Federal NDP struggle to hold ground in Edmonton
Despite its labour roots and progressive reputation, the party is at risk of losing its footing in the city as an incumbent MP steps down
By JUSTIN GIOVANNETTI
Saturday, October 12, 2019 Print Edition, Page A19
EDMONTON -- Heather McPherson is in a careful balancing act.
She's campaigning to hold Edmonton-Strathcona, Alberta's only NDP riding, for her party and promising to fight for pipelines in spite of her leader's firm opposition to the Trans Mountain expansion project.
The New Democrats have held the riding for more than a decade, but incumbent Linda Duncan is stepping down, opening up a three-way race for what is widely perceived as one of Alberta's most progressive ridings.
With pundits warning that a Conservative wave could sweep the province's 34 seats in the Oct.
21 election, Ms. McPherson says Strathcona is where the New Democrats will make their last stand in Alberta.
Edmonton has a history of breaking with Alberta's deep embrace of conservatism, aided by the votes of a large public sector and a disproportionately unionized blue-collar work force. For most of the past century, the city has been dubbed "Redmonton" owing to its socialist tendencies.
Three of its eight seats elected non-conservative candidates in 2015, speckling a Tory blue map of Alberta with spots of Liberal red and Ms. Duncan's orange blob.
But in the previous decade, the Conservatives won all or nearly all of Edmonton's seats.
And Ms. Duncan, who was elected in 2008, was only the second New Democrat to win a federal seat in Alberta's history.
Conservative hopeful Sam Lilly says discontent with the federal Liberals and New Democrats will help in his fight to turn the seat Tory again.
However, Ms. McPherson's campaign has not looked to federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, but has leaned heavily on the playbook of former premier Rachel Notley, whose provincial seat makes up about a third of the federal riding.
The day after Mr. Singh announced that an NDP government would not impose a pipeline on a province that doesn't want one, stopping short of calling it a veto, Ms. McPherson said new pipelines could still be possible.
"We need to have a process in place that doesn't result in what we have right now," she said in an interview in late September.
"I'm very supportive of energy projects that go forward, that have a process that doesn't get held up in the courts. We all know that it sucks for business, that it sucks for Albertans when we're trying to build something and it is stopped time and time again."
She said Trans Mountain must be built along with a focus on the environment. Ms. Notley sought a grand bargain during her time in the premier's office: She became an advocate for Trans Mountain, yet introduced a carbon tax and a cap on emissions from the oil sands.
"Rachel Notley worked very hard for our oil and gas sector, but she did it in a way that she was fighting for our climate as well," Ms. McPherson said.
During the half-hour interview, she mentioned Ms. Notley several times and called her a role model. She uttered Mr.
Singh's name only once. "I feel like an Alberta NDP, that's how I feel," she said.
Mr. Singh has called it a mistake for the Trudeau government to buy Trans Mountain and has vowed the NDP would not allow the expansion of the pipeline, which runs from the Edmonton area to Metro Vancouver. The Liberals bought Trans Mountain in 2018, and the expansion is expected to be finished by mid-2022.
The strained relationship between Ms. Notley's Alberta NDP and a federal party based in Vancouver and Toronto isn't new. It's been rocky since 2016, when the national party held a convention in Edmonton.
Instead of celebrating Alberta's first NDP government, the federal party adopted what it called the Leap Manifesto, a document that advocates the swift end of the oil and gas industry. Ms. Notley, once one of the federal party's best fundraisers, has not raised money for them since.
In early October, Ms. Notley mused that she might not vote NDP federally, which would mean not backing her local candidate, Ms. McPherson. The provincial leader has turned down interview requests from The Globe and Mail to discuss her voting intentions.
Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, said the chances for a progressive win in Alberta are highest in the capital city.
"Edmonton is different from the rest of the province," he said.
"There's a direct line connection between union membership and progressive voting patterns. I've seen it repeatedly in election after election, where our members, because they've been exposed to a wider range of ideas, they just vote differently."
Three-way races and the potential for vote splitting can be a challenge for progressive parties in Alberta at the federal level, said Anne McGrath, who was a senior adviser to Jack Layton when he led the federal NDP, and later Ms. Notley. While the provincial Liberal Party has largely collapsed in Alberta, the federal party won four seats in 2015.
Ms. Duncan's first win was achieved by winning over Liberal supporters, Ms. McGrath said.
"Edmonton Strathcona was not an overnight thing. We focused on it, we built on the support we had provincially and had a strong federal campaign for Linda Duncan. There was also the phenomenon of many Liberal voters in that case deciding to support Linda and then it became a stronghold for the NDP," she said.
Liberal candidate Eleanor Olszewski is looking to win back those voters. She ran for the party in the riding in 2015 and increased its result from shy of 3 per cent of the vote in the previous election to nearly 21 per cent.
She has told the riding's progressive voters that only Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau can stand up to Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer and Premier Jason Kenney.
"There's a palpable difference between this time and last," she said. "Doors that were NDP last time are open to having a discussion this time. Either Mr.
Scheer or Mr. Trudeau will be prime minister. Mr. Singh and [Green Party Leader Elizabeth] May won't be. So we're in a situation where every riding and every vote counts."
Mr. Trudeau is deeply unpopular in Alberta, where many associate the province's economic hardship since 2014 with his time in office. The creation of stronger federal environmental rules and regulations on the energy industry have added to a strong current of western alienation.
However, Ms. Olszewski says voters in Strathcona, many of whom are students or bureaucrats, are more forgiving: "They respect the Prime Minister and they like the initiatives the Liberal government has put into place. They are very supportive.
Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley speaks at a rally in Edmonton in April. Federal NDP candidate Heather McPherson has cited Ms. Notley as a role model.
JASON FRANSON/THE CANADIAN PRESS