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Last stand in Alberta: Liberal candidates must convince voters they aren’t the pipeline enemy

CALGARY — You’ve got to watch your toes around Kent Hehr.

The Liberal candidate for Calgary Centre, door-knocking in a downtown condo building on the last week of the election campaign, has the energy of a madman and his wheelchair scoots down the mood-lit corridors at a harrowing pace.

If he hears a new voice — someone who’s opened up to the poundings of his campaign volunteers — Hehr pivots and peels off to give his 90-second rundown on why, on Monday, they ought to vote for him over any of the other candidates. Even his campaign staff, experienced though they are, must do some fast footwork as Hehr barrels up, dressed in a bright red Canada hoodie and jeans.

“Thank you from the bottom of my heart,” Hehr says to a confirmed Liberal voter. “Hey, and if you run into some more people this weekend who you know are progressive minded, please tell them to get out and vote on Monday, OK?”

Liberal candidate Kent Hehr (Calgary Centre) speaks with a voter while campaigning door to door.

Azin Ghaffari/Postmedia

And then it’s off to the elevator, where he delivers a literal elevator pitch to a woman in there with him and his crew, before doing a round on the next floor down. The riding covers much of downtown and has an electoral history out of step, sometimes, with the rest of the city. In 2000, voters sent Joe Clark, the former prime minister, to Ottawa as a Progressive Conservative, one of the few that didn’t elect members of the Canadian Alliance. Conservative Lee Richardson represented the riding until 2012, and former Calgary Herald executive Joan Crockett took over; when Hehr won in 2015, he was the first Liberal to represent the riding since it was formed in 1968.

Hehr says he’s knocked on more than 108,000 doors in his riding, some of them repeatedly.

“More than any other Liberal in Canada,” he says.

Conventional wisdom is that the Liberals are finished in Alberta, that the three seats they held when the writ dropped will swing Conservative in Monday’s vote. There is a widely held belief in the province that the Liberals, eager to come off as climate crusaders, have been hostile to Alberta’s oil economy. The Liberals claim the contrary — they bought the Trans Mountain pipeline after its owners were about to cancel it due to extensive legal and regulatory problems.

I think people understand that having a progressive voice from this city is important

But that hasn’t convinced a lot of Albertans; with their emphasis on climate and Justin Trudeau’s 2017 comments that Canada needs to “phase out” the oilsands, many in Wild Rose country see this as a resurgence of anti-Alberta sentiment, the likes of which hasn’t been seen since the Pierre Trudeau years. New Liberal laws to add more rules for project approvals were pushed through, despite vehement opposition from Alberta’s government and industry players.

The website that tracks voting and seat outcomes, 338Canada, is projecting the Conservatives will win 33 out of 34 seats in Alberta. Just one riding, Edmonton Strathcona, is a “toss up,” the website predicts, and it, the former riding of NDP stalwart Linda Duncan, could go orange, not red.

Still, that’s not how Liberal candidates see it.

“It feels better today than it did on election day 2015,” says Hehr. “I think people understand that having a progressive voice from this city is important.”

Yes, campaigns tend to spin this stuff, believing positive press translates into momentum and then into votes. But the campaigns say what they’re hearing on the doors and their internal polling is suggesting a couple seats in Calgary and maybe more in Edmonton.

Heading into the election there were three Liberal members of Parliament: Hehr in downtown Calgary, Randy Boissonnault in downtown Edmonton and Amarjeet Sohi in suburban Edmonton. Without a doubt, all of them are in the fight for their political futures in a campaign that lacks the momentum of 2015 and the exhaustion with a decade of Conservative rule that fuelled their victories.

“When you look at the history of (these ridings) there’s a strong presence of progressive people, people who do not vote Conservative,” Sohi says.

Technically speaking, after election day 2015, there was a fourth Liberal, Darshan Kang, in the northeastern Calgary riding of Calgary Skyview, but he left the Liberal caucus and sat as an independent in 2018 after he was alleged to have sexually harassed a staffer.

He’s not running this time around, and Nirmala Naidoo, a former television journalist, has picked up the Liberal standard in the riding.

Naidoo’s team is running the campaign out of half of a liquor store — their desks are set up in what was once the beer fridge. With a population that’s around 70 per cent visible minorities, Naidoo says many of her potential constituents feel a deep loyalty towards the Liberal party, and Trudeau in particular.

“When you look at the history of (these ridings) there’s a strong presence of progressive people, people who do not vote Conservative,” says Amarjeet Sohi, Liberal candidate for Edmonton Mill Woods.

Ed Kaiser/Postmedia

“It is very Liberal. People really care about voting for Justin Trudeau, casting a ballot for the Liberal party, casting a ballot to me,” Naidoo says. “They know that the Liberal party is one of the reasons why they’re in Canada, and they really feel strongly that the Liberal party will fight back against racism, and that’s really important to them.”

Still, the hard numbers contain some hard truths. Polls suggest this could be the end of the Trudeau Liberals in Alberta. The website 338canada is projecting 49 per cent of the popular vote will go Conservative in Calgary Skyview, with 31 per cent going Liberal. In Calgary Centre, the projection is just shy of 56 per cent Tory to 29 per cent Liberal. The numbers are similar in Edmonton: 41 per cent for the Conservatives, 28 per cent for the NDP and 24 per cent for the incumbent Liberals in Edmonton Centre. On the other side of town, in Sohi’s suburban riding, the split is 46 per cent Conservative and 28 per cent Liberals.

