Riding Lessons

The riding is a bellwether of sorts for the country – a country that after five years of minority government still can’t decide which of the three major parties it dislikes the least.

Even as 2010 draws to a close, the shock of what happened in the last federal election in the riding of Edmonton-Strathcona can still be felt. If you had skipped the late news on the night of October 14, 2008, you would have gone to bed thinking that Rahim Jaffer, the Conservative incumbent, had held his seat, albeit in a tight race. The media named him the winner, and Jaffer delivered a victory speech at The Ranch nightclub, where the party was already underway. Every other seat in Alberta had gone Tory blue, and Jaffer – who was once voted by The Hill Times as both Ottawa’s laziest and one of its sexiest MPs – was preparing to join the celebration.

He ended up hiding in the kitchen, instead.

The next morning, the story emerged: Jaffer had snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Linda Duncan, the NDP firebrand, had seemingly prevailed by 463 votes out of the 47,308 cast – “seemingly,” because Jaffer initially refused to concede. There were late results from polling stations, confusion over whether all the stations had reported and questions about spoiled ballots. Some in the Tory camp were mulling over a request for an official recount. Complicating matters was Jaffer’s impromptu marriage to MP Helena Guergis on October 15. On October 16, Jaffer
addressed the media and accepted defeat, congratulating Duncan on her victory.

Now, two years on, amidst what seem to be weekly rumours of a federal election call, Duncan is ready to campaign. She has to be. She may have flown under the radar on her way to victory in 2008, but the Conservative Party of Canada has made no effort to mask its intense desire to remove that one jarring orange seat from the Albertan line of blue chairs. The Tories want Edmonton-Strathcona back – for the seat and for the symbolism. Duncan is fighting not just Ryan Hastman, her young Tory opponent, but the entire Tory party, and she knows it.

“They can’t stand the thought of not being all Conservative in Alberta,” Duncan told me.

On a sunny Saturday morning earlier this year, as I sat in Linda Duncan’s constituency office near the south side rail yards, a rough-looking fellow wandered in and interrupted our conversation, asking for help with his immigration status. He wanted to know where Duncan’s office manager was. Duncan informed him that he could drop by during the week and her office staff would be glad to help him out. He found Duncan’s offer of help acceptable and shuffled off down the street.

Duncan came back to the table. “I have to say that one of the great things about being elected is having incredible staff who can help people so much. It’s one side of being an MP I didn’t expect – how much it’s two lives, one in Ottawa and one in this community, helping people on the ground get the services they need.”

That thought sparked another in her, to do with the overly bureaucratic nature of accessing federal government services, which bled into a discourse on engaging Alberta’s conspicuously indifferent electorate, which segued into how Stephen Harper’s propaganda machine has hindered debate on the porches while door knocking, all of which happily reminded her of how senior citizens are often the ones who want to talk environmental policy at the door.

Duncan tends to converse in accumulating waves of enthusiasm and intelligent observation. Her lack of self-censorship is refreshing; when I asked her what it was like to go to Ottawa as a new MP – and an NDP MP from Alberta, no less – she immediately recounted her first meeting with the prime minister.

“I had to cross the floor to go ask Jim Prentice, [then] environment minister, a question, and I had to walk right by the prime minister’s desk, so, being the congenial person I am, I just looked at him and smiled and said, ‘Good morning, Mr. Prime Minister.’ He looked up at me and did this.” Duncan made a sour face. “That was my welcome to Parliament from our prime minister!”

Duncan certainly seems to relish taking on big challenges and big opponents, as she demonstrated last September when she released her report, Missing in Action. The report was heavily critical of the federal government, calling for it to live up to its environmental responsibilities and put a greater focus on the oil industry’s impact on water. The report placed Duncan even more squarely in the Conservatives’ crosshairs through the autumn. The manner in which she released her report was likely as galling to the Conservatives as were any of her conclusions: When the all-party Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development, of which Duncan was a member, failed to reach a consensus (and therefore did not release an official report after spending two years gathering first-hand testimony and studying the effects of the oil sands on water quality), Duncan endorsed a version of the findings under the NDP banner.

