Fear and loathing on the campaign trail
Wildfire conspiracy theories have set Alberta ablaze. A First Nation is testing the legal authority of B.C.’s mining laws. And after the horrors uncovered by an Ontario inquest, education in Thunder Bay is getting better.
Alberta’s provincial election isn’t until Monday, but voters are already hitting the advance polls hard. When I asked our columnist Max Fawcett to sum up the campaign in a few words, his first response was: “How do I do it without swearing?” (He didn’t.) Read on to learn what he had to say about climate policy in Alberta, the rise of the far right and why this election is a “hinge point” not just for Alberta but the whole country.
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— Dana Filek-Gibson
Looking for more CNO reads? You can find them at the bottom of this email.
‘Always bet on chaos’
By Monday evening, Alberta will have a new premier (who, if polling is any indicator, could look a lot like the old premier, Danielle Smith). After a tumultuous month of campaigning, voters in the province will head to the polls — several of which have changed locations thanks to raging wildfires — to decide who should shepherd Canada’s most oil-and-gas-producing province into the future. Will it be the United Conservative Party, promising tax cuts for Albertans and a new hockey arena in Calgary, or Alberta’s New Democrats, with a vow to raise corporate taxes and build more hospitals and schools?
If you ask Max Fawcett, the whole campaign has been “an unsurprising shitshow.” It was no great revelation that the NDP built its strategy around targeting Danielle Smith, he tells me — the UCP leader has compared vaccinated Albertans to Nazi supporters, advocated for privatizing health care and recently notched a conflict of interest violation over conversations with her former justice minister about a high-profile pastor protesting COVID-19 restrictions. “I think the more striking thing is how little it feels like that's resonating.”
As election day nears, I asked Max, who’s been closely following the campaign — both as a Calgary resident and CNO’s lead columnist — to weigh in on how the election has gone so far and what comes next.
On climate change
As voters head to the polls, Alberta is literally on fire. The province remains in a state of emergency, battling 51 active wildfires as of Friday afternoon, 14 of which are out of control. Thousands of Albertans have been forced from their homes by the blazes, but with strict election laws in place, the provincial vote must go on.
And yet, even though the consequences of climate change are unfolding in real time across the province, the issue didn’t get much play during the campaign. To Max, that’s at least in part because of how the climate conversation is framed in Alberta.
“Conservatives have been very successful at positioning climate change as sort of the yin to the economy's yang,” he explains. That means people think they have to choose between protecting the planet and having a job.
“Even for Alberta — in some respects, especially for Alberta — the energy transition offers a lot of really exciting economic opportunities. But again, the left has not done a good job of talking about that; they haven't sold that part of the story,” Max says. “And so … the story (Alberta voters) hear most often is, climate policy kills jobs.”
That’s far from true — just look south of the border, where the Inflation Reduction Act has created more than 100,000 clean energy jobs in the U.S. But to hear Max tell it, the NDP hasn’t quite sold Albertans on a prosperous energy transition. Without a vision for the future, he argues — one that highlights what we stand to lose in the climate crisis and what we stand to gain from embracing a clean economy — it’s no wonder voters aren’t sold on facing the problem head-on. But the longer the province waits, he says, the worse things will be.
“If we sit on our hands here in Alberta, put our fingers in our ears and pretend that the world isn't moving on, the world won't just stop moving, it will move on without us,” he says. “And the economic damage from that will be just as great, if not greater, than anything climate change could possibly wreak.”
‘This is crazy stuff’
Danielle Smith may be the face of the UCP, but Max is just as worried about who lurks in the shadows. Take Back Alberta — a far-right group whose leader has equated women who put their careers ahead of having children as a “war between the pro-humans and anti-humans” — has captured considerable power within the party.
“This is crazy stuff. And it's not someone writing a pamphlet and putting it under your windshield wiper, this is someone who has the direct line to the premier's office and could very easily shape policy, could very easily shape personnel choices, could very easily replace Danielle Smith with someone even further to the right,” Max says. In fact, he argues, it’s likely Smith won’t see a full term as premier.
“If they don't like the decision that she makes, you know, the conservatives in this province have a well-documented track record now of eating their own… So, you know, if you don't like Danielle Smith, don't assume that her replacement will be more moderate, more sane, more, more towards the middle. It could be even worse.”
Voters might be apathetic to some of Smith’s wilder claims, but Max warns that however you might feel about the UCP’s push to the right, it could come with some unintended consequences.
“If you're a pro-business Calgary voter who just wants to pay less in taxes, maybe it's time to look at the bigger picture here. Because I'm just gonna jump out on a ledge here, but I'm guessing having a far-right religious theocracy is not good for attracting capital. And maybe that's a little more important than corporate tax rates.”
Alberta’s ‘hinge point’
This election is a “huge hinge point for not just Alberta, for the country,” Max says, especially on climate policy.
An NDP win would mean a greater focus on how to kick-start the clean energy economy in Alberta, he argues. The party would “work co-operatively and constructively with the feds because they're grownups and that's what grownups do,” Max says. “They will find common ground, they will move forward on these key policies, and I think we would see some really interesting things start to happen in Alberta.”
Conversely, if “the UCP wins, that's not gonna happen. And that's lousy for Alberta. It's lousy for future generations. The part of this that I find frustrating is how, and this is true of every election … but how little time and space has been given to the interests of voters 10, 20, 30 years from now, because they're the ones who are gonna have to pay the price. Not me, not even my son. But those voters.”
Which is why his own election prediction makes Max grimace. His guess? UCP 48, NDP 39.
“I say that with no joy. But you know, in Alberta, you always bet on chaos.”
Read more on the Alberta election
More CNO reads
David Johnston is the right man for the wrong time. There are a few lessons in the special rapporteur's report on foreign interference, in case anyone in Ottawa wants to learn them, writes columnist Max Fawcett.
‘Birders, not blockaders’ ask B.C. to protect old growth in Fairy Creek. A group of concerned citizens are banding together to protect the marbled murrelet, a rare robin-sized seabird that raises its young in old-growth forest, Rochelle Baker reports.
Quebec launches North America’s largest electric bus project. The province leads Canada’s adoption of electric buses, a move that will improve air quality and lower greenhouse gas emissions that cause global heating, Abdul Matin Sarfraz reports.
A whale of a case. Environmental groups are taking the federal government to court over a massive Metro Vancouver port expansion project that will threaten killer whale habitat, Natasha Bulowski reports.
Atlantic premiers ask for more time. The premiers argue Canada's clean fuel regulations shouldn't go into effect “until a plan can be developed to address the disproportionate impact of the regulations on Atlantic Canadians,” Cloe Logan reports.