Potential low turnout worries UCP in Fort McMurray-Conklin byelection

The byelection to replace former Wildrose leader and UCP MLA Brian Jean, who resigned in February, will be a battle fought door by door in Fort McMurray-Conklin.

Residents will vote July 12 for a new MLA following the February resignation of Brian Jean

UCP candidate Laila Goodridge poses with a sign while campaigning in Fort McMurray's Beacon Hill neighbourhood Tuesday. (Michelle Bellefontaine/CBC )

The sidewalks are coated with a slick paste of mud as UCP byelection candidate Laila Goodridge carefully makes her way down a street in Fort McMurray's Beacon Hill neighbourhood. 

The neighbourhood, which lies in the Fort McMurray-Conklin riding, was destroyed in the 2016 wildfire and signs of the rebuild are everywhere. Many homes are in various stages of reconstruction. Some lots are still vacant, testament to the struggles some residents are facing with insurance claims.

Goodridge is undeterred by the wet weather. She goes from house to house, tapping on doors, hoping to meet up with someone she may have missed on an earlier swing through the neighbourhood.

This evening the door-knocking team includes Tany Yao, the UCP MLA for Fort McMurray-Wood Buffalo, Todd Loewen, the UCP MLA for Grande Prairie-Smoky, and Jeremy Nixon, the former executive director of the Wildrose Party, who is vying for the UCP nomination in Calgary-Klein.

One of the doors doesn't go well for Goodridge.

"I'm not going to waste your time," a man states flatly after she introduces herself.  "I really don't like Brian Kenney at all."

He quickly corrects himself.

"Jason Kenney — sorry," he says, alluding to the UCP leader. "I'm not a fan so I can't support you."

Other doors go better. When Goodridge asks Gerald Power if she can count on his support on July 12, he replies, "Maybe."

Goodridge, 31, makes her pitch. She explains how she was born and raised in Fort McMurray, how her family has lived in the city for 45 years. She talks about her work in Ottawa for the federal environment minister where she learned how little people understood the oilsands.

Goodridge commiserates with Power on the local price of a litre of gasoline and how much higher it is compared to Edmonton prices. 

Goodridge tells Power about how she moved back to Fort McMurray after university to care for her younger brothers after their mother was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer.

Has she earned his vote? "I think you may have it," he replies.

Goodridge continues her canvass of the neighbourhood. She confides that she has walked so much, during the byelection campaign and her earlier push to win the UCP nomination, that her "skinny jeans" are now loose around the hips and thighs. 

Low turnout

As Goodridge is learning, the byelection in Fort McMurray-Conklin to replace former Wildrose leader and UCP MLA Brian Jean, who resigned in February, will be a battle fought door by door.

Some residents haven't returned to their homes after the wildfire. Others are focused on rebuilding, with little time or energy to think about voting. 

Voter turnout is generally lower in byelections. This contest is taking place in the summer when people are on vacation.

NDP candidate Jane Stroud (left) was knocking on doors in Conklin Wednesday evening. (Michelle Bellefontaine/CBC )

Goodridge expects about 3,000 out of 13,222 eligible voters may end up casting a ballot. And that's a concern for her campaign.

"I believe the United Conservative Party's chances would be really good if everybody showed up to vote," she said. "However, if the NDP ended up activating their small, special interest groups and (getting) their well-organized lobby groups out, they could decide this and it could be won with as few as 12 or 15 hundred votes."

So Goodridge makes sure that each person she talks to knows the location of the advance polls and the date of the byelection vote.

Rural concerns

Fort McMurray has consistently elected conservatives — Social Credit, Progressive Conservative or Wildrose MLAs —over the last 50 years, with only one exception.

Liberal Adam Germain held the Fort McMurray was elected in 1993. He didn't run again in 1997, when the riding was won by Progressive Conservative Guy Boutilier.

Despite this record, the governing NDP thinks it has a chance of a breakthrough this time with Jane Stroud, probably their best known candidate in years. 

Stroud, 70, is in her third term representing Anzac, Conklin, Janvier and Gregoire Lake Estates on the Wood Buffalo Regional Municipal Council.

Premier Rachel Notley attended Stroud's campaign launch in Fort McMurray on June 28. She called Stroud an "amazing" candidate with a record of service to the community.

Notley cited her government's support for Fort McMurray during and after the devastating wildfire and touted the NDP's advocacy for oil and gas development, the lifeblood of the community She suggested residents will recognize this.

"Politics is about optimism and I'm optimistic," Notley said.

Homelessness in Conklin

Politics is also about hard work.

