Edmonton Journal. He appears regularly on Power and Politics' Power Panel and various other CBC current affairs shows. Reach him at jason.markusoff@cbc.ca

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