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 Monday, Victoria Day headline on Global TV’s website. Eighty-three wildfires were burning across the prairie province, 80 of them in forest protection areas. Twenty-two fires were out of control.
During three weeks of fires, nearly 30,000 people have been displaced from their homes, with nearly 11,000 currently waiting for permission to return and see if houses and trailers are still intact.
The boreal forests of central and northern Alberta and British Columbia are burning. Consequences of climate damage, which is warming the planet, have hit centers of Canada’s fossil fuel economy — primarily Alberta’s oil sands country. Wildfire seasons have lengthened, notably hot dry springs, 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 Fort McMurray fire grew so big, so fast it overran the city in an afternoon and generated its own stratospheric storm system in what had been a bluebird Alberta day.”
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 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 29th election date.
Alberta has often been called the Texas of Canada. The two locales bear marked similarities in oil patch economies as well as attitude.
Both have also experienced, of late, temperature extremes, fire and drought.
Albertans and their provincial government have spent the last few decades railing against policies coming out of Canada’s national capital, taxation of the oil industry in the 1970s and 80s, and measures taken to counter climate change in the present century.
“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 tracked Texas.
A business-dominated conservatism, prevailing for more than forty 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.
Kenney was a former federal cabinet minister and friend of business. He led his party to a convincing victory in 2019, only to face a rebellion by his party’s base that his policies weren’t confrontational enough. Leaked conversations quoted Kenney describing critics in his party as “lunatics… trying to take over the asylum.” Voting for a new leader, party activists picked 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 delivered a parting 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 fifty-five 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.
As premier, 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,” said Premier Smith.
An increasing number of Albertans are finally getting enough of the excesses of energy development. 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, generating revenue that would go 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, Albertan face a choice not dissimilar to some U.S. states with ultra MAGA Republicans topping the ballot: Do they want to fan 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 (meaning, the voters of Alberta) just don’t need to put up with this.”
Rain this week has briefly dampened Alberta’s fires.
We’ll see next week if the political landscape has a fiery future.
Editor’s Note: Cross-posted to PostAlley Seattle.
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