Wildrose campus group implosion offers yet another glimpse of Alberta's bare-knuckle unite-the-right fight

A recent email equating feminism with cancer issued by the Wildrose on Campus at the University of Calgary marked the climax of an implosion of the student group that started with a takeover by supporters of PC leadership candidate Jason Kenney, according to former executives with the group and an official in the Wildrose Party.

WROC fight that climaxed with 'feminism is cancer' controversy reflects wider political battle

Keean Bexte, centre, wears a Wildrose Party T-shirt and a Jason Kenney sticker and pin in July 2016 at the PC leadership launch for Jason Kenney, left. Until recently, Bexte was VP external of the Wildrose on Campus at U of C despite being public in his distaste for the Wildrose under the leadership of Brian Jean, right. (Centre image by Chris Adams/National Observer; left and right photos: CBC)

A recent email equating feminism with cancer issued by the Wildrose on Campus at the University of Calgary marked the climax of an implosion of the student group that started with it being "taken over" by supporters of newly minted PC leader Jason Kenney, according to former executives with the group and an official in the Wildrose Party.

WROC's former president says she believes it was an intentional sabotage meant to discredit the Wildrose Party, whose leader, Brian Jean, has been under siege since Kenney launched his bid to lead Alberta's Progressive Conservatives with a plan to create a unified, right-of-centre party.

The Kenney campaign, which won the leadership race on Saturday, says it has no connection to the club.

Yet the saga offers a youth-level window into the wider battle for conservative hearts and minds in Alberta and reflects some of the bare-knuckle politics at play.

On March 6, WROC sent an email saying, "You and I both know that feminism is cancer" in order to promote a screening of a documentary about the men's rights movement called The Red Pill.

The email sent from Wildrose on Campus equating feminism with cancer was to promote a controversial men's rights film called The Red Pill. (Supplied)

The student group was inundated with criticism, including from the Kenney campaign and from the Wildrose Party, which said it no longer had any official ties with WROC.

Keean Bexte, who was then vice-president external of WROC, quickly denounced the email as "repulsive," and laid the blame at the feet of a shadowy communications director named Robert McDavid — who, it turned out, may or may not exist.

Scrutiny quickly centred on Bexte himself, who then resigned from the group along with a handful of others and said the club was scaling back its presence in advance of what Bexte said was an anticipated merger between the PCs and the Wildrose. 

The implosion was just the latest bit of drama in a group that has been on a sort of administrative purgatory with the U of C student union since October. That's when WROC was put on provisional registration and given a year to supply required insurance information, or it would be officially disbanded.

I think this was their plan all along, to be extremely controversial and give Wildrose a bad name in the process.- Former Wildrose on Campus president Jenn Galandy

The move came shortly after the former president, a supporter of Jean and the Wildrose, says she was ousted and WROC "taken over" by pro-Kenney conservatives within the group.

"I think this was their plan all along, to be extremely controversial and give Wildrose a bad name in the process," said Jenn Galandy, who was president of Wildrose on Campus from April 2015 to September 2016.

Keean Bexte and the PCs

After the "feminism is cancer" email fiasco, the Wildrose Party was quick to distance itself from the group, citing changes it made to party bylaws that officially severed ties with WROC, and sending a cease and desist letter regarding the use of the Wildrose name and logo.

Jeremy Nixon, the Wildrose Party's executive director, said there had been no contact between the party and the campus club since September when Galandy was ousted. Nixon bought a membership in the club prior to ties being severed.

The central figure in the drama, Bexte, is an avowed Kenney supporter who had been public in his distaste for the Wildrose under the leadership of Jean. 

While VP external of the Wildrose on Campus group, Keean Bexte came out against Wildrose Party Leader Brian Jean and was vocal in his support for Jason Kenney. (Twitter/screenshot)

He was one of 20 Progressive Conservative Youth Association delegates for the PC leadership vote held in Calgary on March 18, but resigned in the wake of the email controversy after a phone conversation with PCYA president and self-described friend of Bexte's, Sonia Kont.

Kenney never met or spoke with WROC, spokesperson says

The Kenney campaign said it has no association with WROC.

