With more than 2.5 million people and $250 billion in combined GDP, the cities of Calgary and Edmonton are the driving force behind Alberta’s prosperity. They’re home to the head offices of Alberta’s biggest companies, the seat of its provincial legislature, and the beating heart of its arts and culture scene. And according to new Premier Danielle Smith, her entire electoral strategy revolves around ignoring the people who live there.
This probably sounds like a form of politicial suicide, and in most other provinces in Canada, it would be. Even in Alberta, where 41 of the legislature’s 87 seats are located outside its two major cities, it’s a very dangerous gamble. But it’s one she seems determined to make and foreshadowed almost immediately by calling a byelection for herself in Brooks-Medicine Hat instead of the vacant seat in Calgary-Elbow.
The 2021 Canadian census showed the continuing urbanization of a once-rural province, with 87.7 per cent of Albertans now living in cities, towns, villages and specialized municipalities. Many of those smaller communities still vote reliably — indeed, almost religiously — conservative, but the trend here is clearly not Smith’s friend. So why then does she seem so willing to write off places like Calgary and Edmonton? “When rural Alberta gets mad at the governing party, they go create a new political party,” she told Calgary Sun columnist Rick Bell. “That’s when we see a vote split. That’s when we lose.”
That’s a long way from the ambition that Jason Kenney showed as leader, and the overwhelming majority he won in 2019. His prosperity-oriented message was intended for all corners of the province, including — and perhaps, especially — Calgary. If you’re a Calgary-area voter, much less one of its UCP MLAs, Smith’s talk has to make you nervous. But it’s in keeping with Smith’s style of politics, which has always elevated the concerns and grievances of rural Alberta above anything else. “I don’t intend to try to win every vote,” she told Bell. “I recognize if I’m stretching to reach certain seats, I’m probably going to lose Rimbey-Rocky Mountain House-Sundre.”
Instead, her government seems determined to serve the interests of anti-vaccine rural Albertans, who make up a tiny slice of the overall population, above almost everyone else. That mindset helps explain why she described unvaccinated people as “the most discriminated against group that I’ve ever witnessed in my lifetime,” a remark that’s already landed in the digital pages of Forbes magazine and been used by Ontario hospitals to recruit health-care workers. It also helps explain why she didn’t, and almost certainly won’t, apologize for that remark.
But Smith, who has a reputation for making big political gambles — witness her disastrous decision to cross the floor with eight colleagues and join Jim Prentice’s PC government — might be making her biggest one yet. Those 41 seats she’s identified aren’t all rural or agrarian, and many have been held by non-conservatives in the past. Grant Notley, the current NDP leader’s late father, served as the MLA for the Peace Region for many years. Shannon Phillips, the former environment minister, has served two consecutive terms representing Lethbridge. And there are growing pockets of progressive politics in places like Medicine Hat, Fort McMurray and Red Deer.
For Rachel Notley and the Alberta NDP, this is the political equivalent of an opposing hockey team pulling their goalie at the start of the third period. Politicians have missed empty nets before — as Peter MacKay said, that was the story of Andrew Scheer’s leadership in the 2019 federal election — but it certainly makes the game easier to win than it would be otherwise.
That said, no one should assume the game is won. Notley and all of her Edmonton MLAs and staffers should be relocating to Calgary as soon as humanly possible, and they should spend every available moment they have from now until next May pounding its pavement. With Smith surrendering Edmonton and effectively ceding most of Calgary to them, they should press their advantage and take the fight to the ridings that Smith needs to win.
They should also be rallying the mayors, councils and other leaders in Alberta’s cities and municipalities behind their cause. Starving the province’s economic and cultural engines of oxygen is as much a threat to their interests as anyone else’s, and the prospect of enduring four years of Smith’s rural-oriented leadership might open some eyes and clear some throats. Yes, they’d pay a price for speaking out if she wins, but they should be highly motivated to avoid that outcome — at almost any cost. More importantly, so should the millions of Albertans who live in its cities.