Akin to the bitter National Energy Program debate in the 1980s, Canadian politics is once again polarized along the East/West divide. In the Prairie provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, the Conservatives are ascendant in the polls, with energy issues dominating water cooler discussions. Several high-profile Liberal ministers are fighting to retain their seats in urban centres, while the Conservatives — who will undoubtedly paint the rural areas of all three provinces blue — know that sweeping these urban ridings will be essential to their chances of forming government. At the same time, the NDP hold a number of seats across the Prairies that they likely need to keep if they hope to hold the balance of power.
Edmonton Mill Woods
Incumbent: Amarjeet Sohi (Liberal)
Notable Candidates: Tim Uppal (Conservative)
Counsel’s Preview: In 2015, Amarjeet Sohi beat former Conservative cabinet minister and two-term MP Tim Uppal by the slimmest of margins — only 93 votes. Uppal was the first turban-wearing Sikh appointed to a Canadian cabinet, and his private member’s bill resulted in the construction of the National Holocaust Monument. He will undoubtedly be steep competition for Sohi. Uppal has earned a reputation in Conservative circles as a tireless door knocker, and campaigned for months in advance of the election call.
Sohi, named Minister of Infrastructure and Communities before taking over the politically-charged Natural Resources portfolio in July 2018, presided over the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project (TMX) and will be judged on whether meaningful progress has been made on pipelines. TMX was purchased by the federal government only months prior to Sohi’s move into Natural Resources, and is deemed essential to the health of Alberta’s economy in order to open access to higher-priced overseas oil markets. One month after his appointment, however, the Federal Court of Appeal quashed cabinet’s TMX approval. In response, the government conducted new Indigenous consultations and established new rules for oil tanker traffic in sensitive waterways, paving the way for its eventual approval in June 2019.
The TMX approval may have come too late for Sohi. Serious damage was done to the Liberal brand in the lead-up to the April 2019 Alberta election, as former Premier Rachel Notley and her opponent Jason Kenney both heaped scorn on the Trudeau government for its failure to get the pipeline built. As a result, voters may take their anger out on Sohi, whose portfolio has become more of a curse than a blessing.
Incumbent: Randy Boissonnault (Liberal)
Notable Candidates: James Cumming (Conservative)
Counsel’s Preview: Edmonton Centre is a bellwether riding, where Anne McLellan won by slim margins under the Chrétien and Martin governments before turning blue under Harper. Randy Boissonnault won by 1,200 votes in 2015. While this is likely not enough of a margin to stem the rising Conservative tide in the West, Boissonnault will be banking on some NDP vote-switchers to come his way. In 2015, well-known local NDP candidate Gil McGowan garnered 24.5 per cent of the vote. In this election, Jagmeet Singh is struggling to get a lift in the national polls and the NDP are fielding a lesser-known candidate in the riding.
Boissonnault may take some flak for his aggressive performance questioning Jody Wilson-Raybould at the Justice committee over the SNC Lavalin affair. Going up against a serious contender in James Cumming, the former President and CEO of the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce, we expect a close result on election night. If the Liberals can prevent a Tory sweep of Alberta, it will be here.
Incumbent: Linda Duncan (NDP)
Notable Candidates: Heather McPherson (NDP), Sam Lilly (Conservative), Eleanor Olszewski (Liberal)
Counsel’s Preview: Edmonton-Strathcona has long been a progressive bastion in Edmonton, but for over a decade from 1997-2008 Rahim Jaffer held the riding with 39-42 per cent support as the Liberals and NDP split the non-Conservative vote. This changed when New Democrat Linda Duncan won on her second try in 2008, backed by local “Liberals for Linda.” With Duncan’s retirement from politics, the riding is now up for grabs.
While the riding is held by the NDP provincially, the federal NDP’s anti-pipeline stance will hurt them in the province, along with low awareness of new leader Jagmeet Singh. Alberta NDP leader Rachel Notley, who represents much of the riding provincially, refused to commit to voting for the NDP — hardly a ringing endorsement. New NDP candidate Heather McPherson, who is the Executive Director of the Alberta Council for Global Cooperation, is going up against lawyer Eleanor Olszewski, running for the Liberals a second time, and Sam Lilly of the Conservatives who has a background in the gaming industry.
As things stand, with a depressed Liberal and NDP vote in the province, it feels like Edmonton-Strathcona may be poised to turn Conservative again this election.
Incumbent: Kent Hehr (Liberal)
Notable Candidates: Greg McLean (Conservative)
Counsel’s Preview: In 2015, the Liberals elected MPs in Calgary for the first time since 1968, winning two seats. Kent Hehr took this riding by 750 votes. Hehr, a former provincial politician, is personally popular despite being booted from cabinet after a string of controversies including dismissive interactions with constituents, sexual harassment allegations, and angering veterans groups.
Despite his local following, this is a close two-way race. Hehr will likely bear the brunt of the downturn in the oil and gas sector, which has hit downtown Calgary especially hard. As a head office town that thrives on the next big deal, Calgary has suffered from major jobs and earnings losses since the drop in the price of oil in 2015. Hehr is going up against Greg McLean, a longtime Conservative activist who worked as a political staffer in the Mulroney government before launching a successful career as an investment advisor and corporate director.
