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Sleepy Yellowhead by-election set for November 17

A big Conservative win is inevitable in this rural Alberta riding
Yellowhead by-election Alberta Canada

A map of the sprawling Yellowhead riding. Voters will cast their ballots in the federal by-election on November 17, 2014.

When recently resigned Conservative Member of Parliament Rob Merrifield was appointed by Premier Jim Prentice as Alberta’s Representative in Washington D.C., many political watchers in Alberta were caught by surprise.

Rob Merrifield Alberta Washington DC

Rob Merrifield

It was known that the MP was spending an increasing amount of time lobbying American politicians in the Capitol and I am told that his absence in his own riding was starting to become noticeable. And despite Mr. Merrifield’s focus south of the border, none of the federal political parties were seriously anticipating a by-election in Yellowhead.

And now, with a by-election set to be held on November 17, 2014, it is difficult to gauge how many voters in this sprawling rural Alberta riding will take interest in the campaign.

Demand for natural resources – oil, gas, mining and forestry – has resulted in a booming economy in most of the riding. Take a quick drive down any major street in Whitecourt, Drayton Valley, Hinton or Edson and it will be difficult to miss the convoys of large and brand new 4×4 trucks.

Jim Eglinski Yellowhead by-election Conservative MP

Jim Eglinski

But the booming economy does not mean locals do not have issues with the federal government. The ongoing debate surrounding the fate of the Temporary Foreign Workers program has left many local business owners displeased with Stephen Harper‘s Conservatives. And cuts to Parks Canada funding and creeping privatization in the parks has left many residents of Jasper National Park feeling uncomfortable.

Barring a political earthquake, Conservative candidate Jim Eglinski will be elected the next Member of Parliament for Yellowhead.

A former mayor of Fort St. John, British Columbia and retired RCMP officer, Mr. Eglinski defeated Yellowhead County Mayor Gerald Soroka for the Conservative Party nomination last month.

Ryan Maguhn Liberal Yellowhead by-election 2014

Ryan Maguhn

It is not a stretch to suggest that winning the Conservative Party nomination in this riding would have been more of a challenge than winning the actual by-election. In the 2011 general election, Mr. Merrifield earned a landslide 77% of the votes cast. Both the NDP and Liberals scrambled to find parachute candidates from Edmonton to run in that election.

One of the opposition parties is slightly more organized this time.

The Liberals have nominated Ryan Maguhn, a town councillor and social studies teacher from Hinton. Mr. Maguhn received a boost from leader Justin Trudeau, who made campaign stops in Edson and Hinton on November 6. Although convincing voters in this region of Alberta to vote Liberal is no easy sell, Mr. Trudeau’s visits did attract more than a few locals. Many whom are curious about the dynamic young leader.

Dean Williams Yellowhead By-Election Independent 2014

Dean Williams

While winning the by-election is a lofty and unrealistic goal, the Liberals expect to place better than they did in 2011 (when the party finished in fourth place with 2.87% of the vote).

The Liberals have performed well in three recent Alberta by-elections, coming close to winning in Calgary-Centre in 2012 and solidifying their second place positions in Fort McMurray-Athabasca and Macleod earlier this year.

Independent candidate and documentary filmmaker Dean Williams is running under a “Yellow for Yellowhead” slogan (his campaign colours are yellow).  On his website, he criticizes Mr. Harper’s conservatives and pledges not to “waste words or play un-honest or un-disclosed politics.” Mr. Williams initially planned to run for the NDP nomination but decided to run as an Independent instead.

The NDP have chosen local labour activist and NDP riding association president Eric Rosendahl as their candidate (he has no website as of the time this post was published) and the Libertarian Party is running Cory Lystang. The Green Party did not nominate a candidate.

Voters can cast their ballots on the November 17, 2014 by-election day between the hours of 7:30 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. Advanced polls are open from noon to 8:00 p.m. on Friday, November 7; Saturday, November 8; or Monday, November 10, 2014. Voters can locate their voting station by searching the Elections Canada website.

A Liberal win in Fort McMurray-Athabasca would send shockwaves to Ottawa

Kyle Harrietha Justin Trudeau Fort McMurray Athabasca Liberal

Fort McMurray-Athabasca Liberal candidate Kyle Harrietha with Justin Trudeau.

On Monday, June 30, voters in four federal ridings across Canada, including Alberta’s Fort McMurray-Athabasca and Macleod, have an opportunity to choose their next Member of Parliament. Paying close attention to a by-election campaign may not be the most thrilling activity to occupy your time during the summer months, but it is an important one.

Voters in southern Alberta’s Macleod riding are expected to march into the ballot box and elect Conservative John Barlow as their next MP, but the race in the vast northern riding of Fort McMurray-Athabasca could produce much more interesting results after the polls close at 7:30 p.m. tomorrow.

While the opposition parties have written off the area in the past, it is hard to make that argument in 2014. Kyle Harrietha has run the strongest Liberal campaign the riding has seen in a generation, and has been boosted by leader Justin Trudeau, who has visited the riding three times since Conservative MP Brian Jean resigned in January 2014.

Lori McDaniel Linda Duncan NDP Fort McMurray Athabasca

NDP candidate Lori McDaniel with Edmonton NDP MP Linda Duncan

New Democratic Party leader Thomas Mulcair had been scheduled to visit the riding and campaign alongside Lori McDaniel during the by-election but cancelled his planned trip to attend the funeral of the three murdered R.C.M.P. officers in Moncton, New Brunswick.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, still leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, was nowhere to be seen during this by-election.

While national issues like the controversial Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline, the Temporary Foreign Workers Program and the ongoing environmental debates about climate change and the impact of Oil Sands development, are sure the play a role in how voters decide to cast their ballots, Tip O’Neill‘s well-known saying “all politics is local” will certainly be a factor in this by-election.

Fort McMurray is a booming community where there are serious concerns about the lagging pace of infrastructure investment from the provincial and federal governments. The pace of economic growth sparked a huge influx of diverse migrants from across Canada and the globe.

While the region is an economic engine for the country, residents I have spoken with feel their community has been forgotten, or just plain ignored, by the higher levels of government.

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 in May 2014.

Conservative candidate David Yurdiga has played a peekaboo campaign, skipping all-candidates debates and not engaging with voters on social media (he has been accused of “blocking” local voters who have criticized him on Twitter). He hails from the voter-rich southern reaches of the riding in Athabasca County, which faces some similar and many different issues than the industrial oil capital to the north.

In the south, Mr. Yurdiga has received the endorsements of Wildrose MLA Shayne Saskiw and embattled provincial Education Minister Jeff Johnson.

As Canadians have witnessed many times in the past, by-elections pose a risk to incumbent governments, as they give voters an opportunity to send a strong message of approval or disapproval to Ottawa without changing who is in power.

Former Conservative MP Mr. Jean was re-elected in 2011 with a 17,935 vote margin of victory over his closest challenger. If Mr. Yurdiga is elected with even a significantly smaller margin, voters will send a message that will quickly be forgotten in Ottawa. If voters in this riding elect Mr. Harrietha tomorrow, they will send shockwaves through the comfortable Conservative establishment in the nation’s capital.