Christian conservative group recruiting thousands to back Higgs
2 activists say they’ll urge people to join PC party to vote for premier in leadership review
A Christian conservative group rallying support for New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs now has enough signatures to be a decisive factor in any leadership review vote.
It and another organization rallying support for the embattled Progressive Conservative leader have flexed their muscles in the last month, gathering enough names to swing the vote in his favour.
"A lot of times it's hundreds or even dozens of people that can make a difference in some of these elections," said Faytene Grasseschi, who runs the group 4 My Canada from Quispamsis, outside Saint John.
As of Wednesday she said she had collected almost 9,000 names from across Canada, including 2,000 from New Brunswick who could sign up as provincial PC members.
"If it goes to a leadership review, I think it's buying that membership and making your voice heard," said Grasseschi.
"This is just basic democracy, right?"
Another group, Right Now, has more than 1,200 signatures. Co-founder Alissa Golob estimates more than 90 per cent of them are from New Brunswickers who are eligible to become provincial party members.
"We'll be ready if it does come to a leadership review or if it comes down to an election," said Golob, who describes her organization as non-religious.
Twenty-six PC riding association presidents have signed letters calling for a review, hoping to trigger a vote by members on whether to dump Higgs. New Brunswick's premier has lost or fired several cabinet ministers in recent months over his leadership style, and stance on issues like a gender policy in the province's schools.
The next hurdle is a two-thirds vote by the party's governing body to schedule a convention. But if that happens, Higgs has a good chance of surviving thanks to Grasseschi and Golob.
Just 2,732 PC members cast ballots in the third and final round of the party's 2016 leadership vote that Higgs won.
His margin was 394 votes — far fewer than the number of names collected by 4 My Canada and Right Now.
"The nation and our communities are shaped by those who show up in the process," Grasseschi said.
Groups leapt into action over Policy 713
The two groups started mobilizing last month after Higgs faced a cabinet and caucus revolt in the legislature over changes to Policy 713.
The original policy required school staff to respect the name and pronoun choices of students under 16 in the classroom, without notifying parents if that's what the child wanted.
Now, if a child refuses to include parents, they'll be directed to a school psychologist or social worker to come up with a plan to include them. In the interim, teachers and staff are required to use the child's given name and pronoun at birth.
Two ministers resigned from cabinet after joining four other PCs to vote with the opposition to help pass a Liberal motion calling for more consultations.
They said they quit over broader problems with the premier's top-down leadership style, but Higgs has insisted the rebellion is about Policy 713 and parents' rights.
In a recent interview on True North, a conservative digital media site, Grasseschi said the original policy assumed "every parent is a villain. [But] most parents are not villains."
In fact, the policy was aimed at a tiny percentage of parents who might react badly or even violently if their children revealed they were questioning or changing their gender identity.
Grasseschi told CBC News that Higgs is trying to "strike a balance" to protect "vulnerable youth" while respecting the role of parents.
Author says trans issues 'a new hub' for Christian conservatives
Grasseschi is something of a celebrity in Christian conservative circles.
She first came to prominence as an organizer of mass prayer rallies called TheCry and founded 4 My Canada in 2006.
In 2009 well-known Canadian televangelist David Mainse compared her to Old Testament figures Deborah and Esther, saying she had a "prophetic edge."
Journalist Marci McDonald, author of a 2010 book on the Christian conservative movement, called her "very compelling and charismatic" and "one of the leading figures in this country's emerging Christian right."
McDonald said in an interview she believes Grasseschi and others are using the issue of LGBTQ rights in schools as "a new hub to get Christians, evangelical Christians, the religious right, involved in politics again, as a new rallying cry.
"They haven't had a rallying issue since same-sex marriage that brought people out to the polls."
Support can grow 'exponentially,' says Right Now co-founder
Right Now has existed since 2016 and focuses mainly on abortion.
Its online petition to support Higgs cites both Policy 713 and his refusal to fund abortions in Fredericton's Clinic 554.
Golob said she believes most of the New Brunswickers who have signed are not PC members because many of them opposed some of his other policies, such as COVID-19 restrictions early in the pandemic.
