Decades of conservative rule in oil-rich province ended in 2015, but energy crisis may change that
When Canadas leftwing New Democratic party launched a manifesto promising carbon taxes, coal plant closures and welfare spending in the heartland of countrys oil industry, few thought they could win.
But in 2015, the party ended 40 years of conservative rule in the province of Alberta with an unexpected victory that seemed to mark a seismic shift in Canadian politics.
Four years later, the NDP leader, Rachel Notley, is fighting for her political life in a regional election forcing voters to make a choice between todays economy or the environment of the future.
Notley is asking voters to believe that both economy and environment can thrive. But her main rival, Jason Kenney, has seized on deep economic frustrations, promising that his United Conservative party will breathe new life into the ailing oil industry.
In the years since Notley became premier, she has been forced to navigate a crash in global oil prices which cost the province more than 100,000 jobs and a huge forest fire, which became the costliest natural disaster in Canadian history. Meanwhile, her spending on childcare and social welfare programs have left the historically debt-averse province in the red.
People like and respect Rachel Notley, said Shauna Wilton, a professor of political science at the University of Alberta. But theres a segment of the population that blames her for the oil downturn and sees the carbon tax as the source of all of Albertas problems.
An ongoing energy crisis has forced Alberta to sell its crude oil for fire-sale prices. Pipelines that were promised to residents have yet to materialize. And resource companies the backbone of the provinces economy are shedding jobs.
And while voters have been sympathetic to the hand Notley was dealt, the dramatic slowdown has tested even the provinces progressive residents.
Im a social worker and a yogi. Im as left as they come, said Cheryl, a mother of two who lives in a small town near Calgary. And Im very likely voting for the United Conservative party.
Recent polling has the New Democrats nearly ten percentage points behind United Conservatives, which was born from the 2017 merge of two regional right-of-centre parties.
Kenneys pledge to boost investment in the oil industry resonates for many in the region, which has been hard hit by the oil downturn. The rates of domestic violence skyrocket when people are not working, said Cheryl.
But experts have questioned whether a return to the heyday of oil sands expansion is even possible, given the likelihood of a global shift to renewable energy in coming decades.
We should be diversifying our economy for the next time a downturn hits, said Mark Mielke, corporate lawyer in Calgary who plans to vote for the NDP, not cutting taxes for corporations.
The prospect of a conservative victory has also prompted worries that progress made on the environment under Notley will be rolled back a fear compounded by a recent report that found Canada is warming at a rate twice the global average.