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Alberta Premier Danielle Smith makes an announcement at the Chinese Cultural Centre in Calgary on April 14.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

Why is Calgary the central battleground in next month’s Alberta election? Because the city is now the home of political diversity in the province – at least when it comes to provincial politics.

This state of affairs might come as a surprise to some who see Calgary as many outsiders do – as Cowtown, the heartland of Canadian conservatism. The city still has those claims to fame. But it’s also a place where competition between the United Conservative Party and the Alberta NDP is nearly a blood sport.

This is due to a number of changes in the city over the past 10 years, including a fracturing of the political homogenization that once characterized Calgary’s tight-knit, conservative business community. The great humbling that came with low oil prices and successive economic losses between 2015 and 2020 has left its mark.

Business deal-making in Calgary is now almost as likely to be about renewable energy or compressed-natural-gas fuelling stations as it is about new oil drilling. The oil price decline, uncertainty about whether new energy projects will be given a green light, and a new focus on climate change has pushed people out, and brought others in.

Even if some of the attention to green energy is performative – as is the case everywhere – some of it is not. There is widespread recognition that emissions matter. Alberta’s biggest industry, and the bread-and-butter of Calgary’s corporate world, is in the midst of a series of massive changes.

The city’s political shift is also a result of an influx of newcomers driven here from other parts of the country and abroad by work, or by the lure of more affordable residential real estate.

I used to scoff at the people who would say Alberta politics changes because of in-migration. Many of the people who move to Alberta also want to buy in to the idea of Alberta – the land of opportunity and second chances, that pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps-and-get-to-work mythos.

I used to point to Rachel Notley and Naheed Nenshi as evidence that the province’s political change is driven from within. They were homegrown leaders who were changing assumptions that the province was a monolith of conservatism. Alberta progressive politics has often been thwarted, but it has been in ascendancy these past 10 years or so.

But last year changed some of my thinking in this regard, particularly when I saw the debates over the Sovereignty Act play out. There were major concerns expressed not only by Indigenous leaders and the political left and centre, but also by immigrants. They believed they had immigrated to Canada, not Alberta. And they were concerned by the idea that our landlocked province could go it alone.

And as Red FM news director Rishi Nagar has pointed out, everyone should be looking to the northeast quadrant of Calgary – the home of the working class of the city – to see which way the election tide is turning. “In 2015, when Rachel Notley became premier, her NDP won all but one seat in this quadrant. In 2019, when Jason Kenney replaced her, the UCP also lost only one northeast riding,” he wrote in a CBC column.

But Mr. Nagar argues the quadrant has to some extent been turned off by the UCP as a result of two key moments in the early days of the pandemic. The first was the provincial lack of enthusiasm for providing residents with additional help in the aftermath of the massive June, 2020, hailstorm. The second was when Mr. Kenney commented that multigenerational living and large gatherings of South Asian families were partly responsible for the high rate of COVID-19 spread in the northeast.

Meanwhile, the workers in that part of the city were the ones keeping hospitals clean, driving taxis and Ubers, and stocking grocery store shelves.

In 2021, about one-third of Calgary’s population was made up of immigrants (compared with 23 per cent in all of Canada, and about one in four Edmontonians). Together, first- and second-generation immigrants represented six out of 10 residents, a majority.

It’s not only the people who have changed. It’s the politics. Some conservative voters are still unsure about whether Premier Danielle Smith’s leadership is a change for the better from the Kenney days, or whether she has pushed the UCP too far to the right. And although conservatism runs deep in the city, the Alberta NDP is more acceptable as a political choice than it once was.

This thesis doesn’t apply as neatly to federal politics. That’s because westerners as a whole – a few ridings in Edmonton and Calgary aside – still don’t believe federal Liberals or NDP really care to represent the province, its people or its industries.

The Alberta NDP is likely to win most or all of the provincial seats in Edmonton, and the UCP is likely to win many of the contests outside the province’s two major cities. In Calgary – which one of the parties must win to win the election – UCPers know the overall math favours them.

The NDP has a difficult path to victory against a united right. But still, conservatives are worried. They are worried about what Ms. Smith will say during the campaign, what issue will flare up, and what proportion of conservative-minded voters will turn up to vote. This is why the race in Calgary will be one the whole country will be watching.

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