Fast Forward Weekly
A city oddly silent on voting day is suddenly talking democracy
Published December 11, 2008 by Jeremy Klaszus in News
Calgary MP and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney says the Liberal-NDP coalition has 'woken Canadians up'
On Stephen Avenue, thousands of Calgarians packed shoulder to shoulder, unfurled Canadian flags and chanted pro-Conservative slogans — “Harper! Harper! Harper!” — with a fiery enthusiasm more reminiscent of a Flames game than a political rally. Days earlier, about 100 people gathered at the Harry Hays building and waved flags of their own to show support for the Liberal-NDP coalition that almost toppled the Conservatives earlier this month.
An outsider who observed these two events could be forgiven for thinking that in Calgary, federal politics is a big deal. Yet the numbers tell a different story. In the October election, Calgary had one of the lowest voter turnouts among major Canadian centres, with only 54.6 per cent of eligible voters bothering to cast a ballot — almost five per cent lower than the national rate. Only Edmonton and Windsor, Ontario, had worse turnouts.
The possibility of a Liberal-NDP coalition has flared political interest in a city that, despite its reputation as a Conservative stronghold, is oddly silent on voting day. “If there’s a silver lining to the dark cloud of this political crisis in Ottawa, it’s an amazing, spontaneous degree of citizen engagement,” says Calgary MP and Conservative immigration minister Jason Kenney, who spoke at the anti-coalition rally December 6. “In a way, this manufactured crisis has woken Canadians up out of their so-called apathy. They care about their country…. I don’t recall anything on such short notice with such a large crowd in this city.”
At the pro-coalition rally on December 4, protesters on the opposite side of the political spectrum shared similar thoughts — minus the crisis part. “This is great for democracy,” says Ryan Gendron, a 36-year-old web developer who supports the coalition. “People are learning a lot more about politics than they did, perhaps, before… and that can only be good.”
Beyond this, the two sides disagree on almost everything else that’s happened since late November, when Harper released the fiscal update that provoked the opposition to try and topple his government. Conservative supporters have repeatedly described the coalition as an anti-democratic coup. “We elected a prime minister, Stephen Harper,” read one sign at the pro-Conservative rally. But unlike Americans, Canadians don’t directly elect their country’s leader; they elect MPs, and the leader of the party with the most MPs becomes prime minister. “The prime minister’s lost the confidence of the House [of Commons],” says coalition supporter Tracey Braun, 36. “And according to our system, when he loses confidence, that’s it. He’s done and something else has to happen.”
The coalition possibility, however, has been strongly rejected by many Calgarians. “[A coalition] is right theoretically,” says anti-coalition protester Paul Olaniyan, a 41-year-old IT specialist. “Practically, it is wrong. That won’t work. If they want to take over the government they should go back to the polls.” Olaniyan says the anti-coalition gathering was the first political rally he’s ever attended. “I’m sure the same reason that drove me down here must have driven others…. We want them to go back [to Ottawa], work together and bring our economy to the forefront.”
While many protesters had a relatively nuanced take on recent political events, local Conservative politicians continued to attack “separatists” — a word that the Conservatives replace with “sovereigntists” in Quebec — and “socialists.” “I think some of us who have been in Ottawa for too long have gotten used to the idea that separatists are kind of a legitimate part of the federal political system,” Kenney told reporters during the rally. “The reality is yes, they’re elected to represent their [constituents]. They’re not elected to govern Canada or participate in the government of Canada. They’re there as parliamentarians, as spokespeople, not as veto-holders over the decisions of the government of Canada. That’s a huge difference.”
Calgary-West MP Rob Anders, meanwhile, says the Conservative economic update that proposed to eliminate subsidies for political parties and scale back public sector wages was “very sound stuff.” The Conservatives retreated on the proposals within days, but Anders says they were good ideas. “I think if you were to poll people around here or anywhere across the country, in tough economic times they don’t support the idea that political parties get subsidies,” says Anders.
Anders, who attended the anti-coalition rally but didn’t speak in front of the group, believes the Liberal-NDP coalition has been in the works for “many months” and had nothing to do with the fiscal update. “I think, honestly, if the prime minister had announced $10 billion in funding to union goons, the NDP still would have laid the trap and said, ‘We wanted $20 billion. It wasn’t enough,’” says Anders. “I honestly believe that.”
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