There was no bigger sign that the Alberta New Democrats were about to make electoral history in 2015 than the burgeoning rallies that sprung up around Rachel Notley here in Calgary.
The first indication that something was up came in 2010, when the executive centre of the province’s oil and gas industry elected a progressive mayor: Naheed Nenshi, the first Muslim to lead a major city in the country.
And by 2015, the Progressive Conservatives had been in power in the province for 43 years. It seemed people – including those in the towns and cities, which outside of Edmonton had always been safehouses for right-of-centre political parties – were ready for change, even if it meant electing a party that had long been caricatured as a bastion of communism.
In the past, a dozen or so party diehards might have attended NDP rallies in Calgary. Suddenly, hundreds were jamming into halls and auditoriums to hear what Ms. Notley had to say. Her message didn’t appear to scare anyone – at least not enough to stop Albertans from booting the Tories from office. The NDP took 14 of Calgary’s 25 ridings.
The city’s love for the NDP proved short-lived, however. In 2019, it dumped the party for its old conservative flame. Well, a new version of it: The United Conservative Party under Jason Kenney won 23 of the city’s now 26 seats, reducing the New Democrats’ take to three seats from 16.
Now, four years later, the city’s affections are being fought over again. The UCP under Premier Danielle Smith believes that, with its expected domination of rural Alberta, it will win enough seats in Calgary to be re-elected. It wasn’t that long ago that this idea seemed absurd – such were the depths to which the UCP had descended in the eyes of the public. But a recent rise in support means Calgary is now the major battleground: the place where NDP dreams of victory will either be affirmed or go to die. (A new Abacus poll has the two parties in a statistical tie in Calgary, and in the province overall.)
“I think in 2019 the province was going through an almost existential crisis when it came to the economy, largely because of the historically low returns for oil,” Ms. Notley told me last week over coffee in a downtown Calgary café. “A barrel of oil was down to $30 while we were in office and people wondered if it would ever return to where it once was.”
And, of course, Ms. Notley was basically blamed for it all. Mr. Kenney also campaigned against her carbon tax, which he convinced Albertans was the worst thing to hit the province since, well, the NDP itself. And when he wasn’t blaming her for all of Alberta’s woes, he was blaming Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who he portrayed as Ms. Notley’s BFF. It mattered not that in 2016 those two combined forces to get Alberta the pipeline to tidewater it had long been seeking.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Ms. Smith is employing the same strategy ahead of the province’s May 29 election. The Premier has effectively characterized the Alberta NDP and the federal Liberals as a modern-day axis of evil. And in Alberta, that old trick could work again.
“I think the rather cartoonish approach the UCP has decided to take with Ottawa has actually hurt Albertans and I’m happy to have that conversation,” Ms. Notley says. “Look, the conventional oil and gas market will continue to have a role in Alberta’s and Canada’s economy. That’s a fact. But we have to promote and sell a more sustainably produced and lower carbon product.”
In other words, she says, the province has to address what international markets are demanding, rather than deploying anti-Ottawa policies such as Ms. Smith’s sovereignty act.
“That is just reality, and no amount of huffing and puffing and setting up fake police forces and those sorts of things is going to change what international markets are demanding,” she adds. “She can yell at Justin Trudeau all she wants but that won’t change a thing.”
Ms. Notley says her party’s go-to issues remain health care and education while also being strong on economic matters. She knows she will have to fight off UCP smears that the NDP wrecked the Alberta economy when in office. She’s happy to put her record up against the UCP’s over the past four years, especially when you factor in the difficult economic circumstances that formed the backdrop to most of the NDP’s time in government.
“We will not be lectured to by the UCP when it comes to economic matters,” Ms. Notley says. “In fact, we won’t be lectured by them on any matters. They’ve been a disaster for Alberta. Full stop.”