The political climate of Canada’s oil-producing province is being upstaged by Mother Nature. Prolonged heat and lightning have produced a natural climate emergency with fires blackening the skies and consuming more than 2.3 million acres in a not-so-merry month of May.
“Alberta is on fire,” proclaimed the Victoria Day headline on Global TV’s website. Eighty-three wildfires are burning across the prairie province, 80 of them in forest protection areas. Twenty-two fires are out of control. Nearly 30,000 people have been displaced from their homes, with nearly 11,000 still waiting for permission to return and see if houses and trailers are still intact.
The boreal forests are burning. Such consequences of climate change, which is warming the planet, have hit a center of Canada’s carbon economy. Wildfire seasons have lengthened, notably hot dry springtimes, and fires burn with greater intensity. In 2016, a fire roared out of forests to burn part of the “oil patch” city of Fort McMurray in what John Valliant, author of the book Fire Weather: The Making of a Beast, describes as “the largest, most rapid displacement of people because of fire in modern times – anywhere on earth.”
The fires this year have spread thick smoke over Alberta and come to cover most of the rest of Canada. Alberta’s two largest cities, Edmonton and Calgary, are presently suffering the world’s worst air quality. Edmonton residents have been told to avoid being outside.
Beneath the so-called Omega Block – high pressure that is causing heat and generating fires — Alberta is also feeling the heat of a consequential provincial election campaign. News organizations are carrying instructions on how evacuees and fighters on the fire lines can vote in advance of the May 29 election date.
Alberta has often been called the Texas of Canada. The two locales bear marked similarities in oil-patch economies as well as in attitude. Albertans and their provincial government often rail against policies coming out of Canada’s national capital, notably anything that caps, limits, or taxes the oil and gas industry.
“It’s not like Ottawa is a national government: The way our country works is that we are a federation of sovereign, independent jurisdictions,” Premier Danielle Smith told her legislature late last year, as it passed something called the Alberta Sovereignty Within a United Canada Act.
The act sets the stage for Alberta to possibly disregard federal laws or regulations if its provincial legislature determines those laws do harm to the province’s interests, or if legislators consider it constitutional overreach. The dean of University of Calgary’s law school, Ian Holloway, minced no words describing the legislation: “This is about as clearly an unconstitutional gambit as I’ve ever seen in my professional lifetime: The premier is engaging in a game of political chicken.”
Alberta’s political climate has also tracked Texas. A business-dominated conservatism, prevailing for more than 40 years, has given way to confrontational, tumultuous politics of the far right. The province has been epicenter to resistance against COVID-19 restrictions and mask mandates, and a hotbed for anti-vaxxers. Alberta has churned through eight premiers since 2004, only one of whom has finished his or her term.
Last spring, a no-confidence vote in the governing United Conservative Party pushed out Premier Jason Kenney. Kenney was a former federal cabinet minister and friend of business, winner of a convincing victory in 2019. Leaked conversations quoted Kenney describing critics in his party as “lunatics . . . trying to take over the asylum.” Party activists moved the party sharply right. They picked as premier Danielle Smith, a radio talk show host fond of railing against “the mob of political correctness.”
Kenney quit his seat in the Alberta Legislature as Smith assumed power. He went out with a statement decrying political extremes left and right, and warning: “From the far right we see a vengeful anger and toxic cynicism which often seeks to tear things down rather than build up and improve our imperfect institutions.”
The latest polls show a tight race between the United Conservatives and opposition left-leaning New Democratic Party, led by former Premier Rachel Notley. The New Democrats under Notley governed the province from 2015 to 2019, the single break in 55 years of conservative rule. They introduced a carbon tax over furious opposition from the right.
Smith used her radio show to rail against the federal government’s COVID-19 restrictions and vaccine mandates. She has also taken aim at regulation of the oil and gas industry. Alberta sent its own separate delegation to the recent COPT 27 Climate Conference in Egypt as a gesture of no-confidence in Canada’s federal environment minister. “He clearly is hostile to our oil and gas sector: He’s clearly trying to step into areas he’s got no business regulating,” declared Premier Smith.
Burned by fires, some Albertans have recently warmed to environmentalism. The ruling United Conservatives faced a furious backlash when they tried to ease regulation of open-pit mining on the east slopes of the Canadian Rockies. Similar reaction has blocked efforts to “remove” provincial parks. One provincial poll showed two-thirds support for setting a national goal of zero net emissions by 2050.
The New Democrats are running on traditional good-government issues. They’re pledging to increase corporate taxes, using the resulting revenue to improve education. They promise a permanent ban on coal mining in the Rockies. Notley has pledged repeal of “this horrible” Sovereignty Act, deeming it a threat to new investment in the province.
The United Conservatives are playing the oil card, warning that the New Democrats would cap oil and gas emissions – the industry is a big polluter – and stymie opportunities to increase production in the oil sands of northern Alberta.
As they make their way to polls through the smoke, however, Albertans face a choice not dissimilar to some U.S. states with MAGA Republicans topping the ballot: Do they want to stoke the fires of right wing populism with a confrontation-prone government and premier? Do they want to bring culture wars to Canada? (One United Conservative candidate has compared transgender children in schools to feces in cookies.)
“I know, Ms. Smith, you’re keen on fighting,” Notley told her opponent in their one head-on-head TV debate. “You want to fight with Ottawa. You want to fight with the media. You want to fight, frequently, with your former self. It’s actually quite exhausting . . . Every day is a new drama. You [voters] just don’t need to put up with this.”
We’ll see the verdict of voters in a week. The political smoke will clear. The atmosphere over Alberta likely will not.