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Justin Trudeau Isn’t on the Ballot, but He’s the Talk of a Province’s Vote

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CALGARY, Alberta — Jason Kenney may have quit national politics to lead the Conservatives in his native Alberta, but that hasn’t stopped him from consistently bringing up an old nemesis from his days in Parliament as he campaigns in the oil-rich province.

After roaring up to a group of oil storage tanks in Valleyview, Alberta, in his Ram 1500 pickup truck on Saturday, Mr. Kenney told a crowd that the oil industry’s prolonged slump was the fault of “a leader who says he wants to phase out the oil sands.”

“You know who that leader is — Justin Trudeau,” Mr. Kenney said. His supporters jeered at the prime minster’s name.

Alberta is holding its provincial election on Tuesday, and for the past month Mr. Kenney, the leader of the United Conservative Party, has tried to turn the vote into a referendum on Prime Minister Trudeau’s carbon tax. He has slammed Mr. Trudeau for not reversing an oil industry slump that has cost the province thousands of jobs over the last four years.

Mr. Trudeau’s name, as it happens, is not actually on the ballot.

Mr. Kenney is campaigning against another center-left politician who, like Mr. Trudeau, surprised Canadians with a come-from-behind victory in 2015. That spring, Rachel Notley, the leader of Alberta’s New Democrats — the furthest left of mainstream parties in Canada — ended a 44-year Conservative dynasty in a province whose politics are usually, if not entirely accurately, compared to those of Texas.

Still, Mr. Trudeau may have good reason to watch the Alberta vote closely.

For the prime minister, who has been caught up in political turmoil over allegations that he improperly intervened in a criminal corruption case, Ms. Notley’s fate may provide a glimpse of what awaits him in the national vote expected in October.

If she can secure a second term in Canada’s traditional Conservative stronghold, it may be read as an endorsement of Mr. Trudeau’s approach to climate change, an issue that will again be central to his campaign platform.

But if Mr. Kenney brings the Conservatives back to their traditional place of power in Alberta, five of Canada’s 10 provinces will be led by premiers determined to end the national carbon pricing plan. They have already allied against the prime minister’s re-election effort.

“The Trudeau name has never been super-popular in parts of Alberta,” said Melanee Thomas, a professor of political science at the University of Calgary. “But to say that no Albertans support the Liberals or don’t react negatively to Trudeau would be incorrect.”

While much of Canada has prospered over the last five years, Alberta has gone through a dramatic reversal of fortune.

Before oil prices tumbled, rapid expansion of its oil sands industry had made labor shortages the order of the day, and workers with little or no training poured into the province for high-paying, if tough and unglamorous, work. Fort McMurray, the oil sands city, became known as “Fort McMoney.”

Today the province finds itself in its biggest slump since an industry collapse in the 1980s.

It is an unusual kind of a crash. Although oil industry groups estimate that more than 100,000 oil industry jobs have disappeared, Alberta remains the province with Canada’s highest after-tax income, and retail sales remain strong.

Yet the view from the downtown Calgary offices of CBRE, the multinational commercial real estate company, reveals one unmistakable effect of the downturn. Nearby is a 56-story office tower that opened last year. Only five floors of the building are occupied.

Greg Kwong, the company’s regional managing director for Alberta, said there was about 11 million square feet of empty office space in the city’s core. In a grim coincidence, that figure is roughly the total amount of office space that existed in downtown Calgary during the 1980s slump.

“The vacancy in the office space is a symptom of the disease, and the disease is unemployment,” Mr. Kwong said. “We understand that we have an oil-based economy and that oil is a commodity. But please let the rise and fall of the price of oil be dictated by market forces, not political forces.”

Some of what makes Mr. Trudeau a handy political foil for Mr. Kenney has nothing to do with the prime minister. When his father, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, was prime minister, he introduced sweeping changes to Canada’s energy policies that still provoke strong reactions even from Albertans who were children at the time, or not even born.

The lingering grievances over the long-dismantled energy program provide a receptive audience for Mr. Kenney’s claims that the rest of Canada ignores Alberta’s wishes while benefiting from the wealth created by its energy industry.

Mr. Kenney’s oft-repeated claim that the younger Mr. Trudeau is out to shut down the oil sands, however, is inaccurate. The prime minister says that to pay for an eventual zero-carbon-emission future, Canada’s economy needs a strong oil industry.

Indeed, when an American company gave up on plans to expand a pipeline that carries oil from the oil sands to a port near Vancouver and the northwestern United States, Mr. Trudeau stepped in. The government bought the line and committed to finish the project.

But Mr. Trudeau gets little or no credit for the 4.5-billion-Canadian-dollar purchase, which was widely seen as a response to Ms. Notley’s agreeing to carbon pricing in Alberta — something Mr. Kenney promises to immediately cancel if he takes power.

Brendan McDonald, a 26-year-old logger, declined to say whom he had cast his advance ballot for on Friday evening at the Elks Hall in the town of Sundre, a longtime rural Conservative stronghold. But it was clearly not for the local New Democrat.

“Well, the oil field is the huge thing so far,” he said. “This province is quite dependent on oil fields for the economy, and they’re just not taking that into very much consideration.”

While polls suggest that Mr. Kenney is likely to emerge as premier on Tuesday, they also show that voters prefer Ms. Notley over him as leader. A social Conservative, Mr. Kenney has alienated some Conservative voters with a platform that includes measures like informing parents when high school students join gay-straight alliances.

Naresh Bhardwaj, a former Conservative lawmaker from Edmonton, said that because of those policies, many Conservatives would “hold their nose” as they vote for the party.

Unlike the national Conservative leader, Andrew Scheer, Mr. Trudeau has carefully stayed out of Alberta’s vote. But his government has made clear that if Mr. Kenney takes power and cancels provincial carbon pricing, the national government will immediately impose its own tax system.

Over the weekend, Mr. Kenney expanded his range of targets, promising to establish a “war room to respond in real time to the lies and myths told about Alberta’s energy industry,” to ban foreign funding for environmentalists and to hold hearings into the charitable status of environmental organizations.

In a Calgary theater where the Samuel Beckett play “Waiting for Godot” was being staged, Ms. Notley speculated on Friday about why Mr. Kenney seems to have focused almost as much on Mr. Trudeau’s record as on that of her government.

“I sometimes wonder if Mr. Kenney is actually interested in standing up for Albertans, or whether he’s interested in getting back into the ring in Ottawa for its own political purposes,” she said.


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