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Meltdown in Highwood: The floods are coming, but Smith will prevail

Sign welcoming visitors on Highway 2A

This post originally appeared on

Okotoks, the little town with the international reputation for award-winning environmental sustainability, could very well find itself the home riding of the next premier of Alberta, a climate-change denier.

This is just one of many ironies of this 29th election in the province that birthed the oil/tarsands (depending on where you stand). It’s the first election in more than a decade where the Progressive Conservatives are actually in danger of a meltdown, not unlike the glaciers at the hands of our overheated climate.

Tempers flaring

It’s not only global temperatures that are rising though, the good citizens of Highwood are split and tempers are flaring. In 2008, only 36% of voters bothered to come out and vote and the PC candidate, George Groeneveld, received 65% of the popular vote. It wasn’t exactly a contested race. But, if the two election forums held in Highwood are any indication, the turnout will likely be a lot higher this time.

The first debate was held in Okotoks with PC candidate John Barlow, Alberta Liberal candidate Keegan Gibson and Wildrose candidate, Danielle Smith. Things got off to a cordial start, but soon the accusations were flying. The “conscience rights” uproar had just erupted onto the social media scene.

Questions covered the full-range of issues from the incendiary (abortion) to the benign (whose signs were purchased locally). At the end of the evening, Smith’s closing remarks had a slightly more enthusiastic response from the crowd than Barlow’s. There was a lot of heckling and booing from both sides throughout.

An orange wave of PCs

High River hosted the second forum last week. Again, the NDP candidate was missing from the debate. Liberal Gibson was a little more prepared this time, having met with local politicians and community members. High River has an older and more rural demographic. It’s also the community where Smith chose to take up residence.  She’s still considered a newcomer rather than the hometown girl, though.

The PC’s packed the conference hall with supporters. One woman told me the seats were filled 45 minutes before the forum began. The PC’s had a highly visible presence with their bright orange t-shirts and it seemed like the Wildrose supporters were mostly left standing along the side or sprinkled throughout the audience.

Barlow was much more prepared this time and took Smith to task on a number of issues of local concern. Smith was thrown off a little by the hecklers and boos as she struggled to explain her party’s position on a number of issues. The social issues were not as much of a concern at this forum. It was all about education, water, property rights and healthcare.

The community is split

It was surprising to see how split the room was, as men in cowboy gear mumbled remarks under their breath, seniors argued with those sitting next to them, and neighbours shook their heads in exasperation. At the end, Barlow received more applause—but my guess is the crowd was mostly comprised of decided voters. The undecideds were in short supply, watchful and solemn.

Given that spring flooding season is looming, this issue was top of mind. Barlow was at a disadvantage, given that his predecessor, Groeneveld’s flood mitigation report was never released to the public. Smith was quick to promise to release the report and even suggested a role for Groeneveld in implementing the recommendations, which went over well. Barlow was left with no response except his own personal opinion that the report should be released, which received awkward applause.

Groeneveld was a well-liked MLA, snubbed by Stelmach and stripped of his cabinet position. The local PC association wrote a public letter of discontent at the time.

In an earlier post, I wrote that it appeared Barlow got off to a slow start with his signs.  According to later reports from Okotoks, he did manage to get some more signs out on lawns.

Green crowd will support Barlow

This riding is by no means an easy win for Smith. She is up against a well-organized, locally focused campaign by Barlow’s team. The Tory establishment backs Barlow and my guess is that fundraising would not have been a problem. The boundaries were adjusted in 2010, giving the two towns a little more sway over the results, which pose an interesting challenge for Smith. With the influx of environmentally conscious urbanites to Okotoks, Smith’s climate change position will hurt her with those voters.

The Tory faithful won’t be budged and Barlow is a fresh, young family man—just the face they need to represent their stuffy, cadre of aging, wealthy landowners looking forward to retirement. The property owners angry about the “bad bills” as Smith calls them, will decide the election. If these angry rural voters make it out in strong enough numbers, she will pull it off.

Smith answers media questions following the debate in Okotoks.

Judging by the level of anger out there on the range, I think they will make the effort. Prior to the writ being dropped, Smith travelled the province and the riding for months campaigning extensively. This will likely hold her in good stead with voters in Highwood. I’m predicting a close race with underdog Barlow putting forward a good challenge, but with Smith edging him out in the end.

Jody MacPherson raised a family in Okotoks, where she has extended family and many valued friends. She has since moved into Calgary and has been active in the Alberta Liberal Party for several years. Coincidentally, she now lives in Calgary-Elbow, Alison Redford’s home riding.

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The Okotoks Erratic: Assessing the changing climate in Highwood

Front page story credits "Conservatives" for a taxpayer-funded purchase of a community hall. Barlow is the associate publisher.

This appeared originally as a guest post on

The commute to Okotoks from Calgary is a scenic drive southwest with truly spectacular mountain views on a clear day. Having travelled the route almost daily for about 15 years, I saw something this week I’ve never seen before.

