On the surface, Alberta can appear as a solid bastion of White Christian Conservatism with the Tories in complete control and the working class seemingly disinterested. The election of Naheed Nenshi, an Indo-Canadian Muslim and Harvard-educated intellectual, as the new mayor of Calgary has shown this idea to be false. The media reported Nenshi as being the first Muslim to hold the office of mayor in a major Canadian city; the fact that this has happened in Calgary makes it a bigger surprise to many.
Most observers are attributing his victory to use by Nenshi and his supporters of modern social methods of communication such as Facebook and Twitter. This is not to be dismissed and was most certainly an important factor in the election, catching his opponents off guard. However, the fact that there were more young people who voted at this election than perhaps ever before (the overall turn-out was double that of the previous election for mayor) cannot simply be explained because of the use of social media alone—there are other forces at work in Albertan society.
The impact of the world crisis has, without a shred of doubt, begun to have an effect on the outlook of the Albertan working class, the youth in particular, who are, as in other parts of Canada, being badly affected by things like unemployment, low wages, and student loans.
The factor that prompted not only the youth, but also many working class people, to vote for Nenshi was that Nenshi appeared to be on the left and seemingly offered a way forward.
In a telling radio interview, runner-up Ric McIver lamented that the vote for the right had been split because ex-CTV journalist Barb Higgins was in the race against him (ultimately coming third). This had let in Nenshi, whom McIver described as the candidate of the left!
McIver had started as the favourite, followed by Higgins, with Nenshi trailing with only eight percent of the vote. On the eve of the election, all three candidates had about thirty percent support. On election night, however, Nenshi finished with forty percent, way ahead of all the others.
This was a firm victory that was helped by the right wing split to be sure, but the most important factor by far was that Nenshi appeared as being on the left, a confident person who knew how to change things to the benefit of ordinary people.
Unfortunately, those who voted for Nenshi are doomed to disappointment. All that glitters is not gold and Nenshi, despite appearing to many as a radical, is in reality part and parcel of the establishment.
Even if Nenshi and friends were remotely inclined to attempt reforms to the benefit of the youth and the working class in general, they would only amount to window dressing at best. The downturn in the economy, plus the dictates of the rich, completely rules out the possibilities of genuine change under capitalism.
We must compare the enthusiasm demonstrated by Nenshi’s election with the province-wide “Earn Your Confidence” tour, featuring Brian Mason, the leader of the Alberta NDP. CBC Radio recently reported that the tour had just finished; for most people, this was the first that they had even heard of it! It is possible to dismiss the lack of coverage of this event as the normal media bias against workers’ organizations, but events in Calgary demonstrate that a serious socialist campaign, taking up the issues and problems faced by workers and youth, would get a tremendous echo.
The crisis of the capitalist system is polarizing society into left and right camps; this is now plain to see, even in Alberta, long thought by many as being immune to change.
An indication of the polarization to the right in Alberta is the rise of the right-wing Wildrose Alliance, under the leadership of Danielle Smith, which has been taking supporters, including some MLAs, from the Ed Stelmach Tories that have ruled Alberta for the past 40 years. Aside from Ontario, Alberta is probably the province that has been hardest hit by the crisis. Alberta’s workers have had to feel the full brunt of the capitalist crisis, after the Tories squandered sky-high oil prices and a booming economy over the past decade. To many, the Wildrose Alliance appeared to be a different kind of party than the Tories or Liberals. However, support for this party mainly comes from Calgary and it appears to have already peaked; it is almost certain that people will abandon the Wildrose Alliance when they realize that their politics will result in no real gains or victories for the province’s workers and youth.
The election of Nenshi is perhaps one of the biggest indications so far of how open the Albertan working class is to a real challenge from the left. We are in a period where tremendous gains for socialism are possible; but at this moment, it is as if the NDP leadership is fiddling while Rome burns.
Every indication is that the Canadian working people are looking for a lead; there is enormous potential, in particular amongst youth and the ranks of the trade unions, right across the spectrum from teachers to construction workers. The renovating breezes of the class struggle will bring fresh elements into activity the working class is a bottomless pit that will always bring forth fresh groups and individuals.
In the struggle for a socialist society we are no longer swimming against the stream.