Far-right protests in Alberta

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley has spoken up against allowing the pro-pipeline movement “to be taken over by people with more extreme views.” But could these “extremists” be the NDP’s secret weapon to winning the upcoming provincial election?

In the Spring election, the NDP will face off against a newly united right. While the United Conservative Party provides a powerful alternative to the NDP, Rachel Notley’s chances are far from nil.

In fact, Notley’s potential may lie in her bizarre ability to attract some of Alberta’s most conservative voters.

Despite that the New Democratic Party has historically been Canada’s most left-wing party, Rachel Notley’s rendition of NDPism bears striking resemblance to the deep conservatism that governed Alberta for more than four decades.

Since 2015, the NDP has introduced progressive legislation such as increasing the minimum wage and supporting the creation of Gay-Straight Alliances in schools. However, the NDP’s progressivism is largely limited to fringe initiatives that, although important, impact only small portions of the voting population. When it comes to sweeping issues that affect the entire electorate, Notley’s positions have been far more conservative.

Most key issues in Alberta center around natural resources. Oil provides the province with more than just money in the bank – it gives Albertans a shared political will. In order to appeal to the electorate’s collective support for oil and gas, Notley has aggressively upheld the province’s oil industry. The NDP even pulled Alberta out of the federal climate plan in protest of a court ruling that opposed the expansion of the Trans-Mountain pipeline. While debatably a reasonable response, putting pipelines over the environment is not an act typical of progressive governments.

In fact, the NDP has taken such a conservative stance on oil that the UCP has often had no choice but to agree with the government’s position.

The 2017 merger that created the new UCP led to the elimination of a solidly right-wing conservative option: the Wildrose Party. While UCP leader Jason Kenney is a clear conservative by most standards, his history in the Progressive Conservative Party fails to impress many former Wildrose supporters. Voters at the most conservative edge of the spectrum are therefore left without a partisan home.

What many of Alberta’s most right-wing voters have in common is a deep-seated hatred for the federal government. With no political party fully satisfying these voters on other dimensions, Notley’s dramatic attacks against the Trudeau government may be enough to win the vote of Alberta’s newly independent far-right.

The equal and opposite reaction to disenchantment with the federal government is a fiery sense of provincial nationalism. Conservative voters care about lowering taxes and reducing immigration. But they care more about putting Alberta’s needs above those of other provinces. Notley’s strong “Alberta first” messaging could appeal to these voters, bridging deeply conservative factions of the electorate with the more traditional progressive base of the NDP.

My suspicions were confirmed when I spoke with several members of the right-wing Yellow Vest movement at a rally in Southern Alberta.

The people I interviewed had a range of political beliefs, but all of them shared overarching political conservatism. Most of them had something else in common too: a surprising approval of Notley’s NDP.

The beliefs of the Yellow Vests appeared largely innocent at first but became more extreme as I prodded. One expressed that “half of [refugees] could be terrorists” while another articulated that bringing refugees into Canada is “spreading the problem around.” Another explained that Indigenous people have to “realize the White people won,” while yet another was “surprised nobody has shot [Trudeau] yet.”

The sentiments expressed by the Yellow Vests with whom I spoke are clearly out of line with the NDP’s policies. And yet, many of them expressed support for the NDP. The same woman who argued that Trudeau had “committed high treason” and was a “moron” felt that Notley wasn’t deserving of similar criticism.

The key driver behind support for Notley seemed to be her efforts on the Trans-Mountain Pipeline, which were painted as admirably pro-Alberta. One woman told me that Notley “is doing the best she can.” According to her, “if the feds aren’t helping Alberta, what is she going to do?” Several protestors agreed with this sentiment, highlighting the potential for Notley to find support among this unlikely group of Albertans.

The NDP faces an uphill battle heading into the Spring election, but it’s a battle it could win with the help of Alberta’s far-right.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association. 

Feature image by Catharina O’Donnell