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How a Socialist Party Just Took Over the Texas of Canada

Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP

On Tuesday night, the near-unthinkable happened here in Canada when the New Democratic Party (NDP) stormed to a commanding majority in Alberta's provincial elections. To explain this in American terms: Imagine that Texas just overwhelmingly elected a legislature dominated by a left-wing party that opposes major oil pipeline projects; promises a core review of the obligations that oil and gas companies have to their communities; and favors fundamentally rethinking the tax structure toward large-scale redistribution of wealth from the rich to the poor. Oh, and it's going to insist that climate change is real, man-made, and should bear on any policy that involves burning more hydrocarbons.

Even this comparison is tough, because Americans don't support a mainstream party as unabashedly left-wing as the NDP. (The Greens would be a decent analog. Or a breakaway party of Bernie Sanders acolytes.) Publicly NDP members say they're “social democrats,” but most of its members, like Canadians at large, use that term interchangeably with “socialist.” Alberta has traditionally been unyielding soil for the NDP. The province is defined by its vast fossil fuel reserves, comparable to Saudi Arabia in its oil underfoot. Once oil was discovered there in the 1940s, actual Texans rushed up to establish companies and, concomitantly, a pro-capital, pro-religion, pro-firearm style of politics that the rest of Canada regards as distinctly American. For 44 years before Tuesday night, a span of twelve straight elections, Alberta has been run by the Conservative Party, a decent analogue to the Republican Party. Before that was nearly 40 years of even more conservative rule under the Social Credit Party.

The Conservatives' strength in Alberta has been in part responsible for the past eight years of Stephen Harper's reign as prime minister. Harper, a Calgary politician in the thrall of the oil industry, has leveraged the economic boom of the oil-rich province to justify all manner of ugly national economic, social, and environmental policies geared toward oil development. Even as recent polls suggested the Alberta NDP might win a majority for the first time in the province’s history, no one was prepared for a jolt of this magnitude. Even the 53 newly elected Members of the Legislative Assembly were shocked by the outcome. Commentators rushed to Twitter to make sense of the fantastic.

Far from a majority, the NDP hasn't even been a factor in any part of Alberta outside of the capital city, Edmonton. I should know: In 2012 I ran as the NDP's candidate for Parliament in a federal by-election held in downtown Calgary, the largest city in Alberta and home to the corporate headquarters for many of the world’s largest and most profitable oil and gas firms. New Democrats would refer to this part of the country as the “belly of the beast.”

When the leader of the federal NDP, Tom Mulcair, arrived to help us campaign, Calgarians did not receive him kindly. As the leader of the Official Opposition in Canada, Tom has to hold Harper to account in the House of Commons. Canadians recognize and respect him from coast to coast—with the exception of much of Alberta. Once, as Tom and I left campaign headquarters to glad-hand passersby, we noticed a guy wearing steel-toed boots and carrying a yellow hard hat under his arm. Almost anywhere in Canada, we would mark this guy, on his way to work, as a likely NDP voter. Tom approached him with a well-practiced politician's greeting: “Hi, there! I’m Tom Mulcair and I want you to meet my friend Dan. He is …”

The man cut Tom short. “I know who he is,” he said. “I’m not voting for him and I’ll tell you why: It's because you don’t care about my job in the oil patch, Tom.” Conventional wisdom in Alberta then held that the NDP's policies on rethinking the way non-renewable resources were developed, processed, and transported were seen as a huge risk to the economic security of Alberta's workers. Throughout that campaign we were cursed at, insulted, laughed at, and had doors slammed in our faces as we tried to articulate an alternate vision for politics in Alberta. The narrative we swam against was ubiquitous but unproven: that the NDP's platform—pro-labor, anti-climate change, less than cozy with oil companies—would be catastrophic to the province. 

During that campaign I met Rachel Notley, who, as of last night, is Alberta's premier-designate. She drove the three hours from Edmonton to Calgary to stand outside a train station in temperatures well below freezing to hand out flyers and try to meet voters. Notley is 51 years old, attractive and articulate, passionate and dedicated. Her father was once the leader of the Alberta NDP but never had anywhere near the success that his daughter achieved last night.  Standing outside in the cold in late 2012, Rachel told me the tide could turn, that the people of Alberta might, just might, tire of conservative ideology.

A couple of years later Notley became the party leader just months before a snap election was called. (Canadian politics are unpredictable that way; with variable schedules for many elections, campaigns can come suddenly and last only weeks. It's great.) At the time, the NDP held only four seats of the 87 seats in the legislature—the definition of a non-factor.

The difference this year was that the people of Alberta were willing to listen to an alternative view. A year of plummeting oil prices and the layoffs they wrought showed many Albertans how flimsy the economic plan was in the province, predicated as it was on a presumption of endless abundance. Falling oil prices led to an austerity budget from the sitting Progressive Conservative government. We were told that as long as we gave oil sands companies total control, we would reap the economic rewards. Once that was proven to be untrue, the larger conservative narrative crumbled

The NDP's platform was clearly aimed at scraping the government and the provinces wealth back somewhat from oil interests. For starters, it called for a ban on corporate and union donations to political parties. The NDP proposed establishing a Resource Owners Rights Commission to review the royalties oil companies pay to the province and boosting in the corporate tax rate to 12 percent from 10 percent. The party also sought to increase the minimum wage from $10.20 now to $15 an hour by 2018, and to scale up the high-income tax brackets, topping out at 15 percent on those making more than $300,000 a year.

Notley was the perfect person to deliver that message. Voters rewarded her party with 53 seats in the legislature, an increase of more than twelve-fold.

This election has the potential to fundamentally change the nature of the energy industry in North America, and to challenge the largely unproven claims that left cannot steward the economy and the environment simultaneously. For the past nine years, Harper has played the unflagging economy of Alberta as a trump card, to much success. On Tuesday, his riding in Calgary saw a record number of NDP voters: The night ended in an unofficial dead tie, in fact, between the NDP candidate Anam Kazim and Progressive Conservative incumbent Linda Johnson, with 7,015 votes apiece.

The people of Alberta have always been proud of their conservatism. Some, smug in the dynasty, ribbed those of us who lived and worked there trying to address the consequences of this conservatism: poverty, homelessness, income inequality. Tuesday night brought a strange vindication for us progressives who were so often brow-beaten by the abundance of the oil resources. The deep, wide wealth the boom brought made it impossible to challenge the status quo of economic and social policy, let alone environmental concerns. Now the NDP has a chance to govern, with the potential to expand political discourse all over North America. Progressive Texans south of the forty-ninth parallel would do well to take notes.