PHOTOS: Neal (Bernard the Roughneck) Hancock’s first appearance on a well-known right-wing video blog in January 2015. (Screenshot) Below: Progressive Conservative leadership candidate Jason Kenney with his new friend Bernard, who was making a rare public appearance in mufti; Shannon Stubbs with her husband Shayne Saskiw and a friend; and Conservative Energy Critic John Barlow. Bottom: Mark Wells.
The “Bernard the Roughneck” campaign rolled out against the Trudeau Government in Ottawa a week ago has been in preparation for at least seven months, possibly longer.
However, while each of the Canadian Association of Oilwell Drilling Contractors, the Conservative Party of Canada, and Rebel Media appear to have been directly involved in aspects of the effort, and both Alberta’s Wildrose Party and the frontrunner for the leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party have played supporting roles, it cannot be determined who started the ball rolling or the degree of co-operation among the participants in this piece of political performance art.
Bernard himself has turned out to be Neal Hancock, 32, who at various times in the past few years has been a resident of Vancouver, where he lived with his parents after losing his oil patch job, Grande Prairie, where he worked as an oil industry roughneck, and Lennoxville, Que., where he studied communications, media and political science at Bishop’s University and appeared in at least one amateur thespian production.
According to Rebel Media, Mr. Hancock came to their attention when they “heard his passionate defence of Canada’s resource industry” at a Vancouver protest against the Kinder Morgan Pipeline. Rebel Media’s first interview with Mr. Hancock was published on Jan. 30, 2015, according to the website, and he began making regular appearances dressed in his work coveralls on the far-right video blog founded by self-styled “Rebel Commandante” Ezra Levant shortly before the registration of the web domain names a year later.
A Feb. 20, 2016, Rebel interview with Mr. Hancock is still running under the now-slightly-embarrassing headline, “No, he’s NOT an actor: Bernard, the outspoken roughneck has a new message for anti-pipeline protesters.”
Mr. Hancock later turned up at National Energy Board hearings in Vancouver into the Kinder Morgan project wearing his work clothes and being interviewed by journalists.
Meanwhile, according to John Bayko, communications vice-president of the CAODC, which bills itself as “the leading advocate for the Canadian petroleum service industry,” Mr. Hancock came to the group’s attention about the same time he began to make regular appearances on Rebel Media. “Bernard dropped by our office here in Calgary and introduced himself just after our Oil Respect campaign started in February, 2016,” Mr. Bayko said in an email in response to my query.
Mainstream media reporters on the Hill took the bait hook, line and sinker when Mr. Hancock – again dressed in his blue boiler suit and red hardhat, streaks of dirt apparent on his face – dramatically declared: “I’m not a guy from Calgary in a suit. I’m not a guy who’s knowledgeable about public policy or the processes that go on in buildings like this. I’m a roughneck…”
This too has become slightly embarrassing in light of the revelation he studied political science not so long ago at university and really should have known a thing or two about public policy!
Upon examination, the Oil Respect petition itself appears to have been a politically partisan effort to make it appear Prime Minister Justin Trudeau doesn’t support the oil patch because he hasn’t adopted the unsuccessful strategies of the previous Conservative government to get a pipeline built.
Among those appearing with Mr. Hancock in his Bernard persona were CAODC President Mark Scholz, Lakeland Conservative MP Shannon Stubbs, and Conservative Opposition Deputy Employment Critic John Barlow, the MP for Foothills.
Mr. Scholz, according to Alberta Oil Magazine, was at 17 a founding member of the Alberta Alliance Party, which became the Wildrose Party. He was chief of staff to Paul Hinman, the first leader of the Wildrose Party, in 2008, and was a member of the party’s executive council for five years. The Oil Respect campaign is said by the magazine to have been his brainchild.
Small petroleum companies like the drillers who are members of the CAODC have a long history in Alberta right-wing politics. They helped bankroll the nascent Wildrose Party in the mid-2000s, when they took issue with Progressive Conservative Premier Ed Stelmach’s efforts to implement a modest increase in royalty rates.
“The real trigger for the rise of the Wildrose party as a major player on the Alberta political stage was Ed Stelmach’s royalty review,” Dr. Bratt explained in the Calgary Herald in 2012. “Wildrose started to receive some heavy donations from individuals and corporations within the oil and gas sector.”
Ms. Stubbs, like Mr. Scholz, is a former chief of staff to a Wildrose Leader – in her case, Danielle Smith, whom she served from 2010 to 2012. She is married to former Wildrose MLA Shayne Saskiw, a tax lawyer, who today is the principal in an Edmonton-based lobbying and strategic consulting firm.
Ms. Stubbs, the Conservatives’ deputy natural resources critic, used her Sept. 23 news release introducing Mr. Hancock, whom she described both as the initiator of the petition and as “an unemployed oil sands worker who resides in Alberta,” to attack the proposed national carbon tax using the Wildrose Party’s “tax on everything” talking point. According to information on the Oil Respect site, Mr. Scholz is the petition’s initiator.
Ms. Stubbs’s description of Mr. Hancock was controversial, since a statement he made on Facebook about the same time indicated he was employed. In its release, the CAODC described him as “an oil and gas worker struggling to find employment in the downturn.”
Before embarking on his career in politics, Mr. Barlow was a rural newspaper editor in the towns of High River and Okotoks, both a few kilometres south of Calgary. In the 2012 Alberta election he ran as a PC candidate in the Highwood Riding and was defeated by Ms. Smith.
In other words, any one of them should have known enough to make sure their chosen spokesperson wouldn’t be revealed as less – or more, depending on how you look at it – than he was billed to be.
Meanwhile, Wildrose Party Leader Brian Jean and other Wildrose MLAs have kept up a stream of Tweets supporting Mr. Hancock’s efforts. Progressive Conservative Leadership candidate Jason Kenney did them one better, accusing those who have pointed to these inconsistencies in the CAODC-Wildrose-CPC-Rebel Media narrative about Bernard the Roughneck of mounting “personal attacks” against Mr. Hancock.
As for Mr. Hancock himself, he suggested in a Sept. 21 Facebook post that the campaign would likely soon turn to attacks on Alberta Premier Rachel Notley: “There is lots of stuff going on politically in the next 6 weeks that’s in the works and it’s got Notley in its crosshairs,” he stated.
Public Affairs Bureau director to exit his post
Mr. Wells, who has a young family and has been successfully pursuing a law degree on a part-time basis for several years, is extremely capable. I don’t imagine the NDP Government will be happy to see him go. With his law degree complete, he will now move on with the next steps in his legal career.
Mr. Wells’s appointment was harshly criticized last year by the Wildrose Party on the spurious grounds he had been an employee of a large public sector union, which is a bit like saying a Conservative government should never hire anyone who had worked as a corporate executive.
The departure of this important employee with roots in in rural Alberta creates a significant gap for the NDP at a key point in the life of its first government.
This post also appears on Rabble.ca.