It could all come down to whether or not the progressive vote coalesces behind the Liberals in these key ridings.

Nowhere is this clearer than Edmonton Strathcona. The riding has moved across parties over the years: Conservative MP Rahim Jaffer held the riding until 2008, and Duncan, who opted not to run this time, has been a three-term New Democrat. On Wednesday, the Green party candidate dropped out of the race, throwing his support behind New Democrat Heather McPherson.

Eleanor Olszewski, the Liberal candidate in Edmonton Strathcona, speaking in a Whyte Avenue coffee shop, says while there are two progressive options in the riding, she’s the one to pick. After all, the New Democrats aren’t likely to be in government, and a third-party MP doesn’t have a ton of power to get things done or bring home infrastructure money.

“A progressive voice from Edmonton Strathcona that is part of government … I think that’s very important,” Olszewski says.


James Cumming, who’s running for the Conservatives in Edmonton Centre, has his office kitty corner, more or less, to the incumbent Liberal. And what he says he’s hearing on the doors is simple.

“The common theme that comes up at the doors is people are struggling to get ahead — economy, economy, economy,” Cumming says. “And I relate it directly back to bad policy.”

Recent polling from Ipsos shows that Alberta is the only province in Canada where voters (32 per cent) say the economy is going to be their key concern when casting a ballot. Mainstreet Research, in polling for the news website iPolitics, said that of those who voted in advance polls, some 74 per cent of Albertans cast a ballot for a Conservative candidate, and just 11 per cent voting Liberal.

Conservative candidate Tim Uppal, who’s hoping to unseat Sohi, says he’s hearing a lot of anger on the doors as people have a tougher time than they’re used to as Alberta staggers along under the lingering effects of a recession. (The Conservative party refused the Post’s request to accompany candidates out door-knocking, saying that having a reporter along interferes with the vibe between the candidate and potential constituent. It did not make Calgary Centre candidate Greg McLean or Calgary Skyview candidate Jag Sahota available for interviews.)

“People are out of work, people who are working a lot less, looking for work, some people are getting by but they’re definitely not getting ahead,” says Uppal.

The common theme that comes up at the doors is people are struggling to get ahead — economy, economy, economy

But, others say the level of vitriol is mainly an online phenomenon. “We don’t see that kind of rage in this riding,” says Olszewski.

Uppal’s office is in a former Suzuki dealership. A car in the parking lot has a flat tire and smashed windows, and inside, in the rotunda, a couple staff are working away. Uppal’s been in Parliament before, representing the neighbouring Edmonton Sherwood Park from 2008 until 2015, when he moved to Edmonton Mill Woods, and lost to Amarjeet Sohi, by 92 votes, and Sohi went on to become the minister of natural resources.

One of the quirks for locals has been to what extent their election campaigns are about them versus their local candidate, or Justin Trudeau versus Andrew Scheer.

As the aphorism goes, you’ve gotta dance with the one who brung ya, and for Alberta’s Liberals, Trudeau’s their date, for good or ill.


For Naidoo, the Trudeau brand is important. Boissonnault, too, who says he can’t be separated from the Liberal brand. Trudeau’s face is plastered around his downtown headquarters, and numerous staff worked busily away on Thursday. His mom was even out campaigning for him — she got a kiss on the cheek as she was released from duty.

“You cannot separate me from the party,” Boissonnault says.

Uppal sees that too — in the exact opposite way.

“I literally will ask people ‘are you happy with Justin Trudeau?’” says Uppal.

Unsurprisingly, the answer he says he hears is “no.”

Back in Calgary, Hehr says he’s not paying much attention to the national campaign. On the doors, he’s not talking about Trudeau, but rather trying to convince voters that he’s hustling for them.

“When people say ‘what have the Liberals done for Calgary?’ the answer’s clear,” says Hehr. “There are tangible assets the Liberals have tangibly contributed to.”

Randy Boissonnault Liberal candidate for Edmonton-Centre.

Ian Kucerak/Postmedia

He’s talking about what he believes he’s accomplished for voters: infrastructure funding and looking out for thousands of poor Calgarians. Boissonnault and Sohi do the same, from mentioning child poverty to rail crossings to affordable housing. They say they’re hearing concerns about the Conservative plan for belt-tightening in the federal budget and worries over the Tories’ climate plan.

“Seventy-five per cent of the people I talked to today — and I’ve talked to several hundred people today — (climate) is a defining issue to them,” says Boissonnault.

All candidates to whom the Post spoke pointed to the purchase of the Trans Mountain pipeline as evidence of their commitment to Alberta, and its economy.

“There’s a psyche in Alberta that finds it hard to believe we’re serious about it, but we spent $4.5 billion to buy the line so that we could expand it,” says Boissonnault.

Uppal has a riposte to that idea, though, alluding to the ways in which the Trudeau Liberals cancelled or scared away other pipelines and investment in Alberta’s economy.

“Those Liberals, all of them here in Alberta, voted with Justin Trudeau every step of the way,” he says. “They voted against Alberta’s interest every single step of the way.”

• Email: | Twitter: tylerrdawson

News From nationalpost News of Canada

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