EDMONTON—Standing in the Boot Scootin’ Boogie Dancehall, all Peter Downing wants to talk about is Alberta independence.
But try as he might, he can’t seem to focus the attention of the journalists who have flanked him.
Balding, with a neat beard and glasses, the 37-year-old former RCMP officer would not stick out in most crowds — but he’s here to lead this one. Standing near the bar in an Edmonton Eskimos shirt and a Make Alberta Great Again hat, he surveys the hundreds who have turned out to the Edmonton country-and-western saloon to profess their support for an idea that, before the federal election, might have seemed like a pipe dream.
Amidst the cowboy and farmer hats are embroidered caps with the phrases “WEXIT” and “Republic of Alberta”. Some wear them with mini Alberta flags pinned behind the back strap.
This crowd is here for a “Wexit” rally. It’s the first such rally since a federal vote that some have blamed for rekindling the spark of Alberta independence.
As reporters speak to Downing, their recorders and cameras extended, they’re asking what he obviously sees as the wrong questions — again.
They’re interested in his board of directors, and whether his members have ties to white nationalism, Islamophobia and conspiracy theories.
“If you guys want to make some kind of story or thing about board of directors, go right ahead,” says Downing, visibly frustrated.
“I don’t wanna lose my voice too much so I’ve got to finish my beer and then I’ve got to get to work.”
“Go ask these people what they think of me,” he says before heading into the crowd.
On this Saturday night in November, “these people” — all 700 of them — are the centre of what some say is a brewing storm of Western alienation in Canada.
And Downing is the man vowing to lead them to the promised land.
But Downing, who moved here from Ontario in 2006, has also emerged as a character cloaked in controversy for reasons aside from his political aspirations.
Whether it’s his ties to prominent yellow-vest-protest supporters, his past criminal convictions or his professed belief in conspiracy theories, the narrative he wants to focus on seems to be continually taking a backseat.
He says Wexit is about economic liberty, social stability and self determination, and that it is guided by its core values: toughness, integrity and a will to win. He has applied for official federal party status.
But whether he — or his movement — are ready for prime time, remains to be seen.
Rednecks and that ‘sock guy’
Downing takes to the stage, wearing a microphone headset that makes him look like he’s about to do a play-by-play for a football game. He stands next to an upside down Canadian flag held up by hockey sticks and starts to speak about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whom he refers to as “Sock guy.”
“He does not care about you, he does not care about me, he does not care about our future. And you know what? We’re going to take it back right now!” Downing roars to an emotional crowd.
Downing is fond of sports analogies and presents himself as an average Joe. He says Albertans need to start paying attention to politics the way they do hockey, and says he knows how to throw a heavy right hook and but also a strong left jab — a metaphor for Wexit’s bid to combine left- and right-wing politics.
He refers to Eastern Canada as a parasite. He calls politicians snakes. He says people who oppose Western independence are the “enemy” and will get “run over.”
As he riles up the crowd like a coach giving a locker room pep talk, Downing defends the term redneck.
“For anyone who wants to say it’s Rednexit … I’d say this: Redneck is our term for ourselves. And if you’re not from Alberta and if you’re not from Western Canada you’re nothing but an Alberta-phobic bigoted racist anti-western hate monger,” Downing says to laughter from the crowd, joking about how he sees the movement characterized by the media.
It’s not Downing’s first inroad into politics. He ran federally in 2015 for the Christian Heritage Party, which wants to govern under Biblical principles.
In many ways, Downing is the antithesis to a regular, polished politician. But this is not a regular political movement.
Wexit is a revival of the long-running idea to have Alberta separate from Canada and become its own nation. The support for separation has waxed and waned in this province for nearly a century and is often dismissed as a fanciful idea.
But after the recent federal election and federal Liberals’ return to power, Wexit saw a surge of support — the VoteWexit.com Facebook group’s membership surged overnight and currently has more than 260,000 members. The Nov. 2 rally in Edmonton was standing room only and received national attention. The anger, frustration and sense that Alberta will always be ignored by the federal government was palpable.
“It just infuriates me and every taxpayer in this province that we send money to the East and their lives are easier and cheaper than ours, on our money. It’s ridiculous,” said Berva Sawley, who drove three hours with her daughter from Fox Creek to attend the rally.
Gwen Dasilva said she’s tired of Albertans being cast as simply “a bunch of hillbillies from the West.”
Adam Yates, one of the Wexiteers at the Boot Scootin’ Boogie Dancehall, said the re-election of Trudeau was reminiscent of when his father, Pierre Trudeau, was re-elected in 1980. The announcement of the National Energy Program sparked the separatist Western Canada Concept party, which took nearly 12 per cent of the vote in the 1982 Alberta election.
