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British Columbia Western newsletter: Alberta’s election campaign begins as a pitched battle over the economy

Good morning! It’s James Keller in Calgary.

At long last, an election.

Premier Rachel Notley made a telephone call to the province’s Lieutenant-Governor, Lois Mitchell, on Tuesday morning asking for the legislature to be dissolved, setting the stage for an election on April 16. It will be a pivotal vote that will have a profound impact on the province, which has been stuck in an economic downturn for five years with no clear path to a meaningful recovery.

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The ballot question is clearly the economy. Alberta has been stuck in a rut since oil prices began to collapse in 2014, which led to soaring unemployment and a flight of investment from the oil sands. More than 180,000 people are currently out of work, housing markets across the province have suffered, bankruptcies have increased, and the economic pain has fuelled a resurgence of Western alienation. And the lack of new pipeline access has recently made things even worse, as projects such as the Trans Mountain expansion and Enbridge’s Line 3 remain stalled by legal or regulatory setbacks.

On the one side is Ms. Notley’s NDP, which is finishing its first term in office and making the case that while people are still hurting, the province has been making progress while protecting public services such as health care. On the other, United Conservative Party Leader Jason Kenney argues the Notley government has been an abject failure on the economy and the province can’t afford another four years.

It’s a lot to take in, so you might want to start with our primer on the election for an overview of the leaders and the issues that will define the campaign.

Mr. Kenney also begins the campaign dealing with a lingering controversy from the UCP’s leadership election in 2017. The leadership race has been plagued by allegations that one of the candidates, Jeff Callaway, ran a stalking-horse campaign to benefit Mr. Kenney. Mr. Callaway and Mr. Kenney both deny that.

But the story has been kept alive by a series of leaks and fines against Mr. Callaway’s donors.

Here are some highlights from the first week of the campaign:

Ms. Notley and Mr. Kenney fought over the fate of the Springbank dam, a project west of Calgary designed to prevent another repeat of the 2013 floods. Mr. Kenney equivocated about whether he supported the project, but now says a UCP government would expedite construction if it receives the necessary approvals.

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They also traded promises on the oil industry, with Ms. Notley pledging to double the size of a program created to fund upgrading and refining projects and Mr. Kenney continuing his his pitch to fight back anyone standing in the way of pipelines. That includes a $30-million “energy war room” to counter anti-pipeline activists.

The New Democrats released an attack ad targeting Mr. Kenney for past comments about gay marriage and same-sex spousal rights, in particular when he was a university student in San Francisco. That prompted Mr. Kenney to offer what is probably his most thorough and direct response to concerns about his past views on gay marriage:

“It’s true that back when these were matters of political contention that I supported the traditional definition of marriage, as did virtually every political party and political leader in the democratic West. It’s also true that social, political and legal consensus on that question has changed dramatically, and I accept that. ... I think I’ve shown where my heart is.”

This is the weekly Western Canada newsletter written by Alberta Bureau Chief James Keller. If you’re reading this on the web, or it was forwarded to you from someone else, you can sign up for it and all Globe newsletters here. This is a new project and we’ll be experimenting as we go, so let us know what you think.

Around the West

WESTERN ALIENATION: Western alienation has got worse since Justin Trudeau became prime minister, according to a new survey from the Environics Institute. In fact, the survey revealed a growing sense of disillusionment with the country’s federal arrangements in East and West alike – a resentment that federal politicians ignore at their own peril. As Donald Savoie, the Canada Research Chair in Public Administration and Governance at the University of Moncton told reporter Eric Andrew-Gee: “I don’t think people in the Ottawa bubble get it. But it’s going to bite.”

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MEASLES: As Vancouver’s public-health officials scrambled to contain a recent measles outbreak, they faced a frustrating bureaucratic hurdle: A lack of vaccination records for school-aged children. In her investigation, ‘Shot in the dark’, Wendy Stueck reports how Canada’s patchwork method of record-keeping for immunization and other drugs is hampering best efforts to contain outbreaks – and putting lives at risk.

CRYSTAL METH: Another illegal drug is gripping the Prairies: Methamphetamine. With its low cost, highly addictive properties and long-lasting highs, a spike in meth-related emergencies has strained health and law-enforcement services. Meantime, cost-cutting drug dealers are mixing it into other substances such as cocaine and MDMA and selling it to unsuspecting users. Ben Waldman reports on how one group of volunteers is making the illegal drug supply a little safer at Winnipeg’s raves by testing the drugs of young party-goers.

HUMBOLDT BRONCOS: The driver of the truck that hit the Humboldt Broncos’ team bus has been sentenced to eight years, as the judge acknowledged he had shown remorse but said that must be balanced by the serious consequences for so many people. Jaskirat Singh Sidhu of Calgary had pleaded guilty in January to 29 counts of dangerous driving for killing 16 people and injuring 13 others on the junior hockey team’s bus. Judge Inez Cardinal told Mr. Sidhu that "families have been torn apart because of the loss." He also faces deportation to his home country of India after he serves time.

SASKATCHEWAN BUDGET: The government of Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe has tabled a budget that returns the province to balance for the first time in years, predicting a razor-thin surplus of $34-million. The budget holds the line on taxes – no increases but no tax cuts, either – and includes funding for mental-health treatment and road safety in the wake of the Humboldt crash. The government is also eliminating credits and deductions for its potash-production tax starting April 1, which quickly drew anger from potash companies that said they weren’t consulted.

HOUSING: A report released this week by the CMHC, in partnership with Statistics Canada, revealed the extent of non-resident buying in Vancouver – and it’s much higher than previously thought. As Simon Fraser University urban planner Andy Yan told real estate columnist Kerry Gold: “It measures a form of foreign ownership that many have denied was happening, and in proportions that few could imagined.”

OPIOIDS: While the opioid crisis has forced health officials to overhaul prescribing practices to stem the number of people becoming addicted to painkillers, it has upended approaches to treatment and recovery, too. Andrea Woo explores how a proposed new site for the Vancouver Detox Centre is more than an upgrade to an aging facility in the eastern part of the city: It’s also a symbol of the evolution of best practices when it comes to detox.

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Gary Mason on how Alberta “is in for arguably the nastiest election battle in the province’s history”: "It was thought that only a scandal of a significant nature could derail the UCP’s path to power; the Conservatives would have to extend a hand up to the NDP to make the race competitive. And wouldn’t you know it, that’s exactly what they’ve done.”

Adam Radwanski on how Justin Trudeau’s Liberals may see opportunity coming out of the Alberta election: “Its likeliest result – a return to power for the right, under United Conservative Party Leader Jason Kenney – could provide them with a useful foil during their own re-election campaign in the fall. And the extent to which they use him as such could provide a test of how much Mr. Trudeau and his party have hardened."

With a report from The Canadian Press

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