"Mr. Kenney has never met with or spoken to that group," Kenney spokesperson Blaise Boehmer said in an email to CBC News on March 15 after saying no one from the campaign could answer questions over the phone as they prepared for the convention.

Jason Kenney's campaign strenuously denies allegations that it tacitly or passively supports bullying by its supporters or wants to see women forced from politics. (CBC)

Boehmer said the campaign also no longer has any connection with Bexte — who was photographed at Kenney's campaign launch in July wearing a Wildrose T-shirt covered in a Jason Kenney sticker and button.

"Apparently, he previously worked for one of the vendors which has provided call services to our campaign, but we are told that he no longer works for that vendor," he said.

CBC News was unable to independently verify Bexte's role with the campaign.

'It's not Wildrose anymore'

A Wildrose official also alleged Kenney supporters had actively taken over WROC — and the PCYA — as part of a bid to lead a united right wing in Alberta.

The same way that  PCYA  is, with one or two exceptions, the Kenney YA, Wildrose on Campus in Calgary is the Kenney group.- A Wildrose official who spoke to CBC News on condition of anonymity

"It's not Wildrose anymore, it was taken over by the Kenney camp," said the official, who spoke to CBC News on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record.

"The same way that PCYA is, with one or two exceptions, the Kenney YA, Wildrose on Campus in Calgary is the Kenney group."

Kenney campaign 'delighted' by youth support

Boehmer acknowledged the Kenney campaign has worked hard to bring youth into the fold, but denied the allegations of the Wildrose official and says the campaign is about creating a big-tent party, not just uniting the right.

We are delighted that a strong majority of youth delegates at the PC Leadership Convention intend to support Mr. Kenney.- Kenney campaign spokesperson Blaise Boehmer

He said while the campaign is pleased that a majority of the PCYA executive supports Kenney, not all of the executive is behind his candidate.

"We are delighted that a strong majority of youth delegates at the PC Leadership Convention intend to support Mr. Kenney," he wrote before the convention.

"Having said that, the PCYA is not a 'Kenney youth wing.' It includes a range of views."

'Intimidation' included claims she was NDP spy, Galandy alleges

The former WROC president, Galandy, said Bexte petitioned her last summer to endorse a unite-the-right stance within the Wildrose on Campus.

But she rejected the overtures in favour of supporting Jean and the Wildrose Party.

When she returned to school in the fall after a Parliament Hill internship, she faced an impeachment motion.

"Galandy has proven herself utterly incapable of executing the expectations of the office she holds and has been remiss in her duties. Galandy does not represent the values that Wildrose youth hold," read the motion. 

Galandy strongly rejects the claims made in the impeachment motion.

Speaking to CBC News on March 9 following the "feminism is cancer" controversy, she said she left the group before there could be an impeachment vote and after what she says was a campaign of "extreme harassment" by pro-Kenney elements within the organization.

Screenshots of social media from that time show the impeachment motion against Galandy — including misrepresentations of that motion — posted to the WROC Facebook page and on its Twitter account, photos cropped to remove her and a page called "I bet this potato can get more likes than Jenn Galandy" with the image of a penis-shaped potato superimposed on Galandy's head.

This tweet was posted and then deleted from the Wildrose on Campus club Twitter feed. It misrepresents the impeachment motion filed against then-president Jenn Galandy. (Supplied/screenshot)

"These individuals used intimidation over social media, posting the impeachment motion everywhere and called up many Wildrose Constituency Associations saying I was an 'NDP spy' and they had to get rid of me," she said, adding she was told about the phone calls. 

Former communications director backs Galandy's allegations

Galandy doesn't go so far as to blame Kenney for the alleged harassment or takeover of the club.

"Whether Kenney is involved or not, I can't say. However, I will comment that I am extremely disappointed that Kenney has not condemned the constant harassment from these individuals," she said.

I am extremely disappointed that Kenney has not condemned the constant harassment from these individuals.- Former WROC president Jenn Galandy

However, she says she feels Kenney is allowing this kind of behaviour to take place.

