Former finance minister Travis Toews and former minister of children's services Rebecca Schulz have backtracked and cancelled their participation in a United Conservative leadership forum co-hosted by a pro-independence group.
Toews's campaign co-chair told CBC News on Friday that Toews's team didn't realize what the Alberta Prosperity Project (APP) advocates for, though the first page of its website states: "The road to freedom and prosperity is through independence."
A Schulz spokesperson confirmed to CBC News that she will also bail on the debate after having previously committed to attending.
The advocacy group is scheduled to host a leadership forum with several of the top candidates on Aug. 25 in Edmonton, co-hosted by Rebel News, a right-wing media group.
Danielle Smith, Brian Jean and Todd Loewen are also billed as participants. All three confirmed Friday they are participating in the event.
In a joint statement, Toews and Schulz said they were not attending because it's a fundraising event "in support of a third-party advocacy group that supports an independent Alberta."
They also expressed concern with a plan laid out on the APP's website they say would set up a competing political party with constituency associations.
"We hope other candidates reconsider their positions supporting separatism," added Toews and Schulz.
In a statement, APP's chief executive Dennis Modry said the decision by Toews and Shulz not to participate is a sign they "don't represent every Albertan."
"Their unwillingness to engage in political dialogue sends a message to thousands of APP members and Albertans who follow our organization," Modry wrote to CBC News.
"Political dialogue is a sign of a progressive society, and by not engaging, it is a clear indication that they don't care about every Albertan. It also shows they don't want to answer tough questions."
Chris Warkentin, co-chair of Toews's leadership bid, says his campaign was disappointed to learn that the APP was using the event to raise funds for itself. It's selling dinner tickets for $150 each, and $350 VIP tickets that offer special access to the candidates.
Information of the group's aims, and the ticket prices, were on the group's website and social media since early August, but Warkentin says it's only in recent days that Toews's organizers realized it.
Warkentin takes the blame.
"I didn't do due diligence on this," said the campaign co-chair, a Conservative MP in northwest Alberta.
Supporters had vouched for the credibility of APP, Warkentin says.
"I should have done what normal people would do, and Google this group," Warkentin said.
Toews's decision to back out of the pro-independence group's fundraiser comes one day after CBC News inquired about his participation. Several hours later, Schulz informed CBC that she would be withdrawing from the debate, too.
In an emailed statement on Friday, Danielle Smith said "of course" she is still attending the event.
"Why on earth would we marginalize this group and its thousands of supporters by pulling out of their forum? These are just regular, hard-working Albertans extremely frustrated with Ottawa. I think most Albertans understand that frustration. I sure do," wrote Smith.
"I would remind Travis that we need to go and speak with these Albertans and convince them that Canada can still work if Alberta leads the way in ensuring our Constitution is followed and our provincial rights are reasserted and protected, and explain to them how we plan on doing that."
She added that she hopes Toews reconsiders his decision not to attend.
Stances on independence
None of the UCP leadership candidates are advocating outright independence from Alberta, though several take positions that would change the province's relationship with Canada.
However, Smith has said her Day 1 priority as premier would be initiating a bill called the Alberta Sovereignty Act. It would purportedly enable the province to cease enforcing any federal laws it unilaterally deems not in Alberta's interests, or intruding on its jurisdiction.
Jean has said he'd broadly fight for "autonomy" for Alberta, while other candidates, except for Loewen, have criticized Smith's "sovereignty" play as unconstitutional, chaotic and harmful to Alberta's business investment climate.
The APP is not a political party but an organization launched in January. Its leaders have toured the province holding lectures and barbecues promoting their vision of an independent republic of Alberta.
Toews's initial plans to join an event co-hosted by Rebel News was at odds with Jason Kenney's past decision to dissociate from Ezra Levant's often inflammatory and activist digital operation, which the outgoing premier said in 2017 had taken an "alt-right editorial direction."
UCP cabinet ministers have largely steered clear of Rebel News, although Jean and Smith have recently done interviews.
Lori Williams, an associate professor of policy studies at Mount Royal University, says she isn't surprised there are candidates backing out of this forum.
"I'm not surprised that there are people questioning whether they want to be in this event because of the organizations involved in this. You're certainly far outside of the mainstream," she said.
However, she added, this could have been an opportunity for more moderate candidates to question Danielle Smith on her proposed Alberta Sovereignty Act.
"But it might just sort of be flirting too much with the fringe … and be more of a liability than a benefit," said Williams.
"I frankly have been surprised that any of the candidates, other than Danielle Smith, Todd Loewen and Brian Jean, would be involved in this. This sort of falls within their traditional, sort of, further right position on the spectrum."