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Federal election 2019: Conservative sweep of Alberta illustrates deep well of resentment facing Trudeau

The Globe and Mail with Melanee Thomas 22 October 2019

 

Albertans led a wave of voters across the Prairie provinces who have rejected Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, exposing a deep well of resentment with Ottawa that his minority government will need to confront.

Early results showed the Conservatives set to win a series of resounding victories across Alberta and Saskatchewan, looking likely to claim all but one of the 48 ridings in both provinces. The NDP won a seat in Edmonton.

Only four years ago, the Liberals achieved their largest breakthrough in decades, winning four seats in Alberta’s largest cities. The party lost all four ridings on Monday.

Voters across Alberta felt ignored by the federal parties during the election campaign, including by Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, who avoided talking about oil and gas development with voters in other regions of the country. The rallying cry of the “West Wants In” that united Albertans during the eighties and nineties has been replaced by anxiety over the province’s place in Canada.

The election has been a time of heightened emotions in Alberta, amplified by continuing delays to pipeline construction. Years of economic pain has inflamed resentment across the Prairie provinces, a region that has a long history of feeling exploited by the country’s political elite in Toronto and Montreal. Tens of thousands remain out of work in Alberta and the province has yet to fully recover from a recession that ended in 2016. Some economists have warned that Alberta’s economy may have slipped into a mild contraction this year.

 

In the few instances Alberta came up in the election campaign, debate was limited to whether the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline should continue. The pipeline’s federal supporters in the Liberal and Conservative parties were largely muted while New Democrat and Green opponents loudly pledged to stop the pipe. Many Albertans have grown skeptical the expansion will ever be built.

Alberta has also lost a regional ally in British Columbia as that province’s NDP government has opposed any new pipelines to the Pacific.

Separatist sentiment, still confined to the political fringes, is increasing in popularity and displacing the long-time grievance of Western alienation. The focus in the campaign and during the one English debate on more aggressive climate change policies, to the detriment of the province’s energy industry, has fuelled a groundswell of anger from corporate Calgary to small-town Legion halls.

“In past elections there was a conversation about economic prosperity and environmental sustainability. It’s now become a question of only doing one, there is no talk of balancing both from any leader. It’s been really frustrating,” said Martha Hall Findlay, president of the Canada West Foundation and a former Liberal MP.

Melanee Thomas, a political scientist at the University of Calgary, said she’s worried Albertans have been primed to believe any outcome that doesn’t meet their wishes, namely a Conservative majority, won’t be a legitimate democratic outcome.

“There’s this narrative in Alberta that if you’re not with us, you’re against us, and it’s being expressed through partisan affiliations,” she said.

Despite running a successful campaign in 2015 that saw his party capture four seats in the province, Mr. Trudeau has been deeply unpopular in Alberta and many blame him for the province’s economic woes. Many Albertans in daily conversation bring up their belief that the Trudeau government’s $4.5-billion purchase of Trans Mountain was motivated by a desire to block the pipeline’s expansion, a stroke of counterintuitive logic and deep cynicism that has left many Liberal supporters shaking their heads.

The federal leaders largely stayed clear of the province. Mr. Trudeau visited Edmonton on the second day of the campaign and held a late-night event near Calgary’s airport on Saturday. Mr. Scheer visited both of the province’s largest cities and Green Leader Elizabeth May attended a climate protest in Calgary.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, whose party does not support the Trans Mountain project and is at odds with the provincial NDP on this issue, didn’t set foot in the province during the campaign.

Melanee Thomas is a political science professor at the University of Calgary.