A United Conservative Party member seeking nomination as the party's candidate in Edmonton-West Henday for the 2019 Alberta election has been disqualified for defending attendance at a party event by members of the anti-immigration group called the Soldiers of Odin.
Lance Coulter said he knew about the group's background as white supremacists, but he described them as "polite" and "cordial" after speaking to members at a pub night in Edmonton last week.
UCP executive director Janice Harrington said those comments, which were reported by the media after a candidates forum Wednesday night, were the basis for Coulter's disqualification on Thursday.
"We are … extremely disturbed to learn that you were knowingly aware that members of a controversial group accused of hate were at a UCP event, yet did not attempt to notify members of the constituency association immediately in order to protect the Party's reputation," Harrington wrote Thursday in a letter to Coulter.
"What's more, you declined to note your prior awareness to the Party when the matter was raised with you on Sunday, thus further compounding the harm. It seems that you were knowingly deceptive on this important point."
Harrington also wrote that the UCP's nominations committee "strongly disagree with your seemingly sympathetic assessment of Soldiers of Odin and are frankly disturbed with your cavalier attitude taken to a hate group attending a United Conservative Party (UCP) event.
"This incident has resulted in reputational harm to our party and its many members."
Coulter responded to the disqualification on Facebook by first thanking UCP members in West Henday and people across Alberta for their emails and phone calls.
"Your support and kind words have only strengthened my resolve to do what I believe is right," he wrote. "I will not lie for political expedience, I will not simply smile and tell people what I think they want to hear, I will treat all people with dignity and respect."
Soldiers of Odin is an anti-immigration group founded in 2015 in Finland by Mika Ranta, a white supremacist. The Canadian branches of the group describe themselves as non-racist conservatives who seek to keep Canada safe.
The incident at a pub night on Friday has been an embarrassment for the party. Coulter and candidates Leila Houle and Nicole Williams posed for photos with group members.
The pictures were then posted on the Soldiers of Odin Facebook site.
Symbol on clothing
Both Houle and Williams said they didn't know anything about the group. But Coulter told reporters prior to Wednesday's forum he knew who they were before he posed for the camera.
Coulter said he looked up the group when he recognized the Soldiers of Odin symbol some members had on their clothing.
He said he read a CBC story that noted how some Canadian branches have said they don't hold the same extremist views as the original Finnish group. He decided to "give them the benefit of the doubt," he said.
"People showed up to an event. They were polite. They were cordial. I said hello, had a conversation with them," Coulter said.
"Now I don't agree with everything that they stand for. Nevertheless, people have a constitutional right to voice their opinions and I'm not going to deny them that."
The photos prompted Premier Rachel Notley to call on UCP Leader Jason Kenney to take a stronger stand against hate groups. That led Kenney to suggest the premier was engaging in "gutter politics."
Asked on Thursday about the Coulter disqualification, Notley said she was glad the party took action but noted that other UCP members with homophobic and racist views were still allowed to run for nominations.
"I suspect the reason that this one is happening is because we are raising the issue," Notley said. "We will not let the notion of civil discourse somehow be translated into the notion that we don't talk about these things.
"We must talk about these things to make sure that the disturbing rise that we see across the continent is combated."
In her letter to Coulter, Harrington said Kenney has been clear that hateful groups are not welcome at UCP events.
"We disagree with your statement that 'everybody has the right to attend' UCP events," Harrington wrote.
"Hate and racial intolerance has no place in the United Conservative Party. And we do not agree with your view that we should be 'cordial' to racists simply because they are 'polite.'
"A polite racist is still a racist."