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Environment a background issue in Alberta election but may play role, say observers

Recent polling suggests 2-5% of Albertans consider the environment a priority issue for the May 29 election
A section of the eastern slopes of the Canadian Rockies is seen west of Cochrane, Alta., Thursday, June 17, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

Few governments have seen as many environmental dust-ups as Alberta’s United Conservatives in their four-year tenure.

They tried delisting parks and opening the Rocky Mountains to coal mining. They charged fees for a beloved alpine playground. They started an inquiry into whether environmental groups were “anti-Alberta.” They proposed dunning taxpayers for the cleanup costs of abandoned oil and gas facilities.

The list goes on.

But how those issues play in the upcoming provincial election is not a simple question, observers say. Albertans have a complicated and even contradictory relationship with the landscape in which they both play and make their living.

“Most Albertans want economic growth and environmental sustainability the same way they want low taxes and high-quality public services,” said University of Alberta political scientist Jared Wesley. “They don’t want to make that choice.”

Recent polling suggests about two to five per cent of Albertans consider the environment a priority issue for the May 29 election.

“It doesn’t even crack the top 10,” said Wesley.

But that doesn’t mean they don’t care about it.

When the United Conservative Party government announced 20 provincial parks would be closed and 164 protected areas would be delisted, the uproar was deafening. “Protect Alberta Parks” signs sprouted like dandelions on lawns across the province and the Alberta Environmental Network still gets requests for them, more than a year after the government backed down.

And when the government revoked a policy that had protected the eastern slopes of the Rockies from coal mining since 1976, urban greenies, cowboy singers and small-town mayors united in protest against what they saw as an affront to the province’s sense of itself — not to mention its fresh water supply.

“Alberta has a conservative political culture,” Wesley said. “Part of that is a preference for the immediate and now.

“That’s exactly what the movement against the strip mining of the eastern slopes did.”

Calgary pollster Janet Brown has identified those in a demographic that in many ways typifies Alberta’s approach to environmental issues. They make up about eight per cent of the provincial electorate but about 18 per cent in the crucial battleground city of Calgary.

They’re young, mostly between 25 and 44. They live in the suburbs. They’re well educated, well paid and politically active. They read a lot of media but don’t trust it.

They believe Alberta should transition from oil and gas, worry about climate change and favour strong land and water protections. But they don’t like what needs to be done to address those concerns.

“They care about the environment, think it’s important that the government take action on environmental things, but they also tend to work in oil and gas,” Brown said.

“We call that segment Calgary Dissonance.”

A similar push-pull may be happening in rural Alberta. Craig Snodgrass is the mayor of High River, a southern Alberta town that has consistently sent conservatives to the legislature yet vehemently opposed UCP plans for coal mining.

“Every time I’m out and about, people are still coming up to me and saying, ‘Thank you so much for the work you did on coal mining,’” he said. “I definitely think it left a mark.”

But will those memories affect votes? Maybe, maybe not.

“There’s a lot of assumption that it’s all been taken care of and done,” said Snodgrass.

Carolyn Campbell of the Alberta Wilderness Association said elections are won and lost on bread-and-butter issues, not on abstractions like climate change or biodiversity loss. Still, she feels Albertans are coming to understand the links between the two.

“People have a really visceral love for the natural areas they walk through and camp in,” she said.

“(We’re) trying to link that to broader issues like land use planning, linking it to water, linking it to forest fires, linking it to drought. That’s our work all year round.”

Wesley points to research that asked people to draw a picture of the average Albertan. The drawings were of a cowboy, an oil worker or a farmer.

The trick for environmentalists, said Wesley, is to present their arguments in ways that chime with those symbols.

“The cowboy isn’t the enemy,” he said. “It’s about trying to find out what are (his) better angels.

“(The average) Joe cares about a lot of things. You’ve got to frame it in a way that Joe cares about — without giving up your end goal.

“That’s the part that environmentalists are cluing in to.”

Bob Weber, The Canadian Press

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