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Tar Island facility located at the Athabaska Oil Sands north of Fort McMurray, Ab., on Aug. 31/2010.  The Fort McMurray-Athabasca riding should be an easy Tory win, but the foreign worker program decision has tightened the race.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Fort McMurray, the heart of the oil sands, is hardly a hotbed in Canadian politics. The riding had the lowest voter turnout in Canada – 40.3 per cent in 2011 – and Conservatives have regularly won huge victories.

However, Fort McMurray-Athabasca is up for grabs again on Monday, one of four by-elections – and a real race is shaping up.

With the help of Justin Trudeau, former prime minister Paul Martin and former deputy prime minister Anne McLellan, the Liberals are making a push in the riding. Party insiders now expect they have an outside shot – still unlikely, they concede – of victory.

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Changes to the temporary foreign worker (TFW) program and a lack of federal infrastructure funding have stoked unrest in the riding, the Liberal candidate Kyle Harrietha says. Meanwhile, the community has surged in size over the past decade, making Fort McMurray the type of urban centre where Liberals tend to fare better.

The race evokes that of the Manitoba riding of Brandon-Souris, a Nov. 25, 2013, by-election in which the Liberals did well – particularly in the City of Brandon – falling just 389 votes short of winning a long-time Conservative stronghold. A similar trajectory is shaping up in Fort McMurray, where the Conservatives got 72 per cent of the vote in 2011.

"I'll let the voters decide if I have a chance," Mr. Harrietha said. "… I've gotten a great response at the doors from people who really do want to see political change with their federal representation, and we'll see what the results are on election day."

It's a sprawling riding with low turnout: just 2,659 voters cast an advance ballot in Fort McMurray-Athabasca, the lowest of any of the four ridings being decided on Monday, Elections Canada said. Conservative candidate David Yurdiga, who declined interview requests, is the deputy reeve of Athabasca County, which lies along the southern edge of the riding. Mr. Harrietha is from Fort McMurray.

The Liberals are pouring resources into the riding, where they earned just 10 per cent of the vote in 2011. Mr. Trudeau has visited three times. Audrey Poitras, president of the Métis Nation of Alberta, said she has spoken with Mr. Martin and Ms. McLellan over the past week – an apparent push to woo Métis support in a riding that includes a substantial Métis population. (Mr. Harrietha, the Liberal candidate, is the general manager of a Fort McMurray Métis organization, though not Métis himself.)

"For us, it's about having someone there who will work with us. We don't ask for things to be handed out, we want to work with people. We want to contribute to what's going on in our communities … in that riding, we do have a person who has worked very well with the Métis community, Kyle Harrietha," Ms. Poitras said, later adding: "I've certainly talked with Anne McLellan and Paul Martin. Of course, they're as interested as anyone else in making sure we get a person [elected] that's going to work with everyone."

Mr. Yurdiga's campaign website focuses on his experience as a consultant, entrepreneur and municipal politician, saying he has "a strong understanding of the individual needs and interests of each town and community" in the riding.

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Mr. Harrietha has criticized the Conservatives for ignoring the infrastructure needs of Fort McMurray. "It's pretty clear they take this area for granted, and my plan [if elected] is to be a very squeaky wheel and try to convince this government to start treating these as real communities, and not just work camps," he said.

Mr. Trudeau's media blitz in the riding focused largely on the TFW program, saying in more than one interview it's the federal government's most "anti-Alberta" policy in decades. In one interview with Fort McMurray's Country 93.3 radio station, he compared the race to Brandon-Souris.

"It was a transformation," he said. "I think it really made a lot of people take notice that there is a choice now. People don't have to feel taken for granted by the Conservatives. We can send a very, very clear message by getting out on Monday and voting for the Liberal Party."

By the numbers

According to a 2012 municipal census report, the overall population for the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo increased by 14.5 per cent, from 104,338 in 2010 to 116,407 in 2012. Among residents who identified Canada as their country of origin, 56.2 per cent are from Alberta. Other top provinces include Newfoundland and Labrador (15.2 per cent) and Ontario (7.8 per cent) and British Columbia (6.5 per cent).

Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo

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2012 total population: 116,407

Growth between 2007 and 2012: 32.1%

Overall growth since 2000: 124.5%

Fort McMurray

2012 total population: 72,944

Growth between 2007 and 2012: 11.5%

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Overall growth since 2000: 71.2%

Project Accommodation (Work Camps)

2012 total population: 39,271

Average annual growth rate between 2000 and 2012: 17.1%


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With a report from Bill Curry

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