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Before Trump, Alberta saw its own anti-establishment backlash

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley comments on the election of Donald Trump in Edmonton Alta, on Wednesday November 9, 2016. In the 2015 Alberta election, voters tossed out a Progressive Conservative dynasty that had governed for 44 years and installed the province’s first NDP government. The New Democrats won 41 per cent of the popular vote, but polls show their support has dropped since as the economy and oil prices crumbled.

Jason Franson/The Canadian Press

For Nathan Cullen, the perfect place to learn about the rural America that elected Donald Trump was a college football tailgate.

The B.C. New Democrat MP was among a group of Canadian politicians and academics who toured a few U.S. cities during the campaign's final 10 days as part of the U.S. State Department's International Visitor Leadership Program.

On a free afternoon in New Orleans, Mr. Cullen and a few others headed an hour up the road to Baton Rouge, where the top-seeded Alabama Crimson Tide was playing the Louisiana State University Tigers. College football fans packed the stadium's 100,000 seats, and an even larger crowd barbecued food and drank beer from their trucks in the parking lot – a kind of outdoor party called a tailgate.

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The divide between rural and urban voters is one of the starkest demographic statistics of this week's U.S. election. Cities voted overwhelmingly Democrat and rural regions went Republican. Almost half of the electorate did not vote, and Mr. Trump's victory appears to have hinged on much more motivation among his supporters than those of Hillary Clinton.

Mr. Cullen said he witnessed the visceral unpopularity of Ms. Clinton firsthand when he canvassed the crowd and got an earful from an educated, middle-aged woman.

"She'll take away my tailgating," the woman told him.

Mr. Cullen said he laughed and replied: "I'm pretty sure Hillary Clinton, right now, is not thinking about your tailgating."

"And she said: 'No way. This is about freedom. This is about my community, my culture.'"

Garnett Genuis, a Conservative MP who represents an Edmonton riding, was also on the tour, and said Canada has already experienced some of the "anti-elite" forces that lifted Mr. Trump to victory.

"I think that was a big factor in the last provincial election in Alberta, where people looked at the 'elites' who had been running the province for a long time … and said: 'We've just got to find a way of throwing them out,'" Mr. Genuis said.

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"Of course, there's not much comparison between those [leaders] they put in."

In the 2015 Alberta election, voters tossed out a Progressive Conservative dynasty that had governed for 44 years and installed the province's first NDP government. The New Democrats won 41 per cent of the popular vote, but polls show their support has dropped since as the economy and oil prices crumbled.

"We're in a different phase of the cycle in Alberta, of course, because people are settling into the consequences of that protest-vote frustration," Mr. Genuis said. "A lot of people with a lot of different expectations aren't satisfied with the results. We'll see if the same thing happens in the U.S."

Mr. Genuis said he did not think Mr. Trump's controversial comments about race and immigration helped his campaign, nor does he think it would help conservative politicians in Canada.

"There was so much going on in the U.S. election. … I think that Trump won in spite of those messages, not because of them," he said.

Some of the more disconcerting anti-establishment allegations in the campaign were those levelled against the electoral system itself. Before winning, Mr. Trump complained the entire election was "rigged" against him, while Democrats say that stricter voting-ID requirements have kept many Americans from casting their ballots.

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Shachi Kurl, executive director of the Angus Reid Institute in Vancouver, said her most eye-opening experience on the tour happened at a voting station in suburban Cleveland.

The director of the local board of elections told the group both parties had been undermining voters' confidence in the electoral system. And at that moment, a distraught voter came in to complain. The woman, wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the U.S. flag, silhouettes of soldiers and the words "America Strong," said she did not think her vote was going to be counted because of "people higher up in the party."

"You can know something because polling data tells you, but you can't replace it with that scene unfolding at a really human level right in front of your eyes," Ms. Kurl said.

Mr. Cullen, whose northern B.C. riding is one of Canada's least densely populated, said the big lesson for Canadian politicians is not to lose touch with voters outside the big cities.

"Any system that gets insulated from other parts of the country can really miss a stirring resentment," he said. "Trump … picked up on these feelings pretty early on."

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About the Author
Assistant editor, Ottawa

Chris Hannay is assistant editor in The Globe's Ottawa bureau and author of the daily Politics newsletter. Previously, he was The Globe and Mail's digital politics editor, community editor for news and sports (working with social media and digital engagement) and a homepage editor. More


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