Sitting at a cafe terrace overlooking a park commemorating the birthplace of the vast oil industry in the western Canadian province of Alberta, Audrey Cerkvenac and Ernestine Dumont, wrestled with a political dilemma.
In a province long the epicenter of Canada’s conservative politics, the two older women had been unwavering conservative supporters.
But now, as Monday’s provincial election approached, they said they had been turned off by the strident right turn the province’s conservative party had taken as it ruled Alberta during the pandemic, fueled by extremist protests against Covid restrictions and baseless claims about vaccines.
The hard-right turn of the United Conservative Party has put a province that was once a sure win for Canada’s conservatives up for grabs in Monday’s elections. Beyond a referendum on the ideological shift of the party, the vote could also serve as a gauge of the conservative standing nationwide.
Led by someone who compared people vaccinated against Covid-19 to Nazi supporters, Alberta’s conservative party has moved so far right since the pandemic that it has created an opening for the left-leaning New Democratic Party to win control of the province. A conservative loss in Alberta would deal a blow to the political viability of Canada’s far right.
“The pandemic has allowed a radical, right wing group to develop” here, said Ms. Cerkvenac, a retired health care administrator, who like Ms. Dumont, said she would probably deface her ballot to void it. “I have to do what I can to try and stop this.’’
Anger over pandemic rules, especially vaccine mandates for cross border travel, gave birth to trucker convoys in Alberta that spread east, eventually paralyzing Canada’s capital for nearly a month and closing border crossings.
The fury also upended the political landscape, paving the way for a small, socially conservative faction of the United Conservative Party to install the current premier and party leader, Danielle Smith, 52, a far-right former newspaper columnist and radio talk show host.
After becoming premier last October, she declared that the unvaccinated were the “most discriminated against group” she’d seen in her lifetime and, in May, a video surfaced of her likening people who chose to be vaccinated to followers of Hitler.
In a province with a large and longstanding Ukrainian community, she suggested that some parts of Ukraine may “feel more affinity to Russia” and should separate. One of her first legislative acts was to sign a law she claimed would allow Alberta to ignore federal laws.
And Ms. Smith broke ethics laws to intervene on behalf of a prominent protester who was facing prosecution. Last week, the province’s ethics commissioner found that she broke conflict of interest laws when she spoke with her attorney general on behalf of a pastor facing criminal charges for inciting a border blockade as part of the protests.
“When you look at public opinion data from pre-Covid, during Covid and whatever this period is now; there is something different in the water in Alberta from a cultural-political perspective,” said Duane Bratt, a political scientist at Mount Royal University in Calgary, the province’s largest city.
That difference may also surface during the next federal elections.
Canada’s conservatives will challenge Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his Liberal Party in elections that must be held by October 2025.
The federal Conservative Party also replaced its leader during the pandemic with a combative right-wing politician, Pierre Poilievre, who welcomed truck convoy protesters to Ottawa, the capital, with coffee and doughnuts and who shares Ms. Smith’s tendency for provocative rhetoric.
On Monday, Alberta’s voters have a stark choice between the United Conservatives and the New Democrats, or N.D.P., which held power in Alberta from 2015 to 2019.
The N.D.P. gained power then from conservatives, who had run Alberta from 1935 to 2015, by taking advantage of divisions among conservatives to narrowly win a stunning victory. They installed Rachel Notley, a lawyer for labor groups, but her approval ratings sank as oil prices plunged, decimating the province’s budget. The party lost power in 2019.
Ms. Notley, 59, is representing the N.D.P. again in this election. During campaign stops, she portrays Ms. Smith as unpredictable and promoting ideas most voters would reject, like selling public hospitals to a for-profit business or making patients pay fees for public hospitals — both considered politically toxic in Canada.
Ms. Notley wants to expand transit lines, build new schools and hospitals.
“This election is about leadership and it’s about trust,” Ms. Notley said at a campaign rally in Calgary. “Albertans don’t have a high level of trust that they can count on her to protect our health care. ”
For her part, Ms. Smith warns voters that Ms. Notley’s party is bent on embarking on a spending spree that would inevitably lead to higher taxes.
Ms. Smith promises crime reduction and tax cuts. She also looks to the United States to define her conservative values, calling Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, who just announced his entry into the Republican presidential primary, “my hero.”
During a debate between the two party’s leaders, Ms. Smith sought to focus on Ms. Notley’s performance as premier.
“Ms. Notley likes to show grainy videos of things I said while I was on radio and the reason she does that is she doesn’t want to run on her record,” Ms. Smith said. “And the reason she doesn’t want to run on her record is it was an absolute disaster.”
To become the premier again, Ms. Notley would need to see her party win the most seats on Monday. Her hopes hinge largely on how well her party will perform in Calgary, which historically has been a fickle base of support for the left, according to Janet Brown, the head of a Calgary-based polling firm. The New Democrats are already solidly ahead in Edmonton, the provincial capital, and one of their traditional bases of support, according to surveys.
“I’m not discounting any possible outcome,” she said.
One deciding factor, she said, may be the large and rapidly growing ethnic communities in Calgary.
At a sprawling community center in a Calgary neighborhood home to many South Asian immigrants, Rishi Nagar, the host of a local Punjabi language morning radio show, said the United Conservatives had already alienated many South Asian voters before Ms. Smith became leader.
Her predecessor, Jason Kenney, appeared on his program and suggested that the high rates of Covid infections in South Asian communities was the result of their failure to abide by public health restrictions, even though Mr. Nagar and other community leaders pointed out that they worked jobs that exposed them to the virus.
“We are the people sitting at the cash counters of the grocery stores,’’ he said. “We are the people driving taxis. We are the people driving buses. Don’t you think this is the reason of the spread?”
He said many South Asians voters trust Ms. Notley to provide more funding for schools and health care even if her party is further to the left than many of them are. Voters may not embrace her party, “but people like Rachel Notley,” he said. “People do not like Danielle Smith.”
Ms. Smith still has support in rural regions of Alberta.
At a junior high school event on the rodeo grounds in High River, Alberta, Ms. Smith’s hometown, Frank McInenly, a retired auctioneer, said he had little use for public health measures and was only vaccinated so he could vacation in the United States.
“The whole Covid thing with these people walking around these masks on, how dumb was that?” he said.
While Mr. McInenly will go on at some length about what he views as Ms. Notley’s shortcomings, he’s less than enthusiastic about Ms. Smith.
“She’s OK,” he said.
More than anything, Mr. McInenly’s vote reflects his desire to keep the New Democrats out of power. “It’s really scary,” he said. “Because if the N.D.P. get back in, we’re done.”
A native of Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto and currently lives in Ottawa. He has reported for The Times about Canada for more than a decade. @ianrausten
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