Incumbent: Darshan Kang (elected Liberal, currently sitting as an Independent)
Notable Candidates: Jagdeep Sahota (Conservative), Nirmala Naidoo (Liberal)
Counsel Preview: Darshan Kang was unexpectedly victorious as a Liberal in Calgary Skyview in 2015, with a background of serving as a provincial Member of the Legislative Assembly in Alberta. Kang resigned from the Liberal caucus following sexual harassment and assault allegations that were later substantiated in an independent investigation. He will not be seeking another term.
This riding is located in the northeast corner of the city and is ethnically diverse, with a large new Canadian and South Asian population. Calgary’s suburban ridings are likely to be out of reach for the Liberals this time around, especially one without an incumbent. The Liberal candidate Nirmala Naidoo, a well-known former TV anchor and journalist, will increase profile for the Grits, but will likely do little to sway votes away from Conservative Jagdeep Sahota, a lawyer with deep ties in the community.
Incumbent: Georgina Jolibois (NDP)
Notable Candidates: Tammy Cook-Searson (Liberal), Gary Vidal (Conservative)
Counsel’s Preview: Formerly the Mayor of La Loche, Georgina Jolibois narrowly won this sprawling riding, covering the northern half of Saskatchewan, by only 82 votes over the Liberals in 2015. Rob Clarke, the riding’s Conservative MP from 2008-2015, placed a close third, roughly 1,200 votes behind. Since 1997, all three parties have elected MPs from the riding.
With a population that is 70 per cent Indigenous, Desnethé—Missinippi—Churchill River is made up of hundreds of First Nations communities, small towns and fly-in outposts. Over 20 per cent of the riding speaks Cree and another 10 per cent speak Dene. With a median household income of $55,000, it is among the poorest ridings in the country.
This election, Jolibois faces two new challengers. Liberal Tammy Cook-Searson is the Chief of the Lac La Ronge Indian Band, and Conservative Gary Vidal is an accountant and the Mayor of Meadow Lake. Each candidate hails from a different part of the riding.
The Liberals are targeting the riding, with Trudeau participating in an event there in May, hoping to give Ralph Goodale (if re-elected as anticipated) some company in the Saskatchewan Liberal caucus. The Conservatives, who held this riding in 2004 and lost by only 67 votes in 2006, hope to recover ground given the overall Western antipathy to the Trudeau government.
It is hard to see how political trends in the rest of the country will affect this riding given its unique make-up, where a wide range of Indigenous issues will predominate, including housing, clean water, economic development, training, and the impact of climate change on hunting and navigation. Voter turnout will play an even more important role than in most ridings.
Incumbent: Doug Eyolfson (Liberal)
Notable Candidates: Marty Morantz (Conservative), Steven Fletcher (People’s Party)
Counsel’s Preview: An emergency department physician, Doug Eyolfson won in 2015 by a comfortable margin of 6,000 votes over Stephen Fletcher, who had held the riding since 2004 and served in Stephen’s Harper cabinet and Treasury Board. Eyolfson is one of seven Liberals elected in Manitoba — many of whom are at risk as the Conservatives are on the upswing in the province.
Six months after his loss, Fletcher was elected as a provincial MLA as a member of Premier Brian Pallister’s Progressive Conservative government. However, he was removed from caucus over his public opposition to the Province’s decision to create a stand-alone energy-efficiency Crown corporation. After briefly leading the fledgling Manitoba Party in the legislature, Fletcher decided to run for Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party in his old federal seat, making him one of the new party’s highest-profile candidates. Making the situation even more controversial, Fletcher decided to reuse his old Conservative signs.
On the western outskirts of Winnipeg, Charleswood–St. James–Assiniboia–Headingley is a traditionally Conservative riding, where Fletcher garnered 44-57 per cent of the vote over four elections. With Winnipeg city councillor Marty Morantz running for the Conservatives, the key question is “How will Fletcher impact the Conservative vote?” In a riding where the former federal Progressive Conservatives and Reform/Canadian Alliance parties split the vote and elected Liberal MP John Harvard from 1996-2003, will Fletcher peel away enough Conservative votes to give Eyolfson a shot at re-election? This is one of the ridings where Maxime Bernier has the potential to play spoiler.
Incumbent: Niki Ashton (NDP)
Notable Candidates: Judy Klassen (Liberal)
Counsel’s Preview: Churchill–Keewatinook Aski covers the northern four-fifths of Manitoba. This riding is 75 per cent Indigenous, and has been represented by Niki Ashton since 2008. It has a strong history of sending NDP MPs to Ottawa dating back to 1979, but it has elected Liberal MPs on a couple of occasions, most recently actor Tina Keeper from 2006-2008.
In the last election, Niki Ashton narrowly beat her Liberal challenger by 900 votes, with the Conservatives placing a distant third. This election, the Liberals have nominated Judy Klassen to run against Ashton. A former provincial MLA for Keewatinook, covering the eastern half of the riding, Klassen was the first Indigenous leader of the Manitoba Liberal Party, holding the post in an interim capacity from 2016-2017.
While Klassen is urging more government investment in the riding, Ashton has harshly attacked the Trudeau Liberals for failing to address housing, health and jobs in the riding. If the Liberals can take this riding, it would help to offset losses elsewhere in the region.