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NDP Leader Rachel Notley and United Conservative Party Leader Danielle Smith on the Alberta election campaign trail.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

Albertans don’t spend all of their election campaigns agonizing over provincial autonomy issues. For all the attention Danielle Smith managed to draw with her signature policy last year, her United Conservative Party has barely whispered “sovereignty act” this year. Polling on the subject would tell the party the polarizing law would repel undecided voters. In many ways it’s a typical provincial election campaign with concerns about health care, education and the economy top of mind for voters.

But that doesn’t mean the Alberta First sentiment behind the law isn’t an undercurrent in the leadup to the May 29 vote. The province also has a decades-old political culture of pushing back against Ottawa, which means a key ballot question in any election is which party is more adept at handling the relationship – as it stands – with Ottawa.

With its abundance of oil and natural gas – in quantities that would change the political trajectory of any jurisdiction on Earth – Alberta and its economy are more than its 12-per-cent share of Canada’s population. The decision by Alberta voters in the days ahead will be felt across the country.

Expect more of a cantankerous relationship with the federal Liberals should Ms. Smith win the election instead of Rachel Notley’s NDP. And it might be over issues that don’t immediately come to mind.

For instance, while opposition to a plan variously called the Just Transition or Sustainable Jobs makes for a snappy sound bite, the much thornier issue is the coming battle with Ottawa over a plan to cut oil and gas emissions by more than 40 per cent by 2030. Both of Alberta’s leading parties are opposed to the plan. But the messaging from Mr. Smith’s UCP party will be more combative while Ms. Notley has expressed openness to a more realistic goal.

And it might appear to be a nothingburger for provinces that have abundant hydro resources, but greenhouse-gas emissions from electricity production in Alberta – and Saskatchewan – is a more complicated matter. Alberta just spent billions of dollars weaning itself off coal-fired power. The UCP says the federal government’s plan to mandate net-zero electricity generation across the country by 2035 is unreasonable and will be a massively expensive endeavour. The NDP, however, supports the timeline and the shift to net-zero.

If federal Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre becomes prime minister in the next couple of years, expect a meeting of minds on energy, should the UCP win. Mr. Poilievre has said he backs Ms. Smith over her concerns about what she’s called Ottawa’s anti-oil and gas agenda. Both politicians hail from Calgary – they have known one another for a quarter of a century, the federal leader said last year. Both draw on similar “freedom”-focused conservative movements that made them both harsh critics of vaccine mandates during the toughest pandemic years. They are aligned on other issues, as well, with Mr. Poilievre praising Alberta’s model for drug-addiction treatment, which includes skepticism of supervised consumption sites.

But those connections won’t soothe every difference. Other, less-talked about UCP preoccupations – should they win office – are likely to mean more. On the controversial and consequential question of the long-time UCP push to see Alberta break away from the Canada Pension Plan, Ms. Smith has said it’s a topic to be revisited after the election and the NDP is scare-mongering on the issue.

In February, however, Finance Minister Travis Toews’s office said a provincewide referendum on the issue could come as soon as 2024, and a long-awaited consultant’s report examining the costs and benefits of a provincial pension plan was favourable to Alberta going it alone. Proponents of the plan say Albertans, with their high incomes and high rates of labour participation, could receive more benefits for less in the way of contributions. The consequences for Albertans might not be totally clear but the downside for the rest of Canada is likely to be a more expensive pension system. Rachel Notley’s NDP is firmly against the idea, calling it a “risky gamble.”

There is also the question of how the Alberta election results could influence other provinces. Manitoba’s October election is set to be a matchup between the Progressive Conservatives and NDP. A win by Ms. Notley in Alberta could boost Manitoba NDP Leader Wab Kinew in his quest to win against a governing conservative party. A win by Ms. Smith, on the other hand, bolsters a coalition of conservative premiers who at times have acted as a united opposition to the federal Liberals on big files including energy and climate.

Differing approaches on health care by the next Alberta premier could also benefit or hurt the recruitment plans of other provinces, too. Parts of the province’s health care system had been a point of pride to many, prior to the pandemic. But on Wednesday, an open letter signed by many of Calgary’s emergency room doctors said the system is “collapsing.”

“We cannot bear to watch our patients suffer any longer with no end in sight,” said the letter signed by 192 physicians, who spoke of a lack of primary care and hospital beds, and staffing shortages and burnout.

“Almost three-quarters of the respondents indicated that the results of the upcoming election will further impact how or if they decide to continue practising medicine in Alberta,” the letter added.

Alberta stands out as the province where unfilled training slots for family doctors increased the most, doubling to 22 from 11 vacancies last year. Some attribute this to the province not allowing international medical graduates – a group that includes Canadians who study at overseas medical schools – to participate in the second round of matching this year. Others say the UCP’s at times combative relationship with doctors, nurses and others medical professionals have driven some out of the province, and the ideas espoused by Ms. Smith – including her vocal vaccine skepticism and support for alternative therapies for COVID-19 and cancer – are having an effect.

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