On a sunny Wednesday evening, Stroud is in Conklin, a Métis community of about 300 residents located 155 kilometres southeast of Fort McMurray. 

Earlier in the day, Stroud returned to Fort McMurray after two days of campaigning in Fort Chipewyan. She also took part in a candidates debate on a local radio station in Fort McMurray.

In Conklin, Stroud drives her Mazda SUV from house to house along the bumpy dirt roads, checking to see if residents have voted. She takes a couple of women to the advance poll at the community centre. 

Grace Richards sits at a nearby picnic table. A lack of housing is the biggest issue in the community, she says. Elders can't find housing in the hamlet so are forced to live elsewhere. There is no new housing for young people to stay and raise families of their own.

Richards lives in a camping trailer that she bought for $800. She has no running water and gets electricity from an extension cord plugged into a neighbouring house. Richards uses jugs to collect water from the water treatment plant in the winter when deliveries are suspended for the season.

Richards has become an advocate for additional housing in the community. She was pleased Notley visited Conklin last month, something she thinks will help Stroud's chances in the community. 

"They were here themselves and they got to see it first hand," she said.

With a week to go until voting day for the byelection, Richards says she hasn't seen the other candidates in Conklin.

Conklin resident Grace Richards lives in a camping trailer with no running water. She has been advocating for new and improved housing in the hamlet. (Michelle Bellefontaine/CBC )

Home base a campaign sore point

Stroud said it helps that as the councillor for this area, she's familiar with many people who live there. Knocking on every door makes a difference, she adds.

As for her overall chances, Stroud notes the NDP candidate came second to Jean in the 2015 election. Since then, Notley's government has worked more collaboratively with the municipality than previous Progressive Conservative governments, she suggests.

And her experience on the municipal council will help if she becomes the MLA, Stroud adds.

"I do live here," she said. "I do know all the concerns because I've been a councillor for eight years. I'm a rural councillor, but as a councillor you represent the whole region so I listen to the concerns of the whole region."

The question of where each candidate lives has become a sore point in this campaign.

Stroud has painted Goodridge as a fly-in candidate, even though the UCP candidate was born and raised in the city.

But Goodridge left Fort McMurray to attend the University of Alberta. She worked in Ottawa and in Edmonton for the Wildrose and UCP caucuses. 

Goodridge becomes visibly angry when asked about the accusations of being an outsider.

"I find that to be something, to be really quite frustrating and difficult, especially considering my really strong roots here in this community and the fact that I have lived here most of my life," she said.

Goodridge said her brothers, sister and father live in Fort McMurray, suggesting they are bothered by Stroud's claims.

"My father still lives in the same house he bought from my grandmother in 1984."

Still, Stroud isn't backing down.

"I don't know Laila but I do know that she ran in Grande Prairie in 2015 and she proclaimed that was her home base at that time," she said. "I have to be honest, I don't know her family."

Another choice for voters

Three other candidates are running in the byelection: Sid Fayad of the Alberta Party, Brian Deheer of the Green Party and Robin Le Fevre of the Alberta Liberals.

Le Fevre lives in Edmonton. He says his wife was raised in Fort McMurray.. Deheer lives in Lac La Biche. He is running to offer voters a choice, he says.

Fayad, 31, runs a granite business in Fort McMurray. He moved to Alberta from Lebanon at the age of 2 and has lived in Fort McMurray since 2008.

The Alberta Party candidate, who has worked on the wildfire rebuild, has a low opinion of out-of-town builders and contractors he charges are taking advantage of Fort McMurray residents. He blames the NDP government for not doing enough to protect homeowners. 

The Alberta Party has characterized itself as a fiscally conservative, socially progressive party. Fayad thinks that offers voters a choice.

"They don't want to be voting either extreme right or extreme left anymore," he said. "We need a party that's centred, that has a balance between the economy and the social aspects of our community, and that is what the Alberta Party is good for."

The byelection marks the last time voters will go to the polls for a Fort McMurray-Conklin riding representative.

The boundaries for the two ridings encompassing Fort McMurray were changed following recommendations from an independent boundaries commission. The new constituencies will be in place for the 2019 provincial election.

The two ridings will run east-west instead of splitting the area north-south. The new Fort McMurray-Lac La Biche riding covers areas in the city south of Thickwood Boulevard and extends south to Lac La Biche and the Kikano and Buffalo Lake Métis settlements.

Fort McMurray-Conklin's population was 48 per cent below the provincial population average prior to the boundary changes.


Michelle Bellefontaine

Provincial affairs reporter

Michelle Bellefontaine covers the Alberta legislature for CBC News in Edmonton. She has also worked as a reporter in the Maritimes and in northern Canada.