Beginning at the turnoff to Dunbow Road on Highway 2, there is a series of election signs for a party other than the Progressive Conservatives (PC’s). The Wildrose Party’s Danielle Smith has a half dozen or more signs at regular intervals all the way into Okotoks. Not one PC sign could be found along the same stretch of road. The first sign of Smith’s PC rival, John Barlow, isn’t visible until just outside the town boundaries.

Glacial shift

Okotoks is adjacent to the famous Okotoks erratic, the largest of its kind in the world. It’s a town where political sensibilities shift as slowly as this “big rock,” left behind as the glaciers retreated 10,000 years ago.

Don’t let the town’s sleepy, peaceful appearance fool you, though. There’s an epic battle being waged in the community on several fronts. The traditional power base in the town has been frustrated in its attempts to overturn the sustainable Okotoks model in favour of expanding residential development. They want to build a water pipeline to the community from Calgary to fuel growth in a town that has literally “tapped out” its water supply.

Bullying hits home

In the surrounding Municipal District of Foothills, it’s a different story. The MD politicians have been a burr in the sides of the provincial government for several years now, resisting attempts at regionalization. Their motives are less about protecting the environment and more about preserving the rights of their constituents to control their land. Land use planning is the enemy in these parts.

Promises to property owners

It’s not surprising Alison Redford kicked off the race with an olive branch at her fundraiser in High River last week. She assured cantankerous landowners she was sympathetic to their concerns about property rights and about the voting structure of the Calgary Regional Partnership (CRP). The governance model gives Calgary a veto over rural planning decisions and Redford surprised everyone by promising to get rid of the veto. But, as the U2 song lyric says, “she’s the promise, in the year of election.”

The ground game

Okotoks is the largest town in the large, mostly rural riding of Highwood. Driving around, viewing the lawn signs, it looks as though Smith’s campaign has not yet penetrated these neighbourhoods.  After the first week of the campaign, Barlow’s lawn signs seem to slightly outnumber Smith’s in most areas of town. In such a conservative stronghold, with an unprecedented battle unfolding, it’s surprising there are not more signs.

Media on side

Barlow is a likeable candidate, strongly backed by business interests and younger families who can identify with his balance of community-mindedness and conservative sensibilities. He’s the comfortable choice. He’s also the associate publisher of the Western Wheel newspaper and showed questionable judgment by not stepping down from his duties immediately after being nominated as the PC candidate. He continued at the newspaper while also campaigning, not stepping down until after the writ was dropped. It’s worth noting that his backers are some of the same people who are calling for a water pipeline.

Duelling trailers on the highway south of town.

When the National Post came to town to do a story on Highwood, they reported their conversation with former pharmacist Allen King, who they described as  “tidying up” around Barlow’s office. They likely didn’t realize they had stumbled on one of the town’s biggest power brokers. King is an unapologetic, anti-sustainability, conservative columnist for the Wheel and true blue Tory royalty.

Also on the ballot

Let’s be up front here. I’m a liberal, but I’ll admit Highwood shows no signs of electing a centre-left candidate any time soon. The PC’s captured 65 per cent of the popular vote in 2008. So, I’m not going to spend time on the other candidates. This is a showdown between Smith and Barlow.

Showdown at the OK-otoks corral

At first blush, Barlow might seem outgunned by the savvy, sophisticated Smith. A master politician, she’s demonstrated how to win votes, even when in unfamiliar territory and in a riding that doesn’t always welcome newcomers. This is Barlow’s first real foray into politics, but I’m not prepared to underestimate the Tory dynasty yet. They are likely putting significant effort into this race and Smith has to cover an entire province, by comparison.

The riding was also one of redrawn to give it more of a “rurban” flavour.  Rural residents are likely favouring the Wildrose, but their influence may have been neutralized somewhat by the boundary changes. I’d wager the Wildrose is strong in High River as well.

Shades of the republic

Some of the more progressive voters might fear Smith’s right wing views and decide to vote for Barlow to try and keep her from winning. The worst possible outcome for Barlow is a low voter turnout. If disaffected PCs decide to stay home, rather than defend their party against the Wildrose onslaught, Smith will easily win. Given the dismal performance of the Tories thus far in the election, this seems like a serious concern for Barlow. He’s fighting an uphill battle with Smith’s political skill and Redford’s inability to control her wayward party.

Okotoks will no doubt be the main battleground. A debate organized by the chamber of commerce and scheduled for April 10 will be standing room only. Smith and Barlow will go head to head.

As I left town, I noticed yet another large billboard of Smith’s smiling face adorning a property south on Highway 2. Next to her sign, on the same property owner’s fence is a sign that reads, “Vote Ron Paul.” At this intersection, I turned left and drove back to Calgary.

Jody MacPherson raised a family in Okotoks, where she has extended family and many valued friends. She has since moved into Calgary and has been active in the Alberta Liberal Party for several years. Coincidentally, she now lives in Calgary-Elbow, Alison Redford’s home riding.

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Freedom of the press still worth defending, even in small town Alberta

I may be naive but I still believe that freedom of the press is not only possible, but worthy of defending.

That’s why I’ve commented on Facebook and Twitter about the fact that the nominated candidate for the Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta in the riding of Highwood (John Barlow) has NOT yet stepped down from his job of Associate Publisher of the Okotoks Western Wheel newspaper. The newspaper is THE major newspaper in the riding with a circulation of  13,250–the only newspaper in the town of Okotoks. Barlow has stated that he will step down, but not until the writ is dropped (the last 30 days of the campaign). Until that time, he will remain in a decision-making capacity at the newspaper.

When I speculated on Twitter about the impartiality of the Western Wheel newspaper as it covers the weeks leading up to the official campaign period, Barlow tweeted the following response (using his personal campaign moniker of @Barlow4Highwood):

I assure you it will not change. The Wheel prides itself on being fair and that will continue. (See the original tweet)

When asked on Twitter if he was tweeting on behalf of the Wheel via his campaign account, he didn’t respond directly, tweeting enigmatically instead:

The Wheel has a great reputation and it speaks for itself. (See the original tweet)

For those who are unaware of the important role of the media in the effective functioning of a democratic society, the Canadian Newspaper Association has stated it thus:

Freedom of the press is an exercise of every Canadian’s right to freedom of expression guaranteed in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It is the right to gather and disseminate information, to discuss, to advocate, to dissent. A free press is essential to our democratic society. It enables readers to use their Charter right to receive information and make informed judgements on the issues and ideas of the time. (Source: Canadian Newspaper Association’s Statement of Principles)

This is not about John Barlow as an individual (he’s a very likeable fellow, by all accounts) or the Western Wheel newspaper in particular (although I’ve taken exception to some of their news coverage in the past), it’s about the Charter rights of the citizens in the riding of Highwood and how they make an informed decision on voting day. They are entitled to an objective source of news, information about their community’s issues and concerns and unbiased coverage of the election in the days leading up to the official dropping of the writ.

Barlow is in a leadership capacity at the town’s only newspaper, while also representing one of the political parties on the ballot of the next election. This raises a conflict of interest question, leaving the community lacking an assured, reliable, and unbiased newspaper to find out what they need to know to make a decision about who to vote for.

The fact that he is representing the party that has been in power for 40 years makes it even more disturbing. Some have countered by claiming that his main opponent in the upcoming election, Danielle Smith, has her own connections (0r at least her party does) in the media. My argument here is that media bias is bad, no matter where it exists.

I’m not going to try and unravel Smith’s media connections (feel free to submit your comments about this but please be prepared to back up with your sources and I’ll consider posting them). All I’ll say is that the voters in Highwood should be even more enraged by the apparent lack of impartial information available to them. (Full disclosure: I am a member of the Alberta Liberal Party and a former resident of the riding. However, at the time of this post there was no ALP candidate nominated in the riding).

So what is the big deal, really?

The Canadian Association of Journalists examined the ethical issues of journalists seeking public office thoroughly in a paper delivered in October of 2010. Their conclusion:

There is irony in all of this careful consideration of political disengagement in that some media organizations and their owners publicly engage in direct and indirect political activity on a regular basis without apparent consideration or concern about it reflecting poorly or otherwise on their organization, its product or its employees.

However, as chroniclers of history who help citizens make well-informed choices, working journalists bear the burden of a higher public expectation that they submit personal bias and political view to the demands and disciplines of their work. And, perhaps that is exactly as it should be. A range of independent, unencumbered and trustworthy media is a valued asset in any democratic society.

If journalists accept that the “objective method” contributes to the public trust, and that “impartiality” is not just a noble ambition but a relevant goal to honour our democratic responsibility, then it is important to strive to preserve the integrity of the ideal – even if it may sometimes mean voluntarily surrendering some personal freedoms.

The paper states that:

The real question becomes: if and when they do exercise their fundamental political rights, do journalists have special responsibilities as journalists to their employers, peers, or the public? The short answer seems to be: “yes.”

Much of what a journalist does is report on, chronicle or comment upon the activities and behaviours of others, including on occasion, the political activities and integrity of individuals, governments or organizations. The journalist’s works are by definition public and therefore can directly or indirectly influence other people and society’s perception of his/her subject.

If a journalist engages in outside political activity or espouses a particular political viewpoint, this activity could create a public perception of bias, or favouritism that would reflect on the journalist’s work as well as on the media organization for which he or she may work. As a result, many media organizations have policies to govern a journalist’s engagement in outside political activity.

Fortunately, there are now many alternative news sources online and other media outlets in nearby Calgary, but this does not change the fact that the local newspaper gives the appearance that it is on side with the current government. The paper’s credibility and brand is now under suspicion. Citizens in Okotoks may feel they have no truly independent LOCAL newspaper to turn to for coverage of the election and beyond.

This is why I believe PC candidate John Barlow should step down immediately (not wait until the writ is dropped), until after the election. To do otherwise is a clear rejection of his own profession’s standards of ethics, is damaging to the reputation of his employer (whether the Western Wheel understands this or not) and does a disservice to the democratic Charter rights of the people in his community.

As Reporters Without Borders states emphatically on its website:

“Don’t wait to be deprived of news to stand up and fight for it”

Further reading:

The Twitter exchange in full here.