Friday, June 27, 2014

June 30 Federal by-election profiles: Fort McMurray--Athabasca

Location of Fort McMurray--Athabasca in Alberta
Federal by-elections will be held in four ridings on June 30th: two in Ontario (Scarborough—Agincourt and Trinity—Spadina) and two in Alberta (Fort McMurray—Athabasca and Macleod). I will be doing profiles of each of the four ridings in the run-up to by-election day. Today I will be profiling Fort McMurray—Athabasca.

Fort McMurray—Athabasca is a huge riding located in the northeastern corner of Alberta. Its total area is over one quarter the size of the entire province. Over half of the population of the riding lives in the “urban service area” of Fort McMurray, a rapidly growing community on the frontier of Alberta's infamous oil sands. The oil sands play a huge part in the economy of the riding, which covers most of the Athabasca Oil Sands bitumen deposit in the surrounding area. Fort McMurray itself is not even an incorporated municipality, as it was amalgamated into the massive Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo in 1995. In the last election, the riding had the lowest voter turnout of any riding in the country.

 The riding was vacated in January when its MP, Conservative Brian Jean vacated it to enter private life. Jean, a lawyer by trade, had represented the riding since 2004. 

Map of the riding


The riding extends from the Northwest Territories border in the north to the communities of Athabasca and Lac La Biche in the south.  It extends as far west as the community of High Prairie and its eastern border is the provincial border with Saskatchewan. Most of the riding is empty of population, being covered by forests and lakes. The riding is home to Canada's largest national park, Wood Buffalo, in the far north of the riding.  Most of the population is concentrated in Fort McMurray in the centre of the riding. Outside of Fort McMurray, almost the entire remaining population lives in the south of the riding, along the “Northern Woods and Water Route” corridor. This region includes the communities of High Prairie, Slave Lake, Athabasca and Lac la Biche. This area is also dotted by numerous lakes, including Lesser Slave Lake, the second largest lake entirely in Alberta.  The largest lake entirely in Alberta, Lake Claire, is also in the riding.  Part of the much larger Lake Athabasca is also in the riding. Both Lake Claire and Lake Athabasca are in the sparsely populated far north of the riding. The riding is also home to its namesake, the Athabasca River, which bifurcates the riding running from the southern border to Lake Athabasca in the northeast.


Fort McMurray—Athabasca has the largest Aboroignal population of any riding in the province. Almost one quarter (22%) of the riding reported being Aboriginal in the 2011 Census.  36% of the Aboriginal population is of Metis descent. Most of the Aboriginal population is Cree, but there are a small handful of Dene communities as well. Two thirds of the population (66%) is white, while there is a small South Asian (4%), Filipino (2%) and Black (2%) community. English is the mother tongue of 81% of the riding. Cree is the next largest language group at 5% and French is at 3%. 

Most common mother tongue after English by census subdivision and Fort McMurray

Cree is spoken across the riding, mostly in the numerous Indian Reserves that dot the map. There is a particularly high concentration of Cree speakers in the Opportunity Municipal District in the central part of the riding. One reserve – Janvier – southeast of Fort McMurray has Dene being the first language of half of its residents. French is the most common language after English in a number of municipalities. The highest concentration is in Northern Sunrise County, but Sunset Beach, South Baptise and Lac la Biche County all have large French populations. French is also the second language in Fort McMurray (represented by the circle on the map), but Cree is the second language of the rest of the Wood Buffalo Regional Municipality. German and Ukrainian is also the second language of some of the municipalities in the south of the riding. In West Baptiste, 1 in 5 residents has Ukrainian as their mother tongue.

Christianity is the religion of two thirds (67%) of the population, with about half of that being Catholic. Anglicanism is the largest Protestant denomination at 7%. Islam is the largest non-Christian faith at 3%, while one quarter (26%) has no religion.  Due to the Oil Sands, there is considerable wealth in the riding. Its median income is $47,000 while the median household income is $123,000. 22% of the labour force works in “mining, quarrying and oil and gas extraction”, which is the largest industry in the riding. The riding is experiencing a large boom in population. Over one third of all dwellings were built between 2001 and 2011.


Fort McMurray—Athabasca was created in 1925 as “Athabaska”. It changed names in 1968 to “Athabasca” and then to “Fort McMurray—Athabasca” in 2004. The riding has been consistently represented by right wing parties since 1962. The Progressive Conservatives held it until the rise of the Reform Party in 1993 when David Catters was elected. He represented the Reform Party, then the Canadian Alliance and then the Conservative Party until resigning in 2004. Brian Jean, a Conservative, has held the seat ever since. Since then Jean has never received less than 60% of the vote. The 2011 election saw his best result ever, when he won 72% of the vote. Historically, the Liberals have been the second best party in the riding, and even won the riding frequently before 1962. However, they have not been competitive in the riding in decades, even when finishing 2nd. The NDP has also finished 2nd in the riding on numerous occasions, including the two most recent elections. However, the NDP has never been competitive in the riding's history, even in their best showing in 1988 when they won 27% of the vote. Since then, 2011 was the NDP's best performance when they won 13%.

