Monday, October 24, 2016

Medicine Hat--Cardston--Warner federal by-election today

Today marks the first federal by-election of the 42nd Parliament, just as Canada's new Liberal government enters its sophomore year. Voters in the southern Alberta riding of Medicine Hat—Cardston—Warner head to the polls to elect a new Member of Parliament, following the death of Conservative MP Jim Hillyer who died last Spring due to cardiomyopathy. Hillyer was first elected to Parliament in 2011 in the neighbouring riding of Lethbridge, and switched to the Medicine Hat riding for the 2015 election when its boundaries shifted to encompass his hometown of Raymond, located just south of Lethbridge. While it pains me to speak ill of the dead, Hillyer's short tenure in Parliament was criticized by even those in his party for his 'poor service of his constituents'. When he first ran for office in 2011, he was criticized for not attending any candidate debates and for embellishing the truth in his campaign literature. It did not matter though, as he was easily elected in both 2011 and 2015 (though in a mostly different riding the second time), due to running in true blue Conservative country: southern Alberta.

Map of the riding
Since the 2015 federal election, the Justin Trudeau-led Liberals have enjoyed a tremendous honeymoon period, and are still polling nearly ten points higher than what they won in the last federal election, witch much of this coming at the expense of the (for all intents and purposes) leaderless NDP. The Conservatives, who are also leaderless, have not been hurt by The Liberal honeymoon, as they are polling at about what they won in 2015. Trudeau remains a very popular figure across the country, and even has a large swath of adoring fans in southern Alberta. While he is still mostly detested in that corner of the country, a rally he attended two weeks ago in Medicine Hat attracted nearly 2000 people.


Map of Medicine Hat neighbourhoods

Medicine Hat—Cardston—Warner can be found on the southern and southeastern boundary of Alberta. It is shaped like a backward “L”, with Saskatchewan on the east, and Montana on the south. In the west, the riding begins at the Belly River, and wraps around the Lethbridge area and Taber County, ending at CFB Suffield in the north. While the riding appears to be rural, and many have claimed it is, this is a misnomer. The City of Medicine Hat dominates the riding, as it is home to nearly two thirds of the riding's population. The rest of the riding is mostly empty ranching land, or oil and gas wells. Other than Medicine Hat, the riding is home to a few smaller communities, such as Cardston, Magrath, Raymond and Bow Island, while the Medicine Hat suburb of Redcliff is the riding's second largest city or town. The riding is also home to Canada's largest Indian Reserve (second largest in population), Blood #148, a Blackfoot reserve which is home to over 4000 people. The people in Blood #148 will be voting in their second federal by-election in just over two years, as they were previously located in the riding of Macleod which had a by-election in June 2014.


Except for about a 9% Aboriginal population, the riding is overwhelmingly White. But despite this, the riding does have some interesting cultural and ethnic demographics. The riding has the highest ethnically German population in the country, with 36% of people claiming it. Germans immigrated to southern Alberta in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and have long since been integrated into the country. Still though, 7% of residents indicate German as their first language in the census. This makes German the riding's #2 language, and some rural areas in the central part of the riding have large numbers (over 40%) of German speakers. After German, the riding is also home to significant populations with English, Scottish and Irish backgrounds. 10% of the riding claims some sort of Aboriginal background, most of this being Blackfoot. Blackfoot is the native tongue of about 1% of the riding.

The riding also has an interesting religious makeup, as it is home to Canada's largest Mormon population. Over a quarter of the riding is considered “Other Christian”, with much of this is Mormon, which was also the religion of Jim Hillyer. Mormons began settling the western part of the riding in the late 19th Century, and built the first Mormon Temple outside the United States in Cardston in 1887. Hillyer's hometown of Raymond was also settled by Mormons. The “other Christian” group also includes a sizable Mennonite population who are the descendants of some of the early German settlers to this region. In total, 72% of the riding is Christian, including 21% being Catholic, and 10% being United Church. Over one quarter of the riding has no religion.