“Our farmers got hit hard and they did absolutely nothing to help us. They just ended up giving a bunch of Eastern people, a free, uh, a free something,” Yates said. “I don’t know, it was before I was born.”
There’s a sense of being wronged, of being forgotten and left behind, embedded deep in the Alberta psyche, said Jared Wesley, a political scientist at the University of Alberta. It has, for generations, been passed down as inherited legacy.
Wesley sees parallels between Wexit and other populist movements across the globe. Supporters who spoke to Star Edmonton expressed admiration for Brexit, the United Kingdom’s separation from the European Union and U.S. President Donald Trump.
That’s no coincidence, Wesley said. Nor was it a coincidence that the Edmonton rally was mostly full of older white Albertans, he added.
“Folks that supported Brexit and supported Donald Trump were folks that felt left behind,” Wesley said. “And they felt left behind as individuals, but they also felt left behind as communities.
“That meant, in particular, white men and people who depend on white men for their livelihoods,” Wesley added. “Leaders that are able to tap into that, either explicitly, like the yellow-vest movement seems to be doing, or implicitly, through dog whistle-style politics. … People will, I think, support a politician that airs their grievances for them.”
For his part, Downing said he rejects hate and racism of all kinds. He likes to say he doesn’t care if people are “purple or polka dot” and points out how that his wife and kids are not white.
He said an independent Alberta would welcome people of all races, religions and backgrounds.
Wesley isn’t so sure. Establishing a sense of nationhood is often intrinsically linked to notions of ethnicity.
“When people think of nations, they think of homeland, they think of bloodlines and they think of race. … I wouldn’t actually be too quick to dismiss the connections between Wexit and white nationalism,” Wesley said.
No easy path to independence
The road to an independent Alberta is paved with logistical challenges. Alberta as an independent country would need to establish a military and border, realign pension plans, renegotiate treaties and secure access to tidewater. The list goes on.
In terms of forming government, Wexit would have to win the most seats the next provincial election, put forth a referendum on separation and receive a majority of Albertans’ support in order to secede. Alternatively, it could run MPs federally, form a majority bloc and convince the current provincial government that a referendum, which Premier Jason Kenney has shut the door on, is needed.
“That’s a pretty high hurdle. … I don’t see it as likely,” said David Stewart, a professor in the department of political science at University of Calgary.
“I think we need to distinguish between people who are disappointed or upset with an election outcome versus those who want to get out of the country.”
The movement has, nonetheless, received international attention.
The day before the federal election, Sputnik News, an agency sponsored by the Russian government, published an article about Wexit. Experts have since linked that article to a Russian propaganda campaign to amplify fringe movements and bring them into mainstream political discourse.
Downing said he’s even received interview requests from the BBC, but he’s always frustrated with the line of questioning.
“It’s always about pedophilia. And I’m like, well, look at all the other issues.”
‘Is Trudeau leading us to civil war?’
The questions about pedophilia stem from Downing’s espousing of conspiracy theories. As the executive director of Alberta Fights Back, a registered third-party political advertiser, he has previously purchased billboards in Edmonton with the words “Is Trudeau leading us to civil war?”
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The billboard also contained a series of phrases presented without context, such as “Fire arms ban,” “attacks on religion” and “normalizing pedophilia.”
Downing says the billboard was not accusing Trudeau of anything, but instead was a collage of political discussion points related to the prime minister that he’s seen online, put forth to generate discussion.
“It’s a mix of satire and a mix of very real issues,” Downing said.
Downing said the “Normalizing pedophilia” phrase on his old billboard is connected to a Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation document that contains a triangular logo on the third page of an annual report from 2016. The triangle vaguely resembles a secret symbol the FBI has identified as one pedophiles use to signal their sexual preferences with other pedophiles, but it’s not the same symbol.
“Just compare the two. It’s a very distinct (symbol),” Downing said.
Downing also alluded to an article about the prime minister accepting $2.2 million in “hush money” from a young woman at a school where he previously taught to keep an illicit relationship secret. The article is false and was featured on the Buffalo Chronicle, a discredited website that publishes unsigned articles with unnamed sources.
In June, Downing told Star Edmonton he believed Pizzagate, a debunked conspiracy theory linking high-ranking Democrats including Hillary Clinton to a child sex-trafficking ring, had some merit. The conspiracy theory led to a 2016 shooting at a pizza parlour in Washington, D.C.
Downing is a former RCMP officer and has also said he is a former member of the Canadian Armed Forces.
