Fort McMurray, before the Bitumen Boom. Things have changed. Below: Conservative Fort McMurray-Athabasca candidate David Yurdiga, Liberal candidate Kyle Harrietha, NDP candidate Lori McDaniel, former Conservative MP Brian Jean.
If the good people of Fort McMurray climb out of bed this morning and decide to elect a Liberal to represent them in Parliament, there will be shock, dismay and consternation throughout Alberta.
Yes, today is the day after the weekend and the day before Canada Day on which there’s a federal by-election in the riding of Fort McMurray-Athabasca, which occupies most of the northeast quarter of Alberta. Fort McMurray, where most of the riding’s 72,000 electors live, is the principal city of the Athabasca Bitumen Sands region and what we might therefore call the heart of Alberta’s Tarpatch.*
The by-election in Fort Mac is one of four in the nation, two in Alberta. The other Alberta vote will be in the Macleod riding, in the heart of Wild Rose Country, literally and figuratively, directly south and west of Calgary. The other two, in Trinity-Spadina and Scarborough-Agincourt, are in metropolitan Toronto.
Now, you may wonder why four important by-elections have been scheduled on the day between a weekend and a national holiday, a Monday when a lot of people in Toronto and Alberta are bound to make a four-day weekend of it and be out of town.
The reason is explained simply in two words: vote suppression. This from the government that brought you the “Fair Elections Act,” a piece of legislation whose title cannot be printed without quotation marks around it.
Low turnouts, as most readers of this blog will know, tend to favor governing parties, which is what Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party of Canada, the national vote-suppression guys, hope will happen today.
The Fort Mac by-election became necessary way back in January when MP Brian Jean, a Conservative, announced he was pulling the plug on politics. Mr. Jean was pretty diplomatic about his reasons for deciding to commit stepaside – he said he’d done his work after serving the riding for a decade and wanted to spend more time with his grandkids, which is fair enough.
Reading between the lines, though, it was apparent that Mr. Jean found the life of a stalwart Alberta Tory backbencher, taken for granted even though he won by 72 per cent, pretty dull. Leastways, lately he’d been spending his time on Parliament Hill devising crossword puzzles. Too loyal to do something exciting like Brent Rathgeber, another bored Alberta Tory ignored by the prime minister, he left quietly while he still had some tatters of dignity.
Which brings us to today’s big event in Fort McMurray-Athabasca:
The Conservative candidate is someone named David Yurdiga. Mr. Yurdiga is an oilpatch guy, a consultant and rural municipal politician who owns one of the neatly trimmed goatees attached to the faces of a surprisingly large number of Alberta Conservatives nowadays. He refuses to talk even to the reliably Conservative Globe and Mail, the respectful newspaper that after careful consideration endorsed the Conservative Party led by Tim Hudak in the recent Ontario election.
The Liberal candidate is a fellow named Justin Trudeau … No, actually it’s someone named Kyle Harrietha, although Mr. Trudeau, the leader of the party, has been spending enough time in the riding that you’d be forgiven if you reached the conclusion he was the one who wants to represent Fort McMurray.
Mr. Harrietha is a former Parliament Hill staffer and has ties to environmental and non-profit organizations. In his website picture, he looks unnervingly like a youngish Stephen Harper with a full beard. The first of these things is important to the message the Liberals are trying to send.
The NDP candidate in the riding is a Suncor employee named Lori McDaniel. She is a fine person, but she is not, alas, really a factor in this particular race.
The Liberals are throwing a lot of support into the riding, as Mr. Trudeau’s frequent visits indicate, because they hope they can arrange a reprise of last fall’s election in Manitoba’s Brandon-Souris riding in which even a respectable loss can be portrayed as a victory.
This is, of course, because Fort Mac is where it is, and hence the kind of riding that one would think would for economic reasons support a government determined to export bitumen at any cost.
So the idea that people there might elect a representative of a party that says it both supports the environment and wants to sell bitumen, instead of a party that just wants to sell bitumen and the environment be damned, powerfully advances the Liberals’ narrative.
However, if the Liberals do manage to pull off a win, it won’t be that big an endorsement for environmentalism in the Tarpatch, which is one thing you’re sure to be told if you live in other places. And it won’t necessarily be proof Canadians are so fed up with Mr. Harper for all the things that bug the rest of us that even in Fort Mac they’d vote against him, another thing you’re likely to be told.
In actuality, people in Fort Mac will be making a judgment about which is the best strategy for shipping out bitumen and selling it – Mr. Harper’s, which doesn’t appear to be working at all, or Mr. Trudeau’s, which hasn’t been tried. The possibility the Liberals can persuade Fort McMurray voters they have a better, more internationally palatable, plan for marketing Tarpatch bitumen, is the reason they are in the horserace at all.
Whoever wins, it won’t be a big defeat for the NDP because the Opposition party will have to take a tougher line on the environment, sure to be death in Fort Mac, in order to win credibility elsewhere in the Dominion. So if the NDP did too well in Fort Mac, it would hurt them with core voters elsewhere – places like Trinity-Spadina where the NDP’s Joe Cressy is definitely in the running today.
Finally, if the Liberals do well, even if they don’t win, you are sure to hear that it’s evidence Alberta is finally changing, and that voters from other parts of Canada, of whom there are many in Fort McMurray, are finally bringing a diversity of political views to this province.
Well, there could be a grain of truth to this – and, Lord knows, we live in hope out here that it will someday happen – but while there are many folks from away in Fort McMurray, to a high percentage of them it’s a jobsite, not a home.
So we probably won’t have to hear Craig Chandler, the right-wing extremist from Calgary, ordering newcomers to vote Conservative because “this is our home and if you wish to live here, you must adapt to our rules and our voting patterns, or leave.” Mr. Chandler was born in Ontario.
If you’re progressive in your political views in this province, optimism that someday things will change runs deep. But we’ve had our hopes dashed too many times to really believe it will happen just yet – even in a place like Calgary Centre, which last year missed a by-election opportunity not to elect Joan Crockatt, the ridiculous MP who recently put out a press release explaining how “our planet is much greener because of fossil fuels.”
So, while one hopes profoundly for an entertaining and even uplifting result in Fort McMurray this evening, you’re really not advised to bet money on it.
And even if it happens, progressive people elsewhere in Canada need to remember that the demographics of Fort Mac are different from those of the rest of the province. So while the city is fortunate to be able to be described as “the second city of Newfoundland, if you go by population,” those of us who live elsewhere in this province cannot make that happy claim.
No, as goes Macleod, so goes Alberta.
And if Prime Minister Harper had sent an airfleet of F-35s to drop atomic bombs on Okotoks, Vulcan, Cochrane, High River and the other fine communities of Macleod, the survivors would crawl out of the rubble today and vote Conservative.
Everything you hear by way of analysis tonight? Take it with a grain of salt.
*NOTE: The Tarpatch. I coined it, and I want the credit in the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. This post also appears on Rabble.ca.