Five men are gathered under an awning in a dusty gas station parking lot in Onoway, Alta., eating free hamburgers at a event sponsored by the UFA Cooperative to celebrate Farmer’s Day.
The men seem oblivious to the presence of the area’s NDP MLA, Agriculture and Forestry Minister Oneil Carlier, who sits just out of earshot chatting with other constituents.
As the burgers sizzle on the nearby barbecue, Brad Javorsky is asked about who he plans to vote for in next year’s election.
The young farmer wears a T-shirt from the defunct Wildrose Party so it’s clear he isn’t voting for Carlier. But the United Conservative Party isn’t getting his vote either.
The former Wildrose constituency president is involved in the Alberta Advantage Party, which was formed by Wildrose members dismayed over last summer’s merger with the Progressive Conservatives.
“I’m a farmer. That’s what I do,” the 28-year-old says. “Neither the UCP or the NDP or the PCs were ever good for agriculture.”
Les Simpson, a business owner, is more succinct about his distaste for the governing party.
“I’m anti-NDP,” Simpson says. “I never wanted them in in the first place.”
Bill 6 anger
Javorsky and the other men talk about a distrust of the government and its understanding of issues that affect this agricultural district northwest of Edmonton.
The conversation inevitably turns to the NDP government’s farm safety law which many still refer to as Bill 6.
The law passed in December 2015 despite weeks of protests that attracted thousands of people from the agricultural community.
Anger over the bill caught the then-new NDP government off-guard and still remains a sore point in rural Alberta.
“They never asked us what would work,” Javorsky said. He said the “absolute distrust of the government” at the protests was something he had never seen before.
The ghost of the Bill 6 protests could follow Carlier into the 2019 election. Carlier’s current riding of Whitecourt-Ste. Anne is a rural district that includes the towns of Onoway and Mayerthorpe.
Carlier plans to run in the newly redrawn riding of Lac Ste. Anne-Parkland. He says he isn’t afraid the UCP will use Bill 6 against him.
“I’m not afraid of that because I know exactly that’s what they’re going to do,” he says.
UCP Leader Jason Kenney has vowed to repeal the law if he becomes premier next year. Carlier suggests the UCP has used the issue to stir up distrust of the NDP.
“I think they have a lot to answer for to rural Albertans for spreading untruths and conspiracy theories.”
Carlier points to work on Highway 43, bridges and schools as signs the NDP has done good things for his constituency. Even Bill 6, he says, is one of those good things.
“The work is to make sure that people know that it is a positive change,” he said. “It protects workers. It protects employers.”
Five UCP nomination candidates
On this sunny Friday in June, Carlier attends barbecues at UFA Cooperatives in Onoway and Mayerthorpe, speaks at a luncheon at Lessard Lake and drops into a strawberry social at a seniors lodge.
This face-to-face engagement with constituents is the best part of his job, Carlier says.
But there are signs Carlier’s opponents think he is vulnerable in 2019. Five people have entered the race for the UCP nomination in Lac Ste. Anne-Parkland.
Janice Harrington, executive director of the UCP, said this isn’t unusual. She says interest in UCP nominations are high across the province, a trend she attributes to a desire for change.
“People see an opportunity,” she said. “All kinds of candidates are coming forward saying that they want to make a difference, that they want to participate in the future in the province.”
Progressive Conservative MLAs represented the area for decades prior to Carlier’s victory.
In 2015, the vote was split nearly evenly between Carlier, PC incumbent George VanderBurg and Wildrose candidate John Bos.
He could be in trouble now that the Wildrose and PCs have united.
When asked what he thinks of the people lining up to run against him, Carlier replied: “I welcome the challenge.”
“I do believe that people respect me,” he added. “They feel I am honest and a likable person and I hope that goes somewhere to being re-elected.”
“I’m hoping and am somewhat confident that as a government, people will recognize the good work that we have done and will re-elect us in 2019.”
Despite his distaste for the NDP, Javorsky, the Onoway farmer, isn’t certain their defeat is inevitable.
“I haven’t written them off.”