In addition to her work as a federal MP, Duncan says she has always been dedicated to direct community work, both professionally and as a volunteer. To her, Edmonton-Strathcona is the kind of community that warrants the energy. She describes it as engaged and diverse, the best of “old Edmonton,” in that it has a strong community tradition and a real history and spirit.

For the Conservatives, Edmonton-Strathcona also symbolizes the political hump they haven’t quite been able to get over, despite having so many things go their way. Though the Harper government has not been perceived to excel in its handling of the major portfolios, neither has it suffered a debilitating scandal. Its opposition continues to consist of smaller, and poorly led, parties. Harper himself has taken on a certain gravitas, even if that hasn’t translated into overwhelming personal popularity, judging by opinion polls. Yet, despite these political advantages, the Tories have not had even a sniff at a majority government. And an apt symbol of this electoral ceiling is the riding of Edmonton-Strathcona. The Tories don’t just want it back; they need it back.

Given the Harper government’s desire to recapture Edmonton-Strathcona, arranging an interview with Ryan Hastman was more difficult than expected. After trying to reach him unsuccessfully through the riding office, his professional office and his personal e-mail and phone, I finally left a phone message with Harper’s communications director, Dimitri Soudas, asking if Hastman in fact existed. The next day, I got a call from Hastman.

We met a few days after that at a busy cafe near the University of Alberta, a fitting locale given that the 31-year-old Hastman’s appearance makes him look poised to run for the students’ union instead of Parliament. But he has ample insider political experience, having worked for the government in Ottawa for nearly three years, first with a Conservative MP, then with Stockwell Day and finally in the prime minister’s office. Hastman comes across as a scrubbed Richie Cunningham with a zeal for electoral politics. To spend an hour with him is to be left with no doubt that he is passionate about running for office, a passion nearly the equal of his faith in the Harperite agenda. In a blog interview he once named Harper as the greatest Canadian of all time.

Hastman firmly believes his experience in Ottawa is a big plus. “It’s a complicated, uncertain place,” he said during our interview, “and understanding a little bit of how it works will make me a more effective member.”

A born-and-raised Edmontonian, Hastman went to school in French immersion in the west end, attended the U of A and then founded his IT business, Somnia, in 2001. “The work I do is basically sales,” he said, as we spoke amidst the midday student caffeine rush. “It’s given me a good base, because when you start a company, you build everything from scratch. The sales aspect of the business is very similar to the past year of my life, where I’ve been meeting people at the door. You need to listen, hear their priorities and then translate that into actions you can take to meet their needs.”

Some quarters criticized the Conservatives for “parachuting” Hastman into the riding, but this charge doesn’t stick. Three strong candidates contested the nomination and he won. Now that he is the Strathcona CPC candidate, he naturally has no problem trying to create as wide a gap as possible between himself and Linda Duncan. “I don’t just see the riding as Old Strathcona or Garneau,” he told me, naming what are probably the two most left-leaning segments of the riding.

“We want to reach out to the whole riding, the whole community. People tend to stereotype Old Strathcona as Whyte Ave., but we’ve got everything from Pleasantview to Capilano to Malmo. I think it’s important we take advantage of that diversity and hear every voice in the riding, instead of just one sliver of it.”

I asked him if that was his interpretation of Duncan’s performance as an MP, that she was representing but a tiny fraction of Edmonton-Strathcona.

“The NDP are very focused on a narrow slice of special interests. Even Linda calls herself an environmental activist. I don’t dispute the importance of the environment, but I also am hearing, and want to speak for, everyone else in the riding who agrees the environment is important, but who is also concerned with their short-term economic prospects, their job now, the jobs their kids will take over. Those two things can’t be separated; you can’t say you’re going to sacrifice Alberta’s economy, ever, for any reason.”