"All this disempowerment has come from the Kenny campaign, and if Kenney really wants to be the next premier of Alberta he needs to take action," she said, referring to allegations of misogyny.

"Enough of the BS Twitter posts on Women's Day. If you really want to make a difference it is about action, not talk."

Anika Burmeister left her position as communications director for WROC in September 2016. She also says Kenney supporters took over the club and used a campaign of harassment against Galandy. (CBC)

Anika Burmeister — who was a former communications director of WROC until September 2016, as well as of the U of C's Campus Conservatives club — also says Kenney supporters took over the club and used a campaign of harassment against Galandy.

"I would personally not bet that it came from Jason Kenney directly, but I wouldn't be 100 per cent surprised if it would have been someone who thought they were doing the right thing to support Jason Kenney, but didn't have the Kenney campaign's permission to do it," she said.

Kenney condemns misogyny, harassment

However, the Kenney campaign strenuously denies the allegations that it tacitly or passively supports bullying by its supporters or wants to see women forced from politics.

Our campaign publicly condemned WROC's offensive email as soon as it came to light.- Kenney campaign spokesperson Blaise Boehmer

"Mr. Kenney has consistently condemned all forms of misogyny, bullying and harassment in Alberta politics. He is not aware of the allegations, circumstances to whom you refer," wrote Boehmer in reference to Galandy's statements, which were shown to him without her name attached.

"Having said that, our campaign publicly condemned WROC's offensive email as soon as it came to light." 

PCYA faced its own internal battles

Progressive Conservative Youth Association president Kont said she was shocked that WROC would release an email equating feminism and cancer.

Kont — who was supported by Kenney in her bid to become PCYA president — said she's happy Bexte "did the right thing" and resigned as a PCYA youth delegate.

The PCYA has had its own drama when it comes to the divisive leadership race and the push to unite the right in Alberta.

In January, longtime PC operative and Kenney insider Alan Hallman was suspended from the party, barred from its events and, the following day, let go by the Kenney campaign where he was working as a field organizer.

(Hallman was also arrested on Saturday night at the convention, accused of assaulting a security guard tasked with removing him from the premises.)

Katherine O'Neill, the president of Progressive Conservative Association of Alberta, told Hallman in an email informing him of his suspension that the matter was related to comments he made on social media directed towards two PCAA members.

Hallman, who deleted his Twitter account during the controversy but has since revived it, described the tweets as "minor vulgarities."

A day after the suspension, some members of the executive of the PCYA announced on social media it was making Hallman its honorary chair. 

However, the endorsement letter was only signed by nine of the executive's 15 members.

The other six members said they hadn't been notified of the move and were shocked to hear it.

"With the whole Alan Hallman issue, it was difficult for us, absolutely," said Kont. "Alan Hallman was the reason I got involved with the PC party five or six years ago. I don't think he deserved getting his membership revoked."

Hallman was heavily involved in bringing youth into the party and a "big part of Project 265," said Kont, which aimed to ensure all 265 youth delegate positions for the PC leadership vote were filled.

Kont said a new delegate was selected from among a list of alternates to replace Bexte, but there was no requirement for the alternate to support a specific candidate.

Bexte says he wasn't involved in alleged harassment

CBC News contacted Bexte numerous times over the course of a week and sent him two lists of questions by email, but he said he was too busy with school to respond.

He finally contacted CBC News on Monday after the convention, but would not answer questions and would not speak on the record. He denies any involvement in the alleged harassment of Galandy.

I held, and still do not hold, any ill will towards Galandy .- Former WROC vice-president external Keean   Bexte

"​Screenshots are manipulable, usually out of context, and in my experience with them, untrustworthy," he said on the record by email. 

"I held, and still do not hold, any ill will towards Galandy."

He has gone quiet on social media and his Twitter account has been suspended. 

About the Author

Drew Anderson

Drew Anderson is a web journalist at CBC Calgary. Like almost every journalist working today, he's won a few awards. He's also a third-generation Calgarian. You can follow him on Twitter @drewpanderson. Contact him in confidence at drew.anderson@cbc.ca.