What it means to vote when your vote really doesn’t matter
Two weeks ago, nearly 18 million Canadians cast their votes in the 2019 federal election. Polls in the preceding weeks had suggested that a minority government — that is, a government formed by the party that wins not the majority of the 338 seats but at least more than any other party — was likely, so the only question waiting to be resolved was whether this minority would be formed by the incumbent Liberals under Justin Trudeau or the Conservatives under Andrew Scheer. Until Scheer’s campaign hit a few bumps in the weekend before the election, polls had suggested that the results could go either way. A surprise strong showing by the New Democrat Party’s Jagmeet Singh in the election’s lone English-language debate suggested that we might also be in for another Orange Wave like that under the late Jack Layton in 2011, this time popularly termed the “Singh Surge.” It really seemed like anyone’s game.
That is, until the results came in as polls closed on election night. The Liberals pulled ahead to a minority government, winning enough seats in Atlantic Canada and, crucially, Quebec and Ontario, for the election to be all-but-decided as soon as the polls closed in British Columbia on the West Coast. The NDP actually lost seats to the resurgent Bloc Quebecois, in many ways ideologically similar to the NDP save for the issue of secularism and the rights of religious minorities in Quebec. The Green Party finally managed to win a seat outside of British Columbia in an exciting three-way race in Fredericton. It was thrilling stuff — the national map was showing swathes of all sorts of party colours, not simply the red and blue of U.S. electoral maps, but red (Liberal), blue (Conservative), light blue (BQ), orange (NDP), and green (Green). Of course, the Liberals, Canada’s so-called “natural governing party”, won, largely by benefiting from the “first-past-the-post” electoral system that rewards big parties and punishes smaller ones, but it is refreshing to see a variety of different views win representation in the federal government, and a minority government means that the centrist Liberals will be forced to make compromises to the left-leaning parties in order to maintain their support and not trigger another election. As I said, thrilling stuff.
Yet I felt like I had nothing to do with this end result.
You see, I live in Calgary, the corporate headquarters of Canada’s oil and gas heartland, Alberta. If you are unfamiliar — and I apologize for the oversimplifying U.S.-centric analogy — Alberta is basically Texas North. This is a generalization: there are progressive urban pockets of Alberta, particularly in Edmonton, just as there are parts of Austin that buck the typical Texas stereotypes, but by and large both Alberta and Texas pride themselves as shoot-from-the-hip, proudly conservative places. And if you are a non-Canadian who knows Trudeau only as a charming, cosmopolitan, photogenic “progressive” — especially when contrasted with the boorishness of Donald Trump — it might surprise you to learn that he is far from universally revered in Canada, especially in Western Canada — especially in Alberta, which often claims to speak for the “West”.
There is a lot of history to this Trudeau versus Alberta thing that I won’t get into here — needless to say, this is just the latest iteration of a generations-long struggle between the “West” — self-defined as rugged, hardworking, rural, individualistic, and salt-of-the-earth — and the “East” — defined by the former as effete, elitist, urbane, arrogant, meddling, and out of touch. This struggle has been waged for more than a century over various issues of the day, pipeline politics and the carbon tax only being the latest of these.
As you can imagine, voting for anything other than the Conservative government is almost unthinkable in Albertan society, and it showed with the election results. There were no tight races here. The Alberta map was completely painted Conservative blue. In my personal riding of Calgary Centre, where the incumbent was one of the few Albertan Liberal Members of Parliament and where you might expect a strong urban progressive vote, the Conservative candidate took 57 percent of the vote. The NDP, representing with the Greens the left-of-centre and my personal choice, took less than 10 percent. Although the provincial NDP had taken power in a surprise upset in 2015 following vote-splitting on the right, the NDP is generally seen as a pie-in-the-sky “socialist” party, untainted only by a lack of connection to the Trudeau brand. Outside of Edmonton, the federal NDP has virtually zero chance of taking a seat. Without a proportional representation system, why bother wasting my time showing up to vote?
(As an aside, the lack of proportional representation federally has Albertans fuming, as the Conservatives won the popular vote but lost the battle in enough key ridings to lose the election. Ironically, a proportional representation system would have reduced the Conservative winnings in Alberta by ensuring the (x proportion) of the population that didn’t vote Conservative would have their voices heard federally. Proportional representation arguably hurts the Conservatives federally, but it does nothing but help them in Alberta.)