Duncan is, without question, engaged on the environmental front. But Hastman’s use of the word “activist” to characterize his opponent appears strategic rather than descriptive.

Activist comes across as a coded message to voters that Duncan is not just an activist but an extremist, someone whose environmental obsession will cost thousands of Albertans their jobs. But it’s an unsupportable view, given Duncan’s long record of legal expertise (she practised law before she was elected) and experience analyzing environmental regulatory issues.

Considering his explicit desire to create distance between himself and Duncan, I asked Hastman why an undecided voter should choose a wet-behind-the-ears, first-time candidate rather than an incumbent with a track record of community and legal work.

“Well, I’m typically not an aggressive person,” he said, “but since the premise of your question is to compare myself to Linda, I’m happy to contrast. She is a self-described environmental activist, and I think Edmonton-Strathcona deserves better than that.

“Really, since the fall of 2008, she has been known only for a few things. One of them is flying to Copenhagen on a government jet and slandering Alberta in front of an international audience who were more than happy to have an Alberta MP speak ill of the energy industry. She takes every opportunity to speak with disdain and to use derogatory terms and to give voice to an unreasonable and out-of-proportion punishment to Alberta’s primary industry.”

When I later presented Duncan with Hastman’s interpretation of her overseas activities, she was perplexed and dismissive. “I have no idea what he’s talking about with the whole Copenhagen thing. I flew commercial there and back. Mr. Prentice took a private jet home but I didn’t, even though I was in a wheelchair! And
as for what I said or didn’t say, I have no idea where he’s getting all that from. I didn’t make any speeches. I kept a blog that’s still up on my website, and all I was doing was pointing out what everyone else was pointing out. I was being critical of the Canadian government because, in my opinion and in the opinion of my party, it is doing a bad job of handling the environmental portfolio … but I was criticizing them because I am an opposition environmental critic! That’s my job. Anyway, I’ve never slandered the oil patch. Never, ever.

“My criticism has always been directed toward how the government has handled the regulatory climate around the industry. Even people in the oil patch say they want a tighter, stronger regulatory climate. Does that mean they’re slandering the industry, too?”

The Tories’ push to unseat Duncan has unfolded inexorably since the day the party lost Edmonton-Strathcona, but it has ramped up noticeably since Hastman won the nomination last spring. Two strategies in particular have attracted attention. The first is the manner in which outside forces, in the form of money and ministers, have been used to help Hastman overcome “Jafferitis.” The second tactic has been to make the Conservative candidate¬† highly visible through having him attend – and be photographed – at stimulus program cheque-presentation ceremonies.

“I think we’ve probably raised close to a hundred thousand dollars,” Hastman told me when I asked him about external fundraising. “I would have to check, but I’d guess that around 10 per cent of it has come from outside the riding. The goal of a candidate is to make sure you and your team are ready to run an election and I’m pleased to say we’re ready.”

This practice is not uncommon; every party does it. What irks Duncan more than the external fundraising is the Tories’
practice of using cheque-presentation ceremonies as an exercise in profile-raising for Hastman, more so because it usually has come at her expense – as the sitting MP she’s often the one who has put in the work to secure the new funding.

“Sometimes the government doesn’t even tell me the presentations are happening,” she said, clearly irritated. “That sort of thing is inappropriate, because it’s all just so they can have Ryan Hastman there every time they give out money.”

Duncan is under no illusions as to what defines or binds anyone to fair protocol; politics is about winning. She also knows that underestimating Hastman due to his youth or lack of life life experience will ensure her defeat. “I know it’s going to be tough. Hey, when they already have cabinet ministers out door-knocking against me, I know what’s coming.”

