By: Jody MacPherson
A sleeper riding on the outskirts of Calgary, Highwood has more controversy per acre, than bales of hay. For instance, the first thing you might notice about Okotoks, the riding’s largest town, is how the steady convoy of polluting vehicles travelling to and from Calgary at rush hour contradicts the town’s proud sign, “Sustainable Okotoks.”
The irony continues with the feting of Okotoks as the greenest community in Canada by such pundits as Prime Minister Stephen Harper and CBC’s Peter Mansbridge at the same time the “rurban” community sits in the chosen provincial riding of Wildrose leader Danielle Smith – a right wing student of the climate-change-denying Fraser Institute and cheerful avower that global warming science is “not settled.”
Smith’s running here, of course, because the riding has become a hotbed of disgruntled former PC Party supporters. Ever since the Stelmach administration passed the Land Stewardship Act last year and alienated rural conservatives with its infringement of property ownership, wealthy rural landowners such as J.C. Anderson and others have been seething. It seems nothing puts Stetson-hatted ranchers – real McCoys or not – more at unease than threats to their property rights.
Smack in the middle of this controversy is Alberta’s smooth-talking finance minister, Ted Morton, formerly the Sustainable Resource Development Minister responsible for pushing through the Land Stewardship Act. Rumour has it that Morton personally met with disgruntled PC party members in Highwood to discuss their objections to the Act, but in the end, he was immoveable, leaving them unimpressed and in many cases, infuriated.
Given this prairie windstorm, it’s no surprise the Highwood Wildrose Riding Association was one of the first the party set up and that it has shown some of the strongest membership numbers in the province. Throw in the fact that Premier Ed Stelmach’s “dissing” of local and much loved MLA George Groeneveld prompted the local PC riding association to pen a public letter of discontent, and the Tory stronghold looks a might shaky these days.
Upping the ante are a couple of wild card issues. The first is the redrawing of Highwood’s boundaries where new electoral lines have transformed the riding from a large rural land base to a small, dense area of people that more closely resembles an urban riding. The face of the riding has changed significantly to give the two towns of Okotoks and High River more sway.
Generally speaking, I’ve found you can count on Okotokians for their support for the principles of sustainability. In town surveys, residents consistently vote for (and in large numbers) living within the carrying capacity of the Sheep River watershed (aka “the population cap”). Despite Chamber of Commerce-type efforts to discredit the “slow growth” approach as “elitist” and “anti-business,” and despite shamefully blatant local newspaper support for the pro-growth candidate in the recent municipal election, the pro-cap mayor won.
It will be interesting, then, to see how Okotokians, especially those thousands who ostensibly flocked to town specifically because of its environmental reputation, mark their ballot in the next provincial election if forced to choose between a not-so-green Smith and a pro-growth PC candidate such as Morton. I’ve failed to mention any so-called “progressive” candidates as, thus far, neither the Liberal, NDP, Alberta Party, or former Greens (now Vision 2012) have come up with a single viable name. Yet, with Smith’s presence virtually guaranteeing media limelight, it would be a choice opportunity for a progressive to toss their hat into the ring. In fact, a group of local citizens have been working behind the scenes to try and forge an agreement for electoral cooperation to run a single progressive candidate.
The ultimate wild card in a riding desperate for water, of course, is the spectre of an Alberta water market. With the Stelmach government sending signals that water licenses may soon be up for purchase, the Wildrose could stake out a stance opposed to the water market. Catch is, this would require a change from the free market approach expected from a right-wing Wildroser, and that’s not a given.
They must be aware though, with housing developments at a virtual standstill due to water license shortages and the town running out of options, Okotoks is “ground zero” for the coming water wars. Whichever candidate takes the high road by campaigning to protect its citizens from a water market, an expensive pipeline, higher taxes, and encroaching suburban (Calgary) growth is likely guaranteed the Highwood seat. After all, grizzled landowners who’ve ranched in the area for generations AND the newly minted, solar-powered, recycling Okotoks’ crowd share one common concern—a secure, local water supply for themselves and their children.
That said, if Morton decides to run in Highwood, a high noon showdown is certain to be in the offing. The Tories will likely do anything to avoid water as an election issue, thus an attack on the “water front” would either secure an almost certain victory in the riding by those opposing it, or at the very least, boost Wildrose’s reputation elsewhere.
Despite the pull to the right from within her own party, Smith and her new advisors are said to be considering a more “moderate” approach in the upcoming election. It follows then, that this could justify a policy platform opposed to an Alberta water market. If that were the case, the only candidate left standing after Election Day would likely be Smith. And the progressives would be left in the dust, again. (Cue cowboy music.)
Jody MacPherson has lived in the Highwood Riding for 15 years. She raised her two children in Okotoks and has been active in water and other environmental issues in the community. She’s been working in communications for more than 20 years and served for two years as the VP, Communications for the Alberta Liberal Party before stepping down in November. She’s currently working as a freelance communications and political consultant. You can read her blog at www.jodymacpherson.com and follow her tweets at @jody_macpherson.