Court records show Downing was convicted of uttering threats in 2011 in connection to a domestic incident with his then wife. After an argument, Downing stated he would throw his wife out the window if she did not calm down. He claimed she had jumped on the edge of the bed, growled and leaned forward in a lunging manner and that he said he “could” throw her out the window as a escalation tactic to “snap her out” of her rage.
The judge didn’t buy his story and sentenced him to a conditional discharge with a nine-month probationary period. Downing appealed the ruling. His appeal was dismissed.
Downing said the incident happened 10 years ago when he was going through a divorce that was “hell” and that he has moved on with his life.
He doesn’t believe his personal background will hurt Wexit’s momentum.
“Anybody listening to this right now can determine if I’m credible or not,” he said.
Downing says he left the force of his own volition to enter the private sector.
A spokesperson for RCMP K Division said Downing resigned from the force in May 2015, but wouldn’t comment on anything prior to that because any internal actions undertaken within the RCMP are private.
Downing has also been questioned about his association to Patrick King, a yellow vest supporter who was a leader in the United We Roll Convoy to Ottawa and spoke at an Aug. 10 Wexit rally in Red Deer.
Yellow Vests Canada Exposed, a group that tracks far-right and hate groups in Canada, has posted videos of King making anti-Semitic and racist remarks about Chinese people. He is a proponent of a conspiracy theory that says Muslim leaders are spearheading a “depopulation of the Caucasian race.” In an interview, King said his remarks about white population replacement were taken out of context and defended his other remarks as a joke.
Previous reports have identified King as an organizer within Wexit and as a member of their board of directors.
Downing says he’s seen some “really good citizen journalism” from King, but said that while he may be a member, King doesn’t have an official role within Wexit. Downing made an effort to distance himself from King in an interview with Star Edmonton after viewing the video where King makes racist and Islamophobic remarks.
“We have an advisory board of directors. He’s not on that board, he’s not on our executive,” Downing said.
King, who had front-row seats at the Nov. 2 rally, told Star Edmonton he was at one point Downing’s “right-hand man” but has since moved away from any official role within the movement. He accused Downing of using Wexit as cover to launch a political career.
Predicting the future of Wexit
Political science experts said they don’t see much chance of Wexit going anywhere. But the anger and resentment from the federal election hasn’t gone anywhere either. Where does it go from here?
“Past conservatives have been able to keep the ugly side from bubbling to the surface,” Wesley said. “The question is whether the Conservative Party of Canada or UCP is any different from the Republican party or the Conservative party in the U.K., who were unable to really manage the movement.”
In many ways, Wexit is serving as a sterilized version of the yellow vest movement. Many of the same themes — anger at the federal government, a feeling of being left behind — are central. Many prominent yellow vesters who had leadership positions in that movement were at the Wexit rally.
Another carryover from the yellow vest movement appears to be virulent Islamophobia. A quick search of “Muslims” on the VoteWexit.com group produced many posts aimed at the religion’s adherents.
“Look, we do not have problems with Phlipinos (sic) or Chinese or south Americans.. We have problems with middle eastern people. They want every one to bow down to Allah! We do not want that.. we do not want to be them or like them,” posted a Facebook user named Clay Monk Stewart.
“If you voted Liberal or anything other than PC and if you are Muslim we don’t want you,” posted a user with the name Lisa Baldini.
Downing said his crew is working “overtime” to remove any hateful speech from the Facebook group.
It remains to be seen if Downing has the political prowess, or force of will, to stomp out any ugliness within Wexit.
The notion of Downing being an average Joe seems to play well with the Wexit base.
“He’s one of us,” said an energized Gwen Dasilva after the Edmonton rally.
“Maybe it’s better to be led by someone who’s not a politician, that way you don’t get the right wording, but just be honest with people,” suggested supporter Mathea Sawley.
Conor Newbury, a 20-year-old from Ardrossan who stood out in his fitted grey suit from the crowd at the rally, said his whole life has been characterized by western alienation.
He comes from a political family and his grandfather was involved with the Klein and Stelmach governments.
“I grew up in this; I really did, since I was young. Never saw much change, as far as east-west divide. … What I have seen is major important issues really, really getting eroded away,” he said.
He said he truly believes separation is the only path forward for Alberta, but he has reservations about Wexit and its leader.
“It’s not the way I’d like to see it going. What people need right now is a positive voice; they need an optimistic voice. … Right now the scene that is set is that it’s us against them,” Newbury said.
“I’d personally think, to see a spokesperson who’s a little bit more clean cut and a little bit more presentable to the public, might air better.”
After the rally, some castigated media for covering for what they see as a fringe movement led by a conspiracy theorist.
But others say it would be wrong to write off an aspiring political figure just because he’s steeped in such views.
After all, Wesley points out, “Donald Trump thought Barack Obama was born in Kenya.”