For his part, Hastman downplays the value of cabinet ministers going door to door. “When cabinet ministers travel through, of course they’re going to lend a hand if they have free time,” he said. “When a cabinet minister comes door-knocking, the biggest benefit is to the volunteers. They get a bit of a buzz, they see guys and gals who are experts at this and good at it. The party has told me to just get out and door-knock, and that’s what I’ve done and what I’ll continue to do.”

The Conservative vote in Edmonton-Strathcona has remained relatively stable in the last three elections, taking an average of just under 41 per cent of the votes cast. Rahim Jaffer, despite his faults – most of which were unknown or only rumours leading into 2008 – actually got a higher percentage of the vote in 2008 than he did in 2004. What tipped the balance for Duncan was a combination of factors that had more to do with the Liberals and the NDP than it did Jaffer and the Tories.

A lower voter turnout in the district did Jaffer no favours, but the biggest dynamic was a shift in support from the Liberals to the NDP. After securing 29 per cent of the popular vote in 2004, the federal Liberal party attracted just nine per cent in 2008.

It seems likely that Duncan will continue to enjoy this electoral windfall, given thatthe Edmonton-Strathcona Liberals still hadn ‘t nominated a candidate by mid November (and were unable to find someone to be interviewed on their behalf about the riding for this article). Which means it will likely be Duncan versus Hastman for some time to come.

In broad strokes, the CPC’s strategy seems clear. Hastman’s youth and exuberance could be viewed by some voters as evidence of callow inexperience, but both his energy and the fact the seat was so narrowly lost will likely be an advantage in convincing the Conservatives who stayed home in 2008 that their vote is essential this time around.

Hastman’s tactics appear to revolve around painting Duncan as an environmental
extremist bent on destroying Alberta’s economy. In a blog interview last year, he wished Duncan good luck “in her next career as a post-MP, special-interest activist.” That such a characterization is not factual is irrelevant; the real intent is to define Duncan and compartmentalize her support in a socialist enviro-gulag.

Stephen Harper adopted this strategy to great effect in swatting aside Stphane Dion in 2008, when he cast the then-Liberal Party leader as a weak-kneed tree-hugger. Duncan is not Stephane Dion, however. She has a wide base of community support. But she also knows the election will be close no matter what she does, because a high percentage of Albertans will vote Conservative no matter what name is on the ballot.

To get re-elected, Duncan needs the Liberals’ support to evaporate again, and it wouldn’t hurt if even a small percentage of the Green vote migrated into her camp. Hastman, to unseat Duncan, needs to get his base out and convince the fence sitters that his opponent is bad for Alberta’s dominant industry.

The choice facing the riding’s voters is not a simple one: An experienced and intelligent incumbent with a strong record of community, legal and environmental work (but who represents a party with no hope of winning a federal election); a historically significant but presently demoralized Liberal party (which has yet to supply a candidate in the riding); or a novitiate Conservative ideologue with ties to the PMO, (whose youth could represent either legitimate potential or worrying inexperience).

Edmonton-Strathcona is more than just one out of 308 federal ridings. It’s a possible fulcrum for both the Tories and the NDP – either a move toward the majority that Harper wants or toward the mainstream status Layton craves.

“The party has made winning back this riding a priority,” Hastman said during our interview. “No question about it.”

Duncan also understands the intensity to come. “This is personal for the prime minister. I know that. I’ve got a huge bull’s eye on my back.”

The riding is a bellwether of sorts for the country – a country that after five years of minority government still can’t decide which of the three major parties it dislikes the least. But, despite the uncertainty about which way the riding will swing, there are some things the voters of Edmonton-Strathcona can be sure of: Ottawa will be actively involved in the campaign – and Ottawa will be anxiously awaiting the result.

Related posts

The Return Trip

Omar Mouallem

The Dinner Party

Andrew Paul

The Expert: What I Know About … Turkeys

As told to Linda Sea

This website uses cookies to improve your experience. We'll assume you're ok with this, but you can opt-out if you wish. Accept Read More

Privacy & Cookies Policy