But she said they form a base that can be deployed in any leadership review or election where Higgs's future is on the line.
"You can grow that exponentially as long as you have that solid foundation," she said.
In a statement, Higgs said he has received support "from a wide cross section of individuals" who come from "different backgrounds, different cultures, and different religions."
He said "despite their differences," they share his belief and support what he calls his balanced approach.
Sussex parent joins PCs to back Higgs
The strategy of the two groups is already bearing fruit.
Roxana Kreklo, a Sussex parent of school-age children who works for Harvest Prison Ministries, said she joined the PC party two weeks ago expressly to support Higgs.
"I think it's important for all of us to get involved civically," she said.
Kreklo moved to Canada as a child from Romania, shortly after the collapse of Communist rule there — one reason she said she's getting involved politically now.
"I understand the value of … coming to a place that is a free and democratic society," she said. "So I want to do what I can to preserve that for my kids and for other kids as well."
Grasseschi disputes author's description
McDonald said Grasseschi is part of a movement called the New Aposotolic Reformation that aims to put believers in government leadership positions so Canada can be "restored to be a Christian nation in time for the second coming of Christ," she said.
Grasseschi would not confirm that.
"You know, that would be a good question," she told CBC News. "I don't know. I hear these types of terms thrown around. People assume that I know. I actually have the same question myself."
But Grasseschi said she is not aiming to create the kind of Christian-based government McDonald claims.
She also said her history with the Christian conservative movement isn't relevant to the current debate in New Brunswick.
"I think every young person wants to change the world," she said. "Once we get older, we just want the government to stay out of our pockets and not delete us from the lives of our kids."
What's next after Policy 713?
Grasseschi and Kreklo are both vague on whether they want further changes to the guidelines around LGBTQ students or other policies.
"Of course I haven't dissected the policy," Kreklo said. "I've just been made aware of it. … So as it stands right now, I'm happy with that first point of keeping the lines of communication open."
Grasseschi hopes to persuade the province to issue tax credits to parents who take their children out of public schools and enrol them in private schools, in effect allowing them to move their tax dollars out of the public system.
Higgs's spokesperson was asked for a comment on that idea, but the premier's statement to CBC News didn't include a response.
Grasseschi would not say if she'll lobby Higgs for more on Policy 713 or on issues such as abortion access or Medicare coverage of gender-confirming surgery for transgender people.
"If some of these other things come back onto the radar down the line, maybe we can have another conversation at that point," she said
Political activism separate from charity group, Grasseschi says
Besides running 4 My Canada, Grasseschi is also executive director of a charity called V-Kol Media Ministries, which runs a range of programs and produces her Faytene TV show.
The program, which looks at current affairs from a faith-based perspective, airs online and on several cable channels.
V-Kol and 4 My Canada shared the same mailing address, but Grasseschi said they are "separate legally and financially" and she recently set up a separate post office box for the charity to make that clear.
V-Kol issues charitable tax receipts to donors, so it is restricted from political advocacy, while 4 My Canada, a non-profit without charitable status, is free to be vocal and active.
Right Now and 4 My Canada also operate outside provincial laws on election transparency.
Since 2015, Elections New Brunswick has required party leadership candidates and riding nomination candidates to register and disclose their donors.
But there's no such rule for party leadership reviews.
There are also rules on third-party advertising, but they only apply during election campaigns.
Grasseschi won't rule out another election run
Grasseschi herself has already waded directly into electoral politics.
Not long after moving to New Brunswick, she ran unsuccessfully to be the Conservative Party of Canada candidate for Saint John-Rothesay in the last federal election.
She lost to former Saint John mayor Mel Norton, who went on to lose to Liberal incumbent Wayne Long.
She is not ruling out running federally again. She also said she has thought "vaguely, vaguely" about running provincially in Quispamsis whenever Higgs retires as MLA.
"Right now I'm just trying to get my laundry done," she said. "Right now I'm just trying to get to tomorrow. But we all take things a day at a time in this world, right?"
With files from Alix Villeneuve, Radio-Canada