Group that organized webinars where Manitoba education minister spoke has ties to Russian 'oligarch'
'The views of other participants in any conference are theirs to defend,' says Kelvin Goertzen
Even as intelligence agencies from around the world are raising flags about Russian interference in Western democracies, Manitoba's education minister spoke at home-schooling teleconferences last spring organized by a group whose board includes an associate of a wealthy Russian who has been the subject of sanctions by the U.S. and Canada.
Russian national Alexey Komov sits on the board of Global Home Education Exchange (GHEX), the international home-school advocacy group that hosted two webinars attended by Manitoba Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen.
Komov is better known for his work with Konstantin Malofeev, a Vladimir Putin ally and pro-family advocate who has been sanctioned by Canada and the U.S. for funding Russian aggression in Ukraine.
GHEX says it invited almost every Canadian education minister, but Goertzen was the only one who took part.
"I'm a little bit surprised that the minister would have been involved," said Marcus Kolga, a senior fellow with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an Ottawa-based public-policy think tank.
"Alexey Komov is a well-known individual who has been known to advance pro-Kremlin narratives," said Kolga, whose research focuses on how Russia uses the media as a foreign policy tool.
He is also linked with Malofeev, "who is a Russian oligarch," said Kolga.
Kolga says Komov and Malofeev help further the Kremlin objective of sowing discord by polarizing Western democracies through their support of far-right and far-left causes.
"What Mr. Malofeev does is he actively funds and promotes extremist views. This includes homophobic views."
A few years ago, Tsargrad — a TV station founded by Malofeev — offered LGBTQ people a one-way ticket to move away from Russia, according to the BBC.
Komov serves as the Russian representative for the World Congress of Families, an organization the Southern Poverty Law Centre has deemed a hate group for its anti-LGBTQ activities.
At a May GHEX webinar Goertzen spoke at, Komov translated for a senator from Russia's ruling party. A deputy from the State Duma (the Russian Federal Assembly's lower house) who was questioned by the FBI last fall also spoke at the interactive forum, which discussed home education during the pandemic.
Goertzen also spoke at a GHEX teleconference in April.
Minister Goertzen refused an interview. He issued a written statement which was virtually identical to one sent in June, in response to a story detailing the presence of a far-right German official in one of the GHEX webinars.
"I have participated in many national and international conferences with people of divergent views on many topics," wrote Goertzen.
"That is the nature of these conferences. I am fully accountable for my own comments. The views of other participants in any conference are theirs to defend."
What is GHEX?
The GHEX board includes members from around the globe and is chaired by Gerald Huebner — a retired provincial bureaucrat from Arborg, Man., who has been involved in home-schooling for decades through groups like the Manitoba Association of Christian Home Schools.
GHEX's website says it promotes home-schooling "regardless of motivation or methodology" through webinars like the ones Goertzen spoke at and in-person conferences held every two years in international locales. The last one was held in Moscow and St. Petersburg in 2018.
GHEX says it does not represent any particular religion or political ideology.
"We don't have only conservative Western political — what you would call 'right-wing' — support," Huebner said in an interview with CBC News.
"We have people that attend the conference and speak and participate that are quite leftist and quite different in their viewpoints."
'State schooling' promotes 'state morality': speaker
But an examination of the speakers and sponsors of GHEX's 2018 conference in Russia suggests that the diversity touted by Huebner is minimal.
In fact, many speakers come from conservative Christian organizations, including some that promote homophobia.
Ignacio Arsuaga spoke at the conference on behalf of CitizenGo, a group that ran a campaign last year against Canada's proposed legislation to criminalize conversion therapy — a widely discredited practice that aims to change the sexual orientation, gender identity or expression of LGBTQ people. The group is also urging a boycott of Sesame Street because of its "blatant support of the LGBT lobby's agenda."
Arsuaga said there is a culture war going on between secular progressives — who want to indoctrinate students with "political correctness," he says — and conservatives who want to uphold Christian beliefs.
"Home-schooling maybe is the most radical resistance to this new ideology," Arsuaga said in his 2018 GHEX presentation.
Allan Carlson, the co-founder of the World Congress of Families — which has long-established ties to Russia — echoed these concerns.
"It is mass state schooling that communicates a state morality that replaces those of the family and religious faith," Carlson said in his GHEX presentation.
Komov was more blunt than other speakers at the 2018 conference. Through an interpreter, he talked about his work to "create the global alliance of healthy forces who are against the destruction of the family, against sexual education in schools, against gay Pride days and things like that, which we as Christians disapprove of," Komov said at a session titled Lunch for Dads.
The list of speakers also included Russian senator Yelena Mizulina — the author of the country's anti-gay propaganda laws and the force behind its decriminalization of domestic violence — who delivered a keynote speech.
Mizulina is one of seven Russian politicians sanctioned by Canada and the U.S. in 2014, in response to Russian government actions and policies with respect to Ukraine.
Her speaking appearance provided "the way to overcome the sanctions imposed by those who are against family values," Mizulina said through a translator at the 2018 conference.
Huebner's claim that GHEX is not exclusively Christian, though, is accurate. A home-schooler from the United Arab Emirates made a presentation at the 2018 conference about teaching children from a Muslim perspective.
Nikoah Thornton, an American expat living in U.A.E. who also presented at the conference, said her friend was the only Muslim voice she heard.
"[For] many, many of them there, the purpose of home-schooling is to make sure that their children get the Christianity that their parents want them to get and understand," Thornton said in an interview with CBC News.
"The science curriculums that were presented were almost exclusively creationist-based."
Who is Alexey Komov?
Komov wasn't always a home-school advocate. He ran a management consulting firm — with clients that included the Russian state-run energy company Gazprom and Switzerland-based Zurich Insurance — up until the 2008 financial crisis dried up business.
