Will the pandemic change Albertans’ federal voting habits?

With Canadians expected to head to the polls next month, political watchers are wondering if several factors, including the pandemic, will jolt Albertans out of their usual pattern of electing electing federal conservative candidates.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is expected announce an election for Sept. 20 on Sunday in a bid to secure his Liberals a majority in Parliament. The October 2019 election resulted in a Liberal minority government. 

Alberta typically elects MPs on the conservative side of the spectrum. In 2019, all but one of the province’s 34 electoral districts were won by candidates from the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC).

The Liberals lost their two Alberta seats in Edmonton Centre and Edmonton Mill Woods. The lone outlier was Edmonton Strathcona which elected Heather McPherson from the NDP.

However, several factors may shake up that dynamic in 2021, particularly in Calgary and Edmonton. 

The unpopularity of Alberta’s United Conservative Party (UCP) government and Premier Jason Kenney may hurt the chances of CPC Leader Erin O’Toole. Kenney has angered people on all sides for doing too much — or not enough — to curb COVID-19 cases in Alberta.

People are frustrated at his government’s battle with physicians in rural areas, the controversial K-to-6 curriculum, the loss of $1.3 billion over the Keystone XL pipeline and the ongoing negotiations with Ottawa on an agreement to provide $10-a-day daycare.

The UCP government was caught off-guard by the intense backlash over a since-rescinded decision to open up parts of the Rocky Mountain foothills to coal mining.

Lisa Young, a political scientist at the University of Calgary, is watching to see if the UCP’s unpopularity will take votes away from the CPC.

“If the federal Liberals are able to tap into the visceral anger at the provincial government and convert that into people being willing to go out and vote Liberal, then they’re potentially able to have some cheap seats change hands,” Young said. 

The fledgling Maverick Party could also siphon away Conservative votes in rural parts of Alberta.

Then there’s the COVID-19 pandemic, arguably the most significant factor of all. The federal government took a prominent role in procuring vaccines and providing economic relief for businesses and individuals whose livelihoods were affected by the pandemic.

Conservative Party of Canada Leader Erin O’Toole joined Alberta Premier Jason Kenney for a session at the UCP’s virtual AGM in October 2020. (Submitted by United Conservative Party of Alberta)

Young wonders if the stresses of the last 17 months of COVID-19 have inspired a shift in people’s attitudes and priorities. 

“We have been through such a weird time over the last year and a half,” she said. 

“Maybe it’s a predictable campaign, but there’s a lot of simmering anger in different directions … I think this is potentially one of those elections where the campaign really matters.”

The pending election means every party besides the CPC still needs to nominate more than half of its candidates in Alberta.

The Liberals have 13 nominated candidates so far; the NDP have 14 in place.

The Maverick Party has 17 candidates in Alberta. The People’s Party of Canada, another party on the right, has 16 candidates so far. The Green Party has five Alberta candidates.

The CPC, Liberals and NDP plan to run candidates in all 34 ridings. 

New party targets CPC

The Maverick Party could be a wild card, especially in rural Alberta which consistently elects right-of-centre candidates. 

The party is running candidates only in the four Western provinces; 25 are in place now.

Jay Hill, the former CPC MP who is leading the party on an interim basis, says the focus is on ridings where conservative support is large enough to prevent a Liberal or NDP candidate benefiting from vote-splitting on the right. 

The 17 Alberta candidates are primarily in rural areas, with a handful in Calgary, Fort McMurray, Red Deer, Grande-Prairie and Medicine Hat.

Hill likens Maverick’s regional focus to the role the Bloc Quebecois plays in Parliament. 

The party advocates for what it calls a “twin-track” approach to giving Alberta more power. If elected, its MPs would push for a more independent Alberta within the Canadian federation. If that doesn’t work, they would advocate separation.

Hill said his party is targeting people who traditionally support the CPC but are frustrated by O’Toole’s need to appeal to voters in seat-rich Ontario and Quebec.

“We think that we have a pretty good chance of … convincing westerners that continuing to vote Conservative or for that matter, any of the federal parties that have to appease and appeal to voters in central Canada, is not the way to go,” he said.

“The West has to change and this is a way to constructively change either within Canada or to look at future independence.”

Political scientist Young isn’t bullish on the Maverick Party’s prospects. She said the party wouldn’t likely take away enough votes to defeat CPC candidates in the electoral districts they’re running in.

“When the Conservatives are getting 70 or 75 or 80 per cent of the popular vote in an electoral district, to lose five or 10 per cent to the Maverick Party really doesn’t make any meaningful difference,” she said. 

Young said the party will also be competing against candidates from the People’s Party of Canada, whose leader Maxime Bernier has opposed vaccinations and COVID-19 restrictions. 

Calgary in play?

Young is watching whether high-profile candidates can flip two Calgary ridings from Conservative to Liberal. 

Calgary city councillor George Chahal is the Liberal candidate in Calgary Skyview, which is currently represented by Conservative Jag Sahota. Calgary Confederation was a close race in 2015 with Conservative Len Webber holding off his Liberal challenger, Matt Grant, by just under 1,600 votes. 

Webber, a former Progressive Conservative MLA, is facing Liberal candidate Murray Sigler, a former president of Canadian Airlines and CEO of Sport Calgary. 

Calgary Centre is currently held by Conservative Greg McLean. The riding was previously represented by Liberal Kent Hehr but Young is surprised the party isn’t running a higher profile candidate this time. Sabrina Grover, a policy and advocacy officer with Nutrition International, was acclaimed by the Liberals in June. 

In Edmonton, two ridings lost by the Liberals in 2019 could be in play. Edmonton Centre has regularly flipped between Conservative and Liberal MPs. Former Liberal MP Randy Boissonnault is back for a rematch against Conservative James Cumming, who came out on top two years ago. 

Ben Henderson, a 14-year veteran of Edmonton city council, is running for the Liberals in Edmonton Mill Woods against Conservative Tim Uppal. Uppal defeated Liberal cabinet minister Amarjeet Sohi in 2019. 

Sohi is running to become Edmonton’s mayor in the Oct. 18 municipal election.

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