'Up against a beast': candidates face conservative juggernaut in Innisfail-Sylvan Lake

Voters will go to the polls on July 12 in a riding that has consistently elected conservative candidates for decades.

Voters head to the polls July 12 to choose new MLA after resignation of Don MacIntyre

NDP candidate Nicole Mooney chats with vendors at the farmers market in Sylvan Lake on Friday. (Michelle Bellefontaine/CBC )

After a week spent marking diploma exams in Edmonton, high school teacher Nicole Mooney was out on Friday evening campaigning at the farmers market in Sylvan Lake.

Mooney, the NDP candidate in the Innisfail-Sylvan Lake byelection, joined shoppers wandering among the booths selling scented soap, cupcakes and berries.

As she introduced herself, a couple of people told Mooney they were visitors from Calgary, in town for the long weekend.

But others, to Mooney's delight, recognized her name from the orange-and-white campaign signs posted around the riding.

Mooney was approached by Lori Mercredi, who lives on an acreage near Sylvan Lake.

When she learned Mooney is running for the NDP, Mercredi promised her a vote. But then she acknowledged the likely fate facing candidates in this rural central-Alberta constituency who don't lean right.  

"You'll probably be lonely here," Mercredi told Mooney. "It's a pretty conservative area."

Conservative stronghold

Voters will go to the polls on July 12 to choose among five candidates to be the area's next MLA: Mooney, Abigail Douglass of the Alberta Party, Devin Dreeshen from the United Conservative Party, Liberal Nick Jansen and David Inscho, an independent. 

If history is an indication, Dreeshen, the son of Red Deer-Mountain Conservative MP Earl Dreeshen, will likely be heading to the legislature after July 12.

"You're going to find there's not a lot of people that support the NDP here," Mercredi said.

The area's last MLA, Don MacIntyre, switched to the UCP when his Wildrose Party merged with the Progressive Conservatives last summer. He resigned in February after he was charged with sexual assault and sexual interference involving a minor.

UCP candidate Devin Dreeshen (centre, in dark blue shirt) has been campaigning with UCP MLA Nathan Cooper (second from left). (Twitter )

After winning the nomination in May, Dreeshen, 30, has been getting support from other UCP MLAs. Pictures of Dreeshen with UCP Leader Jason Kenney, Nathan Cooper, the UCP MLA for Olds-Didsbury-Three Hills, and Jason Nixon, the UCP MLA for Rimbey-Rocky Mountain House-Sundre, are posted on his Twitter account.

CBC was not able to speak to Dreeshen for this story, despite repeated attempts to arrange an interview over a 10-day period.

Mooney wasn't willing to admit that faces a formidable battle against entrenched voting habits in Innisfail-Sylvan Lake.

She lives in Sylvan Lake, and said the area is home to young families who don't want cuts to education and health care she thinks will be made under a UCP government.

"The people that I'm hearing from are not interested in what Jason Kenney is selling, so I think that plays well for us," she said.

Tap on the shoulder

Douglass, the Alberta Party candidate, while optimistic about her chances, acknowledged the challenge she faces.  

"I know I'm going up against a beast," she said. "I'm very aware that it's not an easy race, but I have been overwhelmed by the support that I have gotten."

Douglass, 23, was raised on a farm near Penhold, and lives in Sylvan Lake. The self-described fiscal conservative was the former student association president of The King's University in Alberta.

Douglass was recruited to volunteer on Stephen Mandel's successful Alberta Party leadership campaign by former Progressive Conservative Party president Katherine O'Neill. 

O'Neill stepped down as PC party president in April 2017 after Kenney won that party's leadership. She has since become involved in the Alberta Party and worked behind the scenes to get Mandel elected leader. 

Douglass said she has found a home in the Alberta Party, which shares her socially progressive beliefs as well as a fiscally conservative outlook.

She said Mandel asked her to run in Innisfail-Sylvan Lake.

"All of a sudden, I got that tap on the shoulder," she said.

Abigail Douglass, 23, was asked to run for the Alberta Party in Innisfail-Sylvan Lake by party leader Stephen Mandel. (Michelle Bellefontaine/CBC )

Douglass said many people in the area are concerned about rural crime as well as the economy and job prospects.

The biggest challenge all candidates face may be a lack of interest among voters. Turnout is usually low for byelections. Interest in the Innisfail-Sylvan Lake and Fort McMurray-Conklin byelections is expected to be lower because of the timing.

People are on vacation and pay less attention to the news during the summer. The byelections also come 10 months before the next provincial election is expected in 2019.

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Randy Thorsteinson was running in this byelection. He is not. David Inscho is running as an independent. His name has been added to the story.
    Jul 03, 2018 10:23 AM MT