Komov started his international advocacy by joining forces with the World Congress of Families, according to his 2016 GHEX presentation.
"We need to build an alliance between the new Russia, the way it emerged after communism, and the true conservatives and Christians," said Komov, who speaks fluent English, in a video from the 2016 Global Home Education Conference.
The 2018 GHEX conference Komov planned in St. Petersburg and Moscow marked the second time he brought international pro-family advocates to Russia.
The sponsor list reads like a section of Komov's biography. The Foundation of St. Basil the Great — chaired by Malofeev — was a "gold sponsor." At the time, Komov was the head of international projects for the charity, according to his blog, which has since been deleted.
The U.S.-based World Congress of Families, for which Komov is the Russian representative, was also a "gold sponsor."
Malofeev's Tsargrad TV was a media partner for the conference. In July, YouTube cancelled the broadcaster's account, citing a violation of sanctions laws.
A think tank called Katehon — a subsidiary of Tsargrad — is one of seven Russian proxy websites identified in an August U.S. State Department report as a "proliferator of virulent anti-Western disinformation and propaganda via its website ... led by individuals with clear links to the Russian state."
Although the St. Basil charity was listed as a gold sponsor, GHEX chair Gerald Huebner said neither it nor Tsargrad, the media sponsor, contributed financially to the 2018 Russia conference. He says financial support came from Canadian and U.S. home-school advocacy groups, as well as curriculum companies, he said.
"I need to reiterate that the Global Home Education Exchange Council and Conference have no connection to Mr. Malofeev," Huebner wrote in an email.
But Komov acts as an emissary of Malofeev, says Anton Shekhovtsov, an external lecturer at the University of Vienna whose has researched Russian subversive influence in the West and radical right-wing parties in Europe.
"Komov is not sanctioned, so he can represent Malofeev on the international stage," said Shekhovtsov.
Shekhovtsov says Komov was involved in co-ordinating relations between Russian actors such as Malofeev with European far-right politicians, including Italy's anti-immigrant Lega Nord party, led by former Italian deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini.
WATCH | Komov speaks at 2013 Lega Nord Congress:
Komov was the honorary president of the Lombardy Russia Cultural Association, based in Italy, which says it was formed to express the views of "millions of Europeans" who look favourably at Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin.
It is not known if Komov still holds that position.
"The press is biased against Moscow and it's impossible to find an objective source of information," reads the Lombardy Russia Cultural Association's Facebook page, which says it aims to share "news that others censor" by working with "trusted Russian media sources," including the Voice of Russia — a Kremlin-run state media organization.
"I came across [Komov] because he was also involved in co-ordinating various relations between Russian actors, individuals such as Malofeev with the European far-right," Shekhovtsov said in an interview with CBC.
In 2014, the U.S. Treasury Department said Malofeev is one of the main sources of financing for Russians promoting separatism in Crimea.
Canada target of 'significant' interference: report
Russian foreign interference activities extend to Canada too, according to a report published in March by the government agency responsible for overseeing Canada's national security and intelligence agencies.
The National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians report found non-federal levels of government and NGOs are "frequent targets of foreign states' hostile activities," and that Canada is currently the target of "significant and sustained foreign interference activities" from Russia, among other states.
There were no specific references to the GHEX, Komov or Goertzen in the committee's report.
"This is fertile ground for the Russians ... to polarize us," said the Macdonald-Laurier Institute's Kolga. "It comes as no surprise that they would tap into a home-schooling organization."
The Kremlin's objective is to split Western societies apart by using the openness of democratic societies to polarize political views, Kolga says.
"[Canadian] officials need to realize that whether they engage or not ... simply by participating" in events like the GHEX webinars, "they are lending credibility to those individuals and the organizations," said Kolga.
The University of Vienna's Shekhovtsov says Komov's connection to a sanctioned oligarch is not the only issue that requires scrutiny.
In addition to board membership in the GHEX and the World Congress of Families, Komov is also on the board of Ignacio Arsuaga's CitizenGo, and an advisor to a Russian State Duma politician according to his biography.
"The connection to Komov himself is problematic because he works for organizations that are openly illiberal, that are openly undermining human rights," said Shekhovtsov referring to Komov's work with the World Congress of Families and other far-right groups.
"He contributes to the subversion of human rights and democratic values globally."
Liberal leader wants Goertzen to resign
Huebner, who has done humanitarian work in Ukraine, says he has seen first-hand the damage inflicted by Russian-backed troops on the people.
"Am I pro-Russian? I am pro-people. When it comes to these guys like Konstantin [Malofeev, I] don't know him," Huebener said in an interview. "We don't get involved in the politics of other countries. We try and positively influence things," he said.
"Although American media often portray Russia as the most serious threat facing our country, and Russians as anti-freedom, this was not seen" at the 2018 conference, according to the GHEX website.
Huebener says he's seen no evidence of Russian meddling in GHEX, and Komov will stay on the board.
In a statement forwarded to CBC by Huebner, Komov said "we don't have any connection with Konstantin Malofeev (who runs a private Christian school by the way)."
Malofeev did not respond to a request for comment.
Manitoba Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont said he's especially concerned that Goertzen spoke to the group while a review of Manitoba's public education system is underway.
"This really is a big, global, far-right organization that is dedicated to dismantling public school systems because they don't approve of certain views," said Lamont, who stands by his earlier call for Goertzen to resign for his participation in the webinar.
Goertzen didn't mention defunding public schools in either of the two webinars, but focused on promoting home-schooling as an option for parents.
Kolga says he would hate to see a minister resign over participation in the webinars, but he thinks officials need to do a better job of vetting who they're getting involved with.
"I think it's a lesson that needs to be learned, that you don't get involved with the Russians," said Kolga.