On a recent Wednesday, Liberal candidate George Chahal and his team of volunteers are door-knocking their way down Martindale Blvd., a major thoroughfare in Calgary Skyview – and one of the few federal constituencies in Alberta potentially in play this federal election.
Evening routines are interrupted, children peek from behind their parents at the strangers on their doorsteps, and a senior invites Mr. Chahal in for tea. Many of the single-family homes have stripped-down exteriors and are still under repair for severe damage incurred in a history-making hailstorm that hammered neighbourhoods in the northeast quadrant 15 months ago.
COVID-19 has been another difficult trial for the diverse, working-class Calgary riding. Many residents live in multi-generational households, and hold public-facing jobs as taxi or Uber drivers, or do work at long-term-care centres, grocery stores or distribution centres.
Mr. Chahal, a one-term city councillor, listens to concerns about public transit or a lack of sports facilities, and talks the party lines on “a strong economy” and the need to “diversify and transition” on energy. On this evening, he goes to the doors of supporters his team has identified and skips the homes displaying a lawn sign from the campaign of his chief rival, Conservative incumbent Jag Sahota.
When it comes to federal politics, Alberta is mostly a sea of blue. The outcome of the past federal election in 2019, when anti-Justin Trudeau sentiment was at a peak, was that 33 of Alberta’s 34 seats went to the Conservatives. After winning four seats in 2015, the Liberals were completely locked out of the province four years later.
Still, this year’s federal election has created a few competitive races in the province, in a small group of key ridings in Calgary and Edmonton.
Nik Nanos, chief data scientist at Nanos Research, and the official pollster for The Globe and Mail and CTV News, said he puts the Alberta ridings of Edmonton Centre, Calgary Centre and Calgary Skyview in the “too-close-to-call” category, with the races being between Conservative and Liberal candidates.
In Edmonton Griesbach, Mr. Nanos said it’s a contest between the Conservatives and the NDP. And he predicts that the NDP’s Heather McPherson will hold Edmonton Strathcona, long a New Democratic stronghold.
Still, Mr. Nanos argues that Conservative candidates are still more likely than not to win those “exceptional races.”
But the issue that cannot be ignored is the pandemic’s fourth wave. As the month has progressed, it’s been difficult to keep a focus on a federal campaign when Alberta hospitals are being squeezed by an influx of unvaccinated COVID-19 patients. There’s uncertainty about whether further public-health restrictions will be again enacted by the province in the days and weeks ahead.
As this is playing out, Liberal candidates are emphasizing how federal income and business support programs have been a lifeline for many Albertans in the year and a half of the pandemic. And those candidates also argue that Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, and his United Conservative Party’s unpopular response to the pandemic, is a liability for the federal Conservatives in this election.
“It is probably one out of two people at the door talk to me about the Premier,” said Sabrina Grover, the Liberal candidate in Calgary Centre. And Mr. Chahal also finds it politically advantageous to emphasize the UCP’s troubles – he made sure this month to Tweet out a Liberal ad with the message that Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole and Mr. Kenney are “cut from the same cloth.” He said the Premier’s leadership is brought up unprompted, as well.
“What I’m hearing is ‘we want people who make good decisions and work together for the best interests of everybody so we can open up our economy,’ “ Mr. Chahal said. “That’s where the frustrations are coming, and you know, a lot of those frustrations are directed toward the Premier.”
Mr. Kenney, who campaigned in Ontario on behalf of the national party in 2019, even after becoming Alberta’s Premier, is conspicuously absent from any Conservative events this year.
But others doubt that any dissatisfaction with the provincial government will have an impact on federal election results. Mr. Nanos, for one, said the Conservatives continue to dominate Alberta, and he doesn’t believe there will be any significant fallout from what’s going on provincially.
“Regardless of what Albertans think about their provincial government, they hate the Liberals.”
Conservative candidates will almost certainly win most Alberta ridings on Sept. 20. Mr. O’Toole has run a strong campaign. He doesn’t have the same baggage on socially conservative issues that former leader Andrew Scheer did – which had definitely been a point of concern in ridings such as Edmonton Centre and Calgary Centre two years ago (when Conservatives were still elected there).
And according to successive polls in recent years, Albertans have far more economic angst than people in other parts of the country. The Conservative’s pro-energy-industry messages speak to a large contingent of voters who don’t believe Liberal or NDP platforms come close to addressing where the prairie region’s jobs and wealth will come from in the years ahead.
“People in my community are wondering about their employment prospects long-term, and their ability to pay for the basics,” said Michelle Rempel Garner, the high-profile incumbent Conservative running for re-election in Calgary Nose Hill.
“While those concerns were there before, they certainly have been exacerbated by the pandemic.”
However preoccupied Albertans might be with the economy, they’re not immune from concerns about climate change, vaccine mandates, or larger culture-war stirrings as the country comes to grip with its residential-school past, sexism and systemic racism.
The personal popularity of both federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley could help that party hang onto Edmonton Strathcona and perhaps even gain a seat in Edmonton Griesbach – where young Métis leader Blake Desjarlais has been campaigning for months to present a challenge to Conservative incumbent Kerry Diotte.
“I hear every day that Alberta is true-blue. It’s never going to change. And I so much beg to differ,” said Mr. Desjarlais, who added that the time has come for Indigenous representation from Alberta.
“Indigenous people – we’re going to come out to vote this time,” he added. “We’re not going to accept the false promises we have for so long. We’re upset. And we want to make sure that we actually get ahead.”
As a show of some confidence, Mr. Singh made an appearance in Edmonton Griesbach last month. Similar to Liberal candidates campaigning in Alberta, Mr. Desjarlais said he’s hearing massive concern about the current strain on the province’s health care system. He said a common comment at the doors is: “There’s a federal election. There’s a municipal election. The only election I actually want is a provincial one.”
Mr. Desjarlais also said he’s hearing a lot about Maxime Bernier as he knocks on peoples’ doors. The most recent polls are showing momentum for his People’s Party of Canada. Mr. Bernier – who almost won the Conservative party leadership in 2017 – has attracted supporters with his argument that Canadian governments are imposing “authoritarian measures” in reaction to the pandemic. He’s become known for using inflammatory rhetoric, including describing Mr. Trudeau as a “fascist psychopath.”
“This is something people should be paying attention to,” Mr. Desjarlais added. “I don’t think it’s a problem for Canada today. But I think it will be a problem in five or 10 years. And the Conservative Party should be looking at its right flank, because it’s going to be serious for them.”
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