The riding is poorer than the province as a whole. The median income is about $30,000 compared to $36,000 for all of Alberta. The average income is $40,000 which is over $10,000 less than the provincial average. While the riding has a reputation for cattle ranches and oil and gas extraction, the dominance of City of Medicine Hat in the riding has resulted in the leading industries in the riding being health care and social assistance, retail trade and construction.


A riding known as “Medicine Hat” existed all the way from 1908 until the most recent redistribution before last year's election. Medicine Hat—Cardston—Warner was originally going to be named just “Medicine Hat”, but the addition of the Cardston and Warner areas, which have not traditionally been lumped in with Medicine Hat in one riding meant that a name change was preferred.

From 1905 when Alberta joined confederation until 1908, Medicine Hat, then a town of 3000 people, was located in the riding of “Alberta (provisional district)”. In 1908 a riding called “Medicine Hat” was first created. This first Medicine Hat riding included a large swath of southeastern Alberta, including Lethbridge (then a home to 2000 people). In the north, the riding extended as far as (but not including) Hanna and as far as Strathmore in the west. Subsequent redistributions shrunk the riding down further, with a new Lethbridge riding being created in the west. The Cardston and Warner parts of the current riding of Medicine Hat—Cardston--Warner were usually located in the Lethbridge riding, but the Warner area was added to Medicine Hat in the 1966 redistribution but was removed once again in 1987, joining back with the Lethbridge riding. In the 2013 redistribution, the Cardston area was added to the riding for the first time since the 1908 redistribution and the Warner area was also added back to the riding. Both of these regions were previously in the Lethbridge riding. The 2013 redistribution also brought in the Blood 148 Indian Reserve which was previously located in the Macleod riding. To compensate, the Medicine Hat riding lost Taber and Newell Counties (which includes Brooks) to the new riding of Bow River. These counties have traditionally been part of the Medicine Hat riding, and this region had been continuously part of the riding since 1976. Also in 2013, the riding lost a small strip of territory in the far north of the riding (between the Red Deer River and the Suffield Air Force Base) to the new riding of Battle River—Crowfoot. 

MPs for Medicine Hat and Medicine Hat--Cardston--Warner
In its early days, the riding was competitive for the Liberals and even was won by the Progressive Party in 1921. However, following World War II, right wing parties have won every single election in Medicine Hat except for the first Trudeaumania in 1968. That election was an anomaly though, as the riding's MP, Bud Olson had switched from the quickly dying Social Credit Party to the Liberals, and was elected thanks to the splitting of the right wing vote between the SoCreds and the Progressive Conservatives. Olson had only beat his Tory opponent by 200 votes, and was shown the door in the next election when the Social Credit vote collapsed and Progressive Conservative candidate Bert Hargrave won. The Tories held the seat from that point on until 1993 when the Reform Party won the seat for the first time. Reform became Canadian Alliance which merged with the Progressive Conservatives in 2003 to form the Conservative Party and the Conservatives have won this seat ever since.

The 1993 election was the last to see the winning candidate receive less than 60% of the vote, and was the last time the Liberals won more than 20% of the vote. The riding usually votes overwhelmingly for the main right wing candidate, and only sees somewhat competitive elections when the right wing vote is split. In recent elections, the true battle has been for second place. In 2015, the Liberals finished second with 18% of the vote. In both 2008 and 2011 the second place party was the NDP which won 11% and 13% respectively.

Political geography

Medicine Hat—Cardston—Warner is a very, very Conservative riding. Except for the Blood 148 Indian Reserve, every single poll voted Conservative in 2015. Even in the city of Medicine Hat. And outside of the Blood 148 reserve, every single poll has voted Conservative in every single election since the Conservative merger in 2013. And most polls are won by quite large amounts.

The rural areas of the riding are much more Conservative than Medicine Hat itself. All of the rural counties in the riding gave Hillyer at least 80% of the vote in 2015, and only three rural towns did not give him at least 80% of the vote. Home to a large number of Mennonites and Mormons, Cardston County, in the riding's far west was the best municipality for Hillyer, where he won 89% of the vote. His worst municipality was Medicine Hat, where he still won 64.5% of the vote. However on the Blood Reserve, he won a minuscule 2.5% of the vote. There, the NDP (despite finishing third in the overall vote) won 62%, with the Liberals