The vast majority of Americans probably failed to notice that the earth moved beneath the second-largest country in the world, and the United States’s largest and most reliable trading partner. The whole nation of Canada has shifted because the most conservative of Canada’s ten provinces, and the one that is most reliant on oil and gas production for economic growth, Alberta, tossed out a Progressive Conservative Party Premier (that’s “Governor” in Canadian) and elected … the leader of the New Democratic Party (NDP), Rachel Notley, as its new Premier. Fox News calls the NDP “left of center.” Sorry — the NDP is left of George McGovern. The center (such as it were in Canada) has historically been occupied by the “Liberal” party. This election is the equivalent of Wyoming electing Elizabeth Warren as its Governor.
Why is this so significant for Canada? Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper hails from Alberta (although originally from Ontario), has led the Progressive Conservative Party that housed every single Alberta premier since the Party’s founding in the 1990s, and has devoted enormous federal resources and political capital to helping the oil sands industry in Alberta, not the least of which was to lobby for the Keystone XL pipeline. The spurned incumbent, Jim Prentice, was closely allied with the Prime Minister, and in fact was the Environment Minister when Canada announced its sensibly Canadian plan to phase out coal-fired power plants over the ensuing forty-five years. The oil sands are not going away, but they will have to deal with a very different government. To think about the NDP, just imagine Elizabeth Warren, only not as reasonable. Stephen Harper must be sitting in his Centre Block office wondering, “what am I going to spend my time doing now?”
Why is the world going to change just because of an election for a province of 4.1 million people? The reason lies in what Alberta represents to Canada, and what Canada represents to the world. Alberta has always been the most conservative of the provinces, the most energy-focused, and the most socially conservative. That Alberta voters have turned against its economic engine in favor of a liberal populism and for concern for the environment is extremely important. Imagine what American politics would look like if all of the sudden Texas elected an environmentally conscious and liberal Democrat like, oh, how about Elizabeth Warren? And then what would that do to a President Ted Cruz (who was born in Alberta, by the way)? Oil patch Alberta is Stephen Harper country, and if this election means he does not have this as a base anymore, then he is in big political trouble.
Who cares about Canada? Why does a shift in Canada mean anything significant on the world stage? Well, first, Canada is the sixth-largest oil producer in the world, accounting for about 4% of world crude. But Canada and Norway are the two oil giants viewed as socially and globally responsible. If Canada becomes discernibly more concerned about climate change, that would remove one of the major stumbling blocks to an international climate treaty. If you haven’t noticed, Canada punches well above its weight in terms of serving as a moral conscience. Its only Nobel Peace Prize winner, Lester “Mike” Pearson, was the voice that talked the UK, France and Israel out of occupying Egypt during the Suez crisis, and developed that most Canadian idea, UN Peacekeeping forces. Its New York City diplomats, like those from Scandinavian countries, avoid illegal parking. But the Canadian economy has always been a resource-dependent one. If Canada, a country heavily dependent upon oil production and export for its economic health, can resolve to turn the corner, then it will be harder for other countries, like the United States, to plead helplessness on climate change.