As you might imagine, voting in Alberta can prompt an existential crisis in people like me. I am often torn between the two adages: “If you don’t vote, don’t complain”, and “if voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.” And even when I decided to vote, I had a painful choice to make: do I vote for the NDP in accordance to my feeling that they are the closest a mainstream political party can come to representing my personal and political convictions even though they have no chance of taking a seat, or do I hold my nose and vote “strategically” for the Liberal candidate (who has a bit of a seedy reputation) in accordance to some game theory logic that posits that if enough of us do the same, we can at least block the Conservatives from winning? That one should even have to consider voting strategically instead of according to their convictions is surely a sign that our system is broken, and yet recent polling suggests that one-third of Canadians chose this action.
Yet in the end it didn’t matter. Pre-election day polling had declared Calgary Centre a safe Conservative win, so I decided to make the trip to the polling station and cast my vote for the NDP, if only to add my voice to the roughly 6500 voters in my riding with similar convictions, whose voices never seem to matter even though we represent a sizeable chunk of Calgary’s cosmopolitan inner city. How many of those 17,770 who voted Liberal might have supported the NDP in their hearts? How many of those who abstained from voting altogether because they saw how stacked the odds were might have supported the NDP?
It amounts to symbolism, I suppose. I want reassurance, confirmation, validation — any sign that there are others in my province who haven’t fallen into this mindset of Alberta versus the world, of opposing progressivism on principle that it is “un-Albertan”, of fomenting conspiracy theories about Greta Thunberg, confronting her in her hotel and defacing murals when she comes to visit our province and dares to utter the four-letter word “climate change”. There is this idea in Alberta that our dirty bitumen will last forever, and if we only had access to the right markets, the gold rush would last forever, and anyone who questions that logic is a foreign-funded traitor. This train of thought has only been nurtured further by the provincial government under Premier Jason Kenney and the United Conservative Party, who have now invested $30 million in promoting an “Energy War Room” aimed at rooting out such dissidents while, curiously, waiting until after the federal election to table an austerity budget that harms ordinary Albertans. And it’s no coincidence that Husky Energy waited until after the election to lay off hundreds of employees while awarding its executives bonuses, courtesy of a $233-million “job-creating” tax cut; conservative social media was quick to pin the blame on Trudeau, somehow. The following week, Encana announced that it would move to the U.S. and change its name, and of course, Jason Kenney was quick to blame federal Liberal energy policies.
And certainly there could be a degree of truth to this. But it arguably doesn’t matter. Alberta’s expensive, dirty, unrefined bitumen cannot compete with cheaper oil from elsewhere, and the explosion of fracking in the U.S. (which certainly brings its own share of environmental problems) has only further hastened Alberta oil’s demise. Foreign investors are fleeing Alberta for cheaper options elsewhere, and unless oil prices ever go back up to over $100 a barrel, they are likely to stay away. Government subsidies, tax cuts and regulations — or lack thereof — can only do so much.
In a sense, and a Forbes article of all places touched on this recently, Alberta is to conservative politicians what American coal country is to Trump: gritty, hard-working places that have been left behind — or are in the process of being left behind, barring radical change, as is the case with Alberta — but which can be counted on to throw their weight behind anyone who promises they can rescue their corpse of a dirty, archaic industry. And I get it — it’s terrifying to not know whether you will be able to keep a steady job in a shifting economy. But that’s why I also support an ostensibly working-class party like the NDP. I want workers to be supported. I want workers to be able to transition to a prosperous economy. But this trickle-down concept of elite politicians filling the soup bowls of their friends in industry while the rest of us scamper like dogs beneath hoping to catch a drop just doesn’t work. And yet voters, for whom jobs are always paramount, are constantly hammered with this idea that it’s the other guys, the leftist parties and those dastardly unions, who don’t have their backs.
It’s an uphill battle if one wants to change this situation, and until the Albertan or Canadian equivalent of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez comes along to speak truth to power, it’s unlikely to never change. But until that time comes, you can count on me to keep quietly voting in every election, shaking my head as I wonder about the point of it all.