Members of Parliament:


Part of what is now in Fort McMurray—Athabasca (the Athabasca and Lac la Biche area) was represented by the riding of “Edmonton” in the Northwest Territories. North of this region was in the “District of Athabasca”, which had no representation in Parliament. The riding covered the northern third of the “District of Alberta” including the city of Edmonton.

- F. Oliver, Liberal (1904-1908)


Alberta entered Confederation in 1905, and the northeastern part of the province would become part of the riding of “Victoria”. This riding basically contained everything northeast of Edmonton, including what was then just the trading post of “McMurray”.

- W.H. White, Liberal (1909-1917)

Edmonton East

In 1917, most of the region was transferred to the new riding of Edmonton East, which also included the eastern part of Edmonton.

- H.R. Mackie, Unionist (1917-1921)
- D.F. Kellner, Prog. (1921-1925)

Athabaska / Athabasca / Fort McMurray—Athabasca

Athabaska was created for the 1925 election. At the time, its western border was mostly the fifth meridian of the Dominion Land Survey, which runs between Slave Lake and Athabasca. Its southern border mostly followed the North Saskatchewan River. In 1933 its southern boundary was altered slightly, moving further north. When the riding name was changed to “Athabasca” in 1966, its western boundary was moved far to the west – all the way to the Peace River, while its southern boundary was moved to the north. This would be the first time that the communities of Slave Lake and High Prairie would be in the riding.  Oddly enough, the community of Athabasca was moved out of the riding. Athabasca re-joined the riding in 1976, and the riding's western boundary was moved eastward to generally where it is today. In 1987, the southern boundary was altered again; The Lac la Biche / Bonnyville / Cold Lake area was moved into the new riding of Beaver River, while the Westlock area moved into the riding.  The 1987 borders remained unaltered until 2003 when the current boundaries were adopted.

- C.W. Cross, Liberal (1925-1926)
- D.F. Kellner, U.F.A. (1926-1930) 2nd time
- J.F. Buckley, Liberal (1930-1931)
- P.G. Davies, Cons. (1932-1935)
- P.J. Rowe, Soc. Cred. (1935-1940)
- J.M. Dechene, Liberal (1940-1958)
- F.J. Bigg, Prog. Cons. (1958-1968)
- Paul Yewchuk, Prog. Cons. (1968-1980)
- J.W. Shields, Prog. Cons. (1980-1993)

- D.C. Chatters. Reform / Cdn. Alliance / Cons. (1993-2004)
- B.M. Jean, Cons. (2004-2014)


While Fort McMurray—Athabasca is not too overly populated, it was still too large to remain intact following the 2013 redistribution process. In addition, one can anticipate that the riding will become mcuh more populous with the expansion of the Alberta Oil Sands (in fact, the riding has grown quite rapidly between 2006 and 2011, at a rate of 14.5%).

For the next election, Fort McMurray—Athabasca will be abolished, with most of its territory (and population) being redistributed into the new riding of Fort McMurray—Cold Lake. As the name suggests, it will include the Cold Lake area which is currently in the riding of Westlock—St. Paul. 19% of the riding (including the Slave Lake and High River area) will be redistributed into the new riding of Peace River—Westlock. 11% of the riding (including the Athabasca area) will be transferred to the new riding of Lakeland. The successor riding of Fort McMurray—Cold Lake will be ever so slightly more Conservative than Fort McMurray—Athasbasca, as it loses some First Nations communities where the Conservatives are relatively weak.

Results of the 2011 federal election by polling division

Political geography

Fort McMurray—Athabasca – like almost every riding in Alberta – is extremely Conservative. In 2011, Jean won nearly every poll in the riding, most by large margins; the only polls won by opposition parties covered First Nations communities.  The NDP won four polls, and the Liberals just one. In previous elections the Liberals have won more polls across the riding, but typically only in areas with large Aboriginal populations, especially in the far north and western parts of the riding. Even in the more urban parts of the riding the Liberals and NDP have been shut out in recent elections. Out of all the major centres in the riding, only one poll – in Lac la Biche – has gone anything but Conservative, and that was in 2004 and 2006. However, the Liberals did very well in Fort McMurray back in 1997, but it was not enough to compensate for the large Reform Party numbers in the rest of the riding.

For a rural riding, Fort McMurray—Athabasca has a large transient population due to the growth of the Oil Sands. Much of the population comes economically depressed regions in the country, especially from Newfoundland. This transient population is the most likely cause of the very low voter turnouts in the riding. It's possible that if this transient population actually voted, that the Liberals would do better in the riding- the Liberals are traditionally strong in Atlantic Canada, especially in Newfoundland (perhaps this is why the Liberals did well in Fort McMurray in 1997).

