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Edmonton-Strathcona 'one little orange blob' amid sea of Tory blue

James Kosowan, centre, and his kids, Zach Kosowan 7, and Claire Kosowan 10, prepare for supper at their home in Edmonton's Strathcona area. Conservative candidate Ryan Hastman will be running against NDP incumbent Linda Duncan in the riding that has been lacking federal support and funding under Stephen Harper's government.

Jason Franson for The Globe and Mail/jason franson The Globe and Mail

It's here along Edmonton's Whyte Avenue, a leftist enclave in the heart of conservative Canada, that a Harper rebuke took hold.

The popular strip is the city's cultural capital. It's home to students, artists and young professionals, while independent businesses peddle antiques, records, tattoos and liquor. Buskers flock here, wedged between the patios that line the bustling sidewalk.

The influential University of Alberta is minutes away to the west, while its French campus, a francophone community hub, is minutes to the east. And Whyte is the home of the Fringe Festival, one of the most cherished attractions in a city with a strong theatre community.

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It's this ragtag, bohemian pocket that has become a bane to Conservative Leader Stephen Harper, the single missing piece in an otherwise all-Tory-blue political puzzle. The battle for the Edmonton-Strathcona riding is isolated but symbolic - demanding that Mr. Harper divert attention from other battlegrounds to try to firm up an Alberta base where some constituents feel increasingly taken for granted.

"This is a bit of a bubble," said Honey Case, 37, a mother of two and an employee at a Whyte Avenue art store. "One little orange blob."

The story of how it went New Democrat - the only non-Tory riding out of Alberta's 28 - dates back to 2006. It was then that Liberal MP and former deputy prime minister Anne McLellan lost her nearby seat in a Tory sweep. For non-Conservatives, Edmonton-Strathcona then became the next best hope.

In 2008, volunteers rallied behind New Democrat Linda Duncan, an environmental lawyer with deep roots along Whyte. A "Liberals for Linda" campaign emerged to avoid a vote split.

The riding is fertile ground in this government town. Locals here are largely students and seniors, slightly poorer and about twice as likely to live in apartments compared to Alberta averages. However, they're educated - about one-third have a university degree, compared to one-fifth at the provincial and federal level - while 30 per cent walk or take the bus to work, twice the provincial average. Far fewer homes, compared to provincial averages, have children.

It also helped that in 2008, they were going up against Conservative Rahim Jaffer, who wasn't often seen along Whyte. When the last vote was counted, the grassroots swell that rallied behind Ms. Duncan pulled off an unthinkable, razor-thin 463-vote victory.

Now, the battle is on again: The Conservatives want Edmonton-Strathcona back.

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Their hope lies in the suburban swaths in the east and south of the riding, where they're trying to garner enough support to offset Ms. Duncan's Whyte Avenue loyalists.

On the south edge, Benita Mueller's home is one of several with a Ryan Hastman sign.

"We've always been for the Conservatives," said Ms. Mueller, 50, an administrator at a local cabinet company. She'll support Mr. Hastman, 31, simply "because we're Conservative, and he's the one in my area."

However, Mr. Hastman's campaign has stumbled. It was discovered that Sebastien Togneri, a former Tory aide under investigation by the RCMP, was helping his campaign.

Mr. Hastman sent out a one-line written statement saying Mr. Togneri had left. But for much of that week, he avoided the media, earning two unflattering portrayals by prominent local newspaper columnists.

Even in traditional Conservative households, Mr. Hastman is struggling to inspire support. "I have the feeling he's not of the calibre of the others," said Bill Pelech, 83, a retired teacher and long-time Tory supporter. But voting for anyone else would be unfathomable - he, too, has a Hastman lawn sign.

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"No Duncan. We're not socialists," he said, laughing. "For some reason, we blew it [in 2008] Jaffer seemed to ignore the university, and universities are full of socialists."

Meanwhile, support for the 61-year-old Ms. Duncan is abundant, particularly along Whyte.

"I'm going to vote for Linda. I think she'll do more for me than Ryan Hastman, who needs to figure himself out. Linda knows who she is," said Connie John, 52, owner of the Two Rooms café on Whyte and, in the past, a Conservative supporter.

The local connections of Ms. Duncan (when she visits Ms. John's restaurant, she orders the lentil soup) go a long way.

"When you're talking about swaying a few dozen votes here or a few dozen votes there, to change the outcome or solidify Duncan's position as MP, then local issues matter," said University of Alberta political scientist Steve Patten.

Both candidates bear the weight of their own party's unpopularity in pockets here.

Jack Layton did Ms. Duncan no favours when, last week, he criticized the oil sands during a visit to Quebec.

But Mr. Hastman's problems may run deeper. Many local residents remain frustrated that the city's two marquee summer events, the Fringe and Folk Music festivals, didn't receive funding last year from a federal stimulus tourism fund.

"That's a big deal in this community. The Fringe is Whyte Avenue. There is no separation," said Sarah Jackson, 27, a graphic designer who owns a coffee shop on the street.

And the Harper government reneged on supporting the city's Expo 2017 bid, which would have redeveloped part of the university campus and included funding for an LRT line through part of this riding.

This doesn't play well, particularly given Toronto's successful Pan Am Games bid. Any whiff of preferential treatment for Ontario through stimulus programs or major event support can deal a major blow to a candidate in Alberta.

"Considering the Prime Minister has championed the idea of Ryan Hastman winning [the riding] and for the last year and a half at least, it's astonishing to me that he didn't realize he was leaving Ryan out there to hang," said Ruth Kelly, a former chamber of commerce chair who helped lead the Expo bid.

And the ragtag rebellion continues. Some have decided to support Ms. Duncan simply to avoid a sweep in the province, to send a message to Mr. Harper that the festivals and Expo hopes of Edmonton cannot be ignored.

One such voter is James Kosowan, 45, a married father of two who lives in a suburban swath of the riding that would traditionally be a base of Conservative support. He and his wife plan to vote for Ms. Duncan.

"I just don't think it's healthy in any type of democracy to have just one party blanket dominating the political agenda" in Alberta, he said, "as if we speak with one vote."

Edmonton-Strathcona, by the numbers

A comparison of Alberta riding to the province as a whole



Voter turnout in previous election:

63 per cent

53 per cent

Per cent of population under the age of 15:

12.1 per cent

18.7 per cent

Per cent never legally married:

43 per cent

34 per cent

Per cent living in apartments:

38.1 per cent

19.1 per cent

Average household size:

2.1 per cent

2.6 per cent

Per cent with at least one university degree:

31 per cent

17 per cent

2005 median household income:



Source: Statistics Canada

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Josh is a parliamentary reporter in Ottawa. Before moving to the nation's capital in 2013, he covered provincial affairs in Edmonton and throughout Alberta. He joined the Globe in 2008 in Toronto before returning to his home province in 2010. More

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