For most attendees, the Calgary Stampede is a 10-day party.
For politicians, this is work. And, for Liberal politicians, all this pancake flipping and two-stepping for potential votes is practically Herculean.
After all, Liberal is pretty much a dirty word in a place where the political blood largely runs true blue Tory.
That’s why Quebec Liberal MP Justin Trudeau, who donned a white cowboy hat and slapped on a big shiny belt buckle, made a point of shaking hands with the hundreds of people lined up Saturday morning at a pancake breakfast hosted by a local Liberal MLA.
“Someone who chooses to be a Liberal in Calgary isn’t doing it because it makes them popular, isn’t doing it because it helps them in their job or the work context,” Mr. Trudeau explained, “They’re doing it because they believe it. And for me, recognizing that and congratulating people for that, is really important to me.”
But even though Mr. Trudeau took in the parade with his wife and children as well as the chuckwagon races, during his second pancake breakfast of the morning he acknowledged that Stampede is work, not just a vacation.
The city will soon see a federal by-election after the resignation of Conservative MP Lee Richardson in Calgary Centre, who is now working for Alberta Premier Alison Redford, and the national Liberal party is gearing up for leadership contest to be held next spring.
Little wonder elected Liberals from the East have descended on the city for the Stampede’s centennial to drum up support for both races.
They see Calgary as an opportunity, not an obstacle.
Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae, who also took in two pancake breakfasts Saturday with Mr. Trudeau, used the visit to rally party faithful and attack Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper on his own turf.
“There are a lot of people who share the Liberal vision in Alberta,” Mr. Rae said.
Calgary hasn’t elected a Liberal federally since 1968 when Trudeamania swept the country. Today, there are no Liberal MPs in Alberta and the party was reduced to a rump and lost Official Opposition status in the last federal election. The NDP now have that role, and retained its single seat in this province.
Alberta saw its first provincial Liberal government in 1905 when the province was founded, but hasn’t had one since that dynasty was kicked out in 1921.
Calgary is now home to three of Alberta’s five Liberal MLAs. That provincial party also lost Official Opposition status in April’s provincial election to the right-wing Wildrose Party.
But pundits and optimistic Liberals say this federal by-election in Calgary Centre could be significant and a chance for the centrists to gain ground.
“People feel the sense that there’s a real opportunity to send a message to Mr. Harper that people aren’t happy with the way he’s running things,” said Mr. Trudeau, who will announce by summer’s end whether he’ll run for the Liberal leadership.
Alberta environmentalist and former lawyer Harvey Locke used a Liberal Stampede breakfast as his opportunity to declare his plan to seek the nomination for the party in Calgary Centre, which is considered one of the city’s most progressive ridings.
"Let's be clear: any Liberal running [in] an election in southern Alberta faces small odds,” he said, “But there is a difference between horses against machine guns and David and Goliath. And I think this seat is a David and Goliath proposition, not a horses and machine guns proposition - because one is pointless and the other you have a chance."
Calgary teacher Rahim Sajan also used the pancake circuit to glad-hand for votes as he vies for the Liberal nomination. He said it’s a myth that Calgary is a tough environment for the Liberals.
“There are lots of people who are Liberals here,” he said, as about 500 people showed up to a partisan breakfast, “We just have to find them and organize them.”
Mr. Harper hasn’t called the federal by-election - it might not happen until the new year - but observers said the true fight will be on the right as hopefuls throw in their hats to contests the Conservative nomination. Already political pundit and former newspaper editor Joan Crockatt, as well as current city alderman John Mar, are considered the frontrunners in that nomination race.
Keith Brownsey, a political scientist with Mount Royal University in Calgary, said the Liberals could win the seat -- although chances are very slim -- should the Tories pick a candidate who offends local voters.
“If the Conservatives choose a bad candidate, or a candidate too far out on the right wing, and the Liberals choose someone who is popular, well-know, [with] a good profile in the constituency of Calgary proper, then all bets are off,” he said. “It is anyone’s game.”
He said the Harper Tories could pay for the “almost endless [list] of minor Conservative scandals,” such as controversy over the costs of the F-35 fighter jet program, Afghani detainees, robo-calls, outgoing cabinet minister Bev Oda’s spending habits, and the government being held in contempt of Parliament.
However, Duane Bratt, another political scientist at Mount Royal University, believes it’s a slam dunk for the Tories regardless of whose name is on the ballot.
“It is going to be a battle between the right wing of the Conservative Party and the very, very right wing of the Conservative Party,” he said, “The battle will be in the nomination, not the election.”