DRAYTON VALLEY — Bev Reuteman is among a growing number of Albertans facing hard times.
And the controller at an oil services company in Drayton Valley, 100 kilometres southwest of Edmonton, is pointing a finger of blame at Premier Ed Stelmach.
“It’s been terrible in Drayton Valley for the last year,” Reuteman said from behind her desk. “I can tell you that I’ve worked in the oilfield for 25 years now and it’s the worst I’ve ever seen it.”
Many of the young people in her community are also feeling the pinch.
“I know lots of students that aren’t actually back in school because they didn’t get a job here in the summer,” she said. “I think it’s Stelmach. He had big shoes to fill. Everybody compares him to Ralph Klein and he’s just not there.”
Alberta’s busted oil boom and a bleak rural economy are pushing Stelmach into a political quagmire. He took over from Klein three years ago and things looked good for awhile as the oil boom reached its zenith with record prices.
Then everything began to slide all at once. Energy prices plummeted. The recession hit. The beef and pork industries bottomed out. Alberta lost its edge as the economic envy of Canada.
Now the province is hurting.
Rather than ride out the storm, Stelmach continued pushing an ambitious agenda that included contentious new energy royalties, hundreds of hospital bed closures, health-care job cuts and legislation to clear the way for billions of dollars in new power lines that will boost utility rates for consumers.
Those decisions have come at a price for his Progressive Conservatives. Growing discontent has pushed the upstart Wildrose Alliance, a further-right party that holds only one seat in the legislature, to the top of at least one poll. Another recent poll cited Stelmach as the least popular premier in Canada.
Reuteman said she joined the Wildrose Alliance a few weeks ago.
All of this seems out of context for a government holding 70 of 83 seats. And in a year-end interview with The Canadian Press, there were no signs the premier plans on backing down.
“Yes, individually Albertans are hurting,” he said. “But collectively, as a province, we’re in good standing.
“Are there issues? Definitely. Some of them are tied to the economy and some are tied to the changes we’re bringing about. But these are all changes that are necessary for long-term future prosperity.”
Many Albertans, however, are upset, especially in rural areas, which have always been a bedrock of Tory support.
David Chapman saw his retirement dreams evaporate recently when he was forced to sell all of his cattle.
“Those cattle were me and my wife’s retirement plan and they’re gone now. My wife’s working a job and I’m hauling logs,” he said. “That’s our retirement now.”
But Chapman’s frustration is not over the collapsing beef industry. He’s angry about plans to cut hundreds of hospital beds across Alberta.
“If we don’t have our health care, then we’ve got nothing,” he said. “They’ve shut down 350 beds on the people that need help, like the handicapped.”
Rural politicians have also started grumbling about Stelmach. Harlan Cahoon, a councillor in Cardston, south of Calgary, said he’s seeing signs of political change.
“I think Wildrose is coming on,” Cahoon said. “I think there’s quite a bit of discontent throughout the whole province, not just in our area.”
Even one of Stelmach’s most loyal supporters frankly admits that the Tory party is in trouble. Finance Minister Iris Evans recenlty conceded that the party is losing support.
“People thought things would be better under a new leader,” Evans told The Canadian Press. “But I don’t think the diehard Tories will stay with the Wildrose.”
Stelmach is trying to put the best face on recent poll results.
“I’ve been much lower before,” he said of a time he was still a member of the legislature. “The party was about 12 per cent in the polls in December of 1992.
“Did I abandon the Progressive Conservative party? No. I ran for it … and won the subsequent election.”
But many of those facing tough times appear to want to blame the premier.
“Saskatchewan is booming and we’re not. Why is that?” said Dustin Nelson, who works in the oilpatch. “I’ve heard a lot of people blame Stelmach.”
Nelson said business leaders in Drayton Valley are talking openly about the need for a change in government and “it has a grassroots feel to it.”
“I’ve actually had three guys come into my office, fairly prominent businessmen, who have become staunch supporters of Wildrose, guys who feel the Conservatives have strayed. They’re no longer what they used to be and the Wildrose has come out as their replacement.”
Stelmach is trying to pull his Tories out of a tailspin with a new communications strategy, a cabinet shuffle early in the new year and changes to his inner circle of advisers. His senior communications director has already announced he’s stepping aside.
The premier has also been trying to harness new media such as Twitter and YouTube to re-brand himself. He posted five videos recently with responses to questions posted on his “Ask Premier Ed” site.
As for the province’s biggest asset, Stelmach says the government is “sorting out” issues with the energy industry.
“We’ve seen some of the lowest gas prices in recent years. There’s a lot of people that were laid off.”
The premier also points out that he got 77 per cent support when Tory members held a mandatory leadership review vote in November. And there still appear to be pockets of strong support for the premier, especially on his home turf.
Daniel Warawa is deputy reeve of Lamont County, where the premier lives on a small farm. He said Wildrose is simply “a blip on the radar.”
“The government has to make some tough decisions,” he said. “Are they addressing them to everybody’s satisfaction? Probably not.”
“It’s the same as when Ralph Klein was in power.”
The rapid rise of the Wildrose Alliance has been startling, especially considering the party has only one seat after an upset victory in a Calgary byelection in the fall.
But the poll numbers have climbed steadily since Danielle Smith was chosen party leader a few weeks later.
Smith said Stelmach simply hasn’t show that he has a workable plan for Alberta, so a growing number of voters are looking for an alternative.
“He’s made the wrong decisions and he’s been unwilling to change course, and that’s left an imprint on his leadership. We’ve seen parties come out of nowhere and sweep an incumbent government out of power.”
To make matters worse, a breakaway group is now forming made up left-leaning Conservatives and disaffected Liberals. They’re calling the movement “Reboot Alberta.”
But Stelmach still has two years before the next election. He shrugs off any suggestion that he would ever step aside before then.
The premier also appears to be growing weary of people blaming him for the economic slump and the party’s slide in the polls.
“If it’s that bad in Alberta, why is it that we’ve had a 62,000 net migration of people at some of the worst times in our economy?” he asked, citing figures from July 2008 to July 2009.
“So that sends me a message that we’re still a beacon of hope and a beacon of prosperity.”
But that number could be changing.
A Statistic Canada third-quarter population estimate released last week showed that, while Alberta’s population continues to grow faster than the national average, more people left Alberta for other provinces than moved in.
It’s the first time that has happened since 1994.