Underdog Liberal has a shot in Fort McMurray-Athabasca by-election

Kyle Harrietha Fort McMurray Athabasca By Election Liberal
Liberal candidate Kyle Harrietha stands with his first sign of the Vote Harrietha campaign in Fort McMurray-Athabasca. (Photo from Kyle Harrietha’s Facebook Page)

Four federal by-elections will be held across Canada on June 30, 2014, including in Alberta’s Macleod and Fort McMurray-Athabasca ridings made vacant by the retirements of Conservative Members of Parliament Ted Menzies and Brian Jean months ago.

While most general elections in Alberta can be counted on to result in broad Conservative sweeps, Albertans have shown themselves to be a more unpredictable when an uncommon by-election is held.

Last year’s by-election in Calgary-Centre, a riding represented by Conservatives for nearly fifty years came within a sliver of being won by Liberal Harvey Locke. And in 1989, the spark that led to a Reform Party sweep of the West four years later was lit when Deborah Grey won a by-election in Beaver River.

This year’s by-election in Fort McMurray-Athabasca is expected to be particularly interesting. Home of Canada’s Oil Sands, this riding is Ground Zero for the international debate about climate change, pipelines and the future of the energy industry. This riding is also demographically different than southern Alberta’s Macleod or most other rural Alberta ridings.

Fort McMurray-Athabasca Federal Election Results 2006 2008 2011 by-election 2014

Home to a young and transient population that includes Aboriginals, New Canadians and Canadians from across the country (and many temporary foreign workers), the industrial nature of employment in the riding means it also has a higher percentage of labour union membership than most rural Alberta ridings. Low levels of voter turnout in recent general elections (40% turnout in 2011) could contribute to an unpredictable by-election result.

While much of the northern half of the riding benefits from an industrial boom, the Municipality of Wood Buffalo faces the incredible challenge of keeping up with the pressures that accompany this type of fast growth – transportation infrastructure (and Highway 63), housing, public services, etc.

Some local Fort McMurray-ites I have spoken with feel that federal government has not contributed its fair share in helping their community deal with these pressures – something that Conservative candidate David Yurdiga is likely to hear about at the doorsteps.

Federal cabinet minister Kellie Leitch campaigned with Conservative candidate David Yurdiga in Fort McMurray this week.
Federal cabinet minister Kellie Leitch campaigned with Conservative candidate David Yurdiga in Fort McMurray this week. (Photo from Ms. Leitch’s Twitter page @KellieLeitch)

Mr. Yurdiga hails from the vote-rich southern portion of the riding, where he is a councillor in the County of Athabasca (the area he represents on County Council will not be part of the new Fort McMurray-Cold Lake riding, which will be created at the next federal election).

The regional divide between the northern and southern parts of this riding are relevant and the large geographic distances can present a significant challenge in organizing an effective campaign.

Mr. Yurdiga will face a strong challenge from well-organized Liberal candidate Kyle Harrietha, who has been bolstered by Justin Trudeau, who has become a frequent visitor to the community over the past year.

Mr. Harrietha also draws on the support of an extensive network that includes provincial Progressive Conservatives, community organizers (he was a campaign manager for Wood Buffalo Mayor Melissa Blake) and the Metis community, who he works for as executive director of General Manager of Fort McMurray Métis Local 1935. 

While Mr. Harrietha is certainly the underdog in this race, resentment toward the former MP and a lacklustre Conservative nomination race could help him make gains in this by-election (and now would be a good time for Mr. Trudeau to make sure Ottawa-South MP David McGuinty does not stray off message).

NDP candidate Lori McDaniel with Edmonton-Strathcona NDP MP Linda Duncan (Photo from Lori McDaniel's Facebook Page).
NDP candidate Lori McDaniel with Edmonton-Strathcona NDP MP Linda Duncan (Photo from Lori McDaniel’s Facebook Page).

The New Democrats have nominated Suncor employee and Unifor Local 707A health and safety representative Lori McDaniel as their candidate. This by-election will be an important test for the official opposition NDP, who have been criticized by Conservatives for leader Tom Mulcair‘s ‘Dutch Disease‘ comments last year.

In a gesture of pan-Canadianism, it perhaps would not be a bad idea for Mr. Mulcair to fly his party’s large contingent of first-term MPs from Quebec to campaign alongside Ms. McDaniel in the by-election in our nation’s new industrial capital. It would probably help her campaign and expand the horizons of opposition MPs who are sometimes too eager to criticize those who work in Canada’s energy industry.

Federal by-elections in Alberta have proven to be unpredictable events and if the trend continues, as I sense it might, the results of the Fort McMurray-Athabasca vote could be very interesting on June 30.

Next post… a by-election in Cowboy Country (aka Macleod)… yah hoo.

5 thoughts on “Underdog Liberal has a shot in Fort McMurray-Athabasca by-election”

  1. You’re loco on this one Dave. Tories will carry it in a landslide, like always. No one up there has any interest in toppling the gravy train what-so-ever. Not even in the slightest.

  2. With the trouble that the Blake administration is in, Harrietha’s association with Melissa Blake could be more of a liability than an asset.

  3. I disagree with your analysis in that you place more of a chance with Kyle than you do with the other candidates. Alberta is not very friendly to the Liberal party and many still remember Trudeau senior and his impact on the West. What I find interesting is how you take the time to suggest that the young NDP MPs from Quebec need more experience & need to expand their understandings of Canada’s energy sector. I think that’s overreaching. I follow politics daily and I can’t say I have ever heard any of the new NDP MPs openly criticize the oil sands any more, or less than any other Canadian. In fact, many in the NDP believe we should & continue to develop the oil sands but rather than ship jobs out of province or country, keep the jobs in Canada. Why no build refineries here!? Also, Lori McDaniel’s experience in the oil industry also allows her to bring something to the federal NDP table that neither Kyle, Doug, or Tim are able to bring to their parties. I think my choice surprisingly may be the NDP candidate Lori and not the Liberal, Conservative or Libertarian candidates. Just like when Linda Duncan was elected in Edmonton, the people of Fort McMurray are looking for real change. They want someone who has worked like they have & who understands them! I believe, at this point, that Lori McDaniel is that person who will best represent the people of Fort McMurray-Athabasca. Just my opinion & I hope others will look more into her & share my opinion on election day!

  4. With 40% turnout in the last election, and turnout in byelections historically lower, whoever wins is whoever mobilises GOTV the best. Nothing I’ve seen indicates the Liberals or NDP have the machinery for that in northern Alberta, and unlike in Edmonton or Calgary, there are no 7 or 8 ridings worth of party loyal within 10km to converge and canvas to win a single riding. That, and the collapse in the Liberal vote as non-CPC voters coalesced around Linda Duncan were two big factors in her winning (that, and she was a strong candidate in her own right).

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