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Dynamic Calgary holds historic vote in hand

Danielle Smith, leader of the Wildrose at the Dashmesh Culture Centre with candidate Happy Mann during a campaign stop in Calgary, April 22, 2012.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Albertans head to the polls Monday for an election that will largely be won or lost in Calgary, where voters will decide what brand of conservatism they want – Wildrose or Progressive Conservative.

About one-third of the province's ridings are in or around its biggest city. With Wildrose doing well rurally and the NDP and Liberals staying competitive in Edmonton, it's Calgary's tight two-way contests between the front-runner Wildrose and PC parties that will define election night. One will form government.

Calgary is one of the fastest-growing cities in Canada, welcoming scores of new residents from other provinces and abroad, with nearly one-quarter of its citizens visible minorities. And much of the so-called new Calgary is rooted in the city's diverse northeast. The Tories were already in power when a stretch of suburban homes and duplexes began to pop up east of the city's airport, the foremost hub for the new faces of the changing urban area. These days, developers can barely keep up as northeast communities expand quickly to the edges of the city limits.

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"Thirty years ago, there was nothing there," said alderman Jim Stevenson, who represents the 90,000 people tucked into the city's northeast corner. "Every year, it's escalating at a faster pace."

Amid the change, however, one thing has remained constant: blue political stripes. It's the home of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, whose Calgary School colleagues drew up a new blueprint of small-c conservatism in Canada. And the city's prominence in a race between conservative factions is clear: Both Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith and PC Leader Alison Redford made several stops here on Sunday, the campaign's last day.

The more things change in Calgary, the more they stay the same.

"I've had people say to me that all the people coming to Alberta changes the political spectrum," Mr. Stevenson said. "But I don't think Calgary has changed that much."

Calgary has grown steadily for decades, home to 1,090,936 people as of last year's civic census, up 49.9 per cent from 1993, the last time the province had a close election race. In the 2006 census, 22 per cent of Calgarians identified themselves as a visible minority, up from 17 per cent five years earlier. Only Toronto, Vancouver and Abbotsford are more diverse.

Calgary's immigration sources are also shifting. In 2006, about two-thirds of new Albertans came from other provinces. But by 2011, two-thirds of the province's new faces were foreigners, according to Ben Brunnen, chief economist at the Calgary Chamber of Commerce. "Without a doubt, we're becoming increasingly a destination for international migrants," he said.

In Calgary, 30 per cent of people have a bachelor's level of education, or higher, compared to 22.9 per cent in the rest of Canada. Driven by the province's booming energy sector, the city's total gross domestic product climbed by 35 per cent between 2001 and 2011, according to Patrick Walters, Calgary's chief economist. Canada's grew 20 per cent in the same period. And growth in the labour-starved province is expected to continue – by 2031, 38 per cent of Calgarians will be visible minorities, according to Statistics Canada projections.

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But while the faces of Calgary are quickly changing, its politics have changed only slightly. The city has long voted conservative nationally and provincially, but has a history of electing centrist mayors. Current Mayor Naheed Nenshi dismisses suggestions the city's growth is affecting its politics.

"There's been absolutely no evidence of that," he said. "Some people love to say that people who move to Calgary move here because they are conservative-minded, or that the changing nature of immigration is going to change conservative and liberal. But these things are irrelevant. They don't matter to the people who live here. They live here to have a great life."

In his books, the PCs have always been an "extremely large tent," one that included Peter Lougheed, the granddaddy of Alberta's PCs who invested in public facilities and the Heritage Fund; Ralph Klein, who made cuts to eliminate debt; and the recent governments of Ed Stelmach and Ms. Redford, whose governments spend more, per capita, than any other province.

"It's not that we didn't have policy discussions and policy debates and innovations – it is just that they largely occurred within one party," Mr. Nenshi said. "It really has been all over the map." The difference this time around, Mr. Nenshi said, is that the family feud is public.

Harry Hiller, the director of the Alberta in-migration study at the University of Calgary, believes the desire for change will trump any community ties – that's what has Calgarians, new and old, split between the PCs and Wildrose.

"People say: 'Look, we need a change. But what do we change to? There's only one party that really has a chance of replacing the other party, so I guess we'll go with those guys,'" he said. "This is a dominant factor in the province as a whole, and it certainly is reflected in Calgary."

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The PCs began courting northeast Calgary voters in the 1980s, and found engaged voters who leaned Liberal. "They want to play, let me tell you that," said one-time cabinet minister Rick Orman, who built ties for his party in the area. Then came Jason Kenney, Mr. Harper's point-man on wooing visible minority voters from the Liberals. New Calgarians were rolled into the conservative fold.

"Let's face it, immigrant communities hold socially conservative views," said Raj Sharma, a Calgary immigration lawyer and former co-host of a Punjabi political radio show. "And, of course, there are models of entrepreneurship and [fear of]big government that exist in many immigrant communities. You really have to look at how Jason Kenney broke the Liberal Party hold on immigrant communities, and you understand there is actually an intersection where people vote conservative."

The PCs, in many ways, have targeted the notion of a new Calgary in their campaign. Ms. Redford's slogan is that her team is "not your father's PC party," and her slate of 25 Calgary candidates includes eight who are visible minorities.

Wildrose, too, says it welcomes everyone, brushing aside questions of its overwhelmingly Caucasian slate of candidates. "There's lots of ways that people can participate in a political party," Ms. Smith said.

The northeast has become a flashpoint in the election: It's where Ron Leech – the Wildrose candidate who said he has an advantage because he's white – is running. Voters at a northeast Calgary polling station last week said in interviews Mr. Leech's comments caught the attention of Calgary's diverse community.

"One should never be allowed to humiliate anyone. And he humiliated everyone," said Calgarian Nida Jhakhar, who moved from Pakistan eight years ago and switched her vote to the PCs from Wildrose.

Others were backing Wildrose. New Calgarians, like longer-tenured residents, were split as the conservative parties jockeyed for Monday's votes, control of government hanging in the balance.

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About the Authors

Carrie Tait joined the Globe in January, 2011, mainly reporting on energy from the Calgary bureau. Previously, she spent six years working for the National Post in both Calgary and Toronto. She has a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Western Ontario and a bachelor’s degree in political studies from the University of Saskatchewan. More

Parliamentary reporter

Josh is a parliamentary reporter in Ottawa. Before moving to the nation's capital in 2013, he covered provincial affairs in Edmonton and throughout Alberta. He joined the Globe in 2008 in Toronto before returning to his home province in 2010. More

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