Todd Korol / Reuters

How the Texas of Canada swung to the left

In Alberta’s elections, oil was addressed through the lens of the economy, not the environment

May 9, 2015 2:00AM ET

On Tuesday the people of Alberta voted in a provincial election that usually ends up being utterly uneventful. But just an hour after polls closed, it had become clear that the social-democratic New Democratic Party (NDP), would be forming a majority government.

Across Canada, media outlets began to declare a miracle on the prairies, an Orange Spring and an Orange crush. Comments in my Facebook feed compared the event to Elizabeth Warren, Ralph Nader or Bernie Sanders being elected by a landslide in Texas. Energy stocks began to fall, and an energy fund manager called the victory “completely devastating.” Meanwhile, Twitter users celebrated, expressed disbelief, declared the coming of the apocalypse and threatened to leave Alberta for Saskatchewan.

A leftist party that had never held more than 16 seats in the 87-seat provincial legislature (and held only four seats at the time of the vote) had unseated a 44-year Progressive Conservative (PC) dynasty, in a province often known to outsiders as the Texas of Canada for its deeply conservative values, reliance on the oil industry and ranching culture. This is the home province of Stephen Harper, Canada’s ultraconservative prime minister, who has sought to dismantle everything from environmental regulations to the Fair Wages and Hours of Labour Act in one fell swoop. This was also a dynasty built on oil revenue that, over the last four decades, made it a popular destination for migrants (foreign and domestic) in search of jobs and the only province without a provincial sales tax. 

Lost credibility

Many reasons have been floated for this surprise victory: The populist Wildrose Party split the conservative vote, the PCs lost credibility because of a string of corruption scandals in recent years, an urban demographic shift that has elected progressive mayors in the two largest cities tilted the scales, and NDP leader Rachel Notley had a winning personality. There’s also the current recession. For decades, Alberta has taken pride in being debt-free, the wealthiest province in Canada and the main driver of its economy. In the 1980s and ’90s when I was growing up in Calgary — Alberta’s largest city, and the corporate headquarters of the province’s oil sands — nearly everyone I knew had a family member working in oil. Today those points of pride are no longer true. Since 2008, the province has run a budget deficit, and because of low oil prices, which will decrease royalty payments to Alberta, provincial revenue is expected to fall by $7 billion (Canadian) in the next year. In the private sector, tens of thousands of workers have been laid off.

Shortly before he called the election, PC Premier Jim Prentice relieved himself of blame for the recession, instructed Albertans to “look in the mirror” and presented an austerity budget with cuts across the board while leaving industry virtually untouched. The mirror comment was a PR misstep — it deflected responsibility onto ordinary Albertans — and in the next month, anger over this perceived inequity opened the way for an NDP platform that set its sights on the energy industry.

However, the NDP did not make the environment central to its platform, nor was it the area where they sought to reform industry. The party’s promises to phase out coal-fired plants and provide interest-free loans to retrofit homes and businesses with environmentally friendly technology were hidden in a section titled “Strong families, strong communities, healthy environments.” Although the NDP called for environmental regulations and standards to be tightened, this item was hardly discussed, and while Notley criticized the PC government’s foot dragging on creating a climate change plan, she didn’t specify how her party would address it.

Hidden in the NDP platform are a few items that could shift the way that Alberta’s oil sands are developed in a significant way.

Rather, the star pieces of the NDP platform for reforming industry were fundamentally economic, including raising the corporate tax rate from 10 percent to 12 percent and revisiting the province’s royalty system. Notley reminded Albertans that these were ideas originated by Peter Lougheed, the first PC premier to be elected in Alberta (unseating a 36-year Social Credit dynasty) and the leader who established the Heritage Savings Trust Fund in 1976 as a way of saving and investing royalty revenues in boom times for future use — including during times of recession. Unfortunately, the fund became depleted after Alberta stopped depositing royalty revenues into the fund in 1987 while continuing to draw from it periodically. In any case, Alberta’s royalty cut is extremely low, and even in boom times would not have contributed as much as it could have.

Beyond extraction

As for the economy, Notley is not exactly radical. She has emphasized the need for diversification and has suggested ramping up Alberta’s oil-refining capacity as a way of doing so, which would diversify its oil industry beyond extraction but not its economy as a whole. She has also stated that she opposes the Keystone XL and Northern Gateway pipelines, while being very clear that her opposition has to do with their lack of social license and that she supports the Energy East and TransMountain pipelines. (The latter sparked months of protests on Burnaby Mountain in British Columbia last year.)

Energy — the oil industry in particular — is a sensitive and hallowed subject in Alberta. The morning after the elections, the Canadian media were inundated with stories about how energy stocks were performing on news of the results and with predictions about whether the oil industry was toast; the CBC even offered an hour-by-hour account of how the energy industry was responding. In one of her first statements of the morning, Notley assured the energy industry that she looked forward to working with it.

I do not say all of this in order to criticize the NDP’s framing of the issue. I see this as more a pragmatic move rather than a cynical one. Perhaps it is even strategic, but the reality is that nothing looms larger in Alberta than the oil industry, and unlike elsewhere in North America, the oil sands are seen as the lifeblood of the economy more than they are seen as an environmental sore. This is to say not that Albertans are wholly blind to the environmental damage wreaked by oil development but that you cannot win the PR campaign in Alberta without framing oil as a fundamentally economic issue.

However, hidden in the NDP platform are a few items that could shift the way that the province’s oil sands are developed in a significant way, though they remain extremely vague. The first is a commitment to strengthen environmental standards and monitoring. The second is a pledge to better engage with indigenous communities, which is significant, given the growing power of First Nations in challenging oil sands development, and unusual coming from an Alberta premier. It speaks to the growing strength of a new generation of indigenous activists and their nonindigenous allies and indicates that the work of progressive grass-roots movements can influence policy, however futile it often seems, especially in Alberta. Those movements will have to continue to pressure the NDP to follow through on its promises and to articulate a just energy policy. This will be necessary if there is to be a shift in the status quo, such is the influence of oil in Alberta. 

Audrea Lim is an editor at Verso Books.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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