One big caveat is the issue of the environment.  The environmental community has been very critical of the Oil Sands, and with the Liberals focusing more on environmental issues in recent elections, it could make (and has made) the party toxic in places like Fort McMurray. (One reason the Liberals tend to be toxic in Alberta in general).

In 2011, the Conservatives won every single region of the riding. Their best numbers came in Athabasca County, in the south central part of the riding. They won 83% of the vote there. Their worst region was the Opportunity Municipal District and Northern Sunrise County area, where they just won 54%. This region includes a lot of First Nations Communities, and is home to the riding's only Liberal poll. This region was also the best region for the Liberals, where they won 21% of the vote. The NDP's best region was rural Wood Buffalo Regional Municipality (the part of the RM outside Fort McMurray), where they won 24% of the vote. This area includes two of the four polls the NDP won.
2011 election results by regions, towns and neighbourhoods of the riding

Strongest polls (2011)

Conservative: Poll #148 (90%) - This poll covers the community of Breynat in Athabasca County. The community is fairly isolated, being 81 km northwest of Lac La Biche – but it is on the main highway to Fort McMurray.

NDP: Poll #14 (55%) - This poll covers the community of Fort Chipewyan in the far northeast of the riding. “Fort Chip” is in the Wood Buffalo Regional Municipality; it's not an Indian Reserve, but it is home to a large Aboriginal population. It is one of only two polls the NDP won a majority in.

Liberal: Poll #5 (48%) - This poll covers the community of Loon Lake and is the only poll the Liberals won. Loon Lake is a Cree Indian Reserve in the western part of the riding.

Weakest polls (2011)

Conservative: Poll #105 (23%) - This poll covers the Drift Pile River 150 Indian Reserve in Big Lakes Municipal District.

NDP: Poll #144 (3%) - This poll covers the western half of the Village of Boyle in Athabasca County.

Liberal: Poll #102 (0%) - The Liberals didn't win a single poll in this rural area south of High Prairie in Big Lakes Municipal District.  The area is fairly remote, and covers the area around the community of Banana Belt, which you won't find on many maps.


Swing (2008-2011)

Between 2008 and 2011 the riding saw a small swing from the NDP to the Conservative of just 2.2%. Both parties saw a small increase in their share of the vote, but the Tory increase was greater. This small swing to the Conservatives didn't happen in all parts of the riding, though. Certain communities saw swings to the NDP. This occurred in some of the urban areas, and in some of the First Nations communities. Part of the Thickwood Heights neighbourhood in western Fort McMurray saw a  significant swing to the NDP. This area is home to new-ish developments, but by no means is it the newest part of the fast growing community. The newer parts of Fort McMurray (such as Timberlea) actually saw a swing to the Conservatives.

Two party (Conservative vs. NDP) swing (2008-2011) by polling division


Running for the Conservatives is former Athabasca County Deputy Reeve David Yurdiga. Yurdiga represented Division #7 on Athabasca County Council, which covers the Grassland area. Running for the NDP is Fort McMurray resident Lori McDaniel, who is a Suncor employee and a union representative. Running for the Liberals is another Fort McMurray resident Kyle Harrietha, who is the general manager of a local Metis organization. Running for the Greens is Lac La Biche teacher Brian Deheer. There is a fifth candidate who might do well, and that is Tim Moen who is running for the Libertarians. Moen is notable for a number of campaign posters that went viral, such as one saying “I want gay married couples to be able to protect their marijuana plants with guns”. No quote can possibly sum up libertarian ideology better than that!

Forum Research has attempted to poll this riding, but has been unable to receive an adequate sample size to publish any reliable results. This has much to do with the highly transient population and the generally low voter turnout in the riding as well. Just 41% of riding residents bothered to vote in the last federal election. Numbers like that are typical for by-elections in other parts of the country. One can only speculate how low turnout will be for this by-election. Not only is it at the beginning of Summer, but it falls right between a weekend and Canada Day, when many people will be on vacation. And since a huge percentage of the riding – to borrow a Newfoundland expression - “come from away” and are likely to be away, this race will likely see a record low turnout; my guess is somewhere in the 20s.

With no reliable polling, I can only make a prediction on the outcome of this race. The riding's history points to an easy Conservative victory here. However, the Liberals have been polling well in Alberta recently, which means this riding could be in play. The expected low turnout will be the real wild card here. It helps the Liberals' cause that they are running someone from Fort McMurray and the Conservatives are not. Fort McMurray - where a majority of the riding's residents live - is the riding's bellwether, and if the Liberals can do well there, they may be able to win the riding. Even though they finished second in this riding in 2011, I do not believe the NDP will be a factor – it will be a race between the Conservatives and the Liberals.


  1. doesn't that lakes-and-rivers shapefile make everything look so nice?

  2. Yes, but also it takes a while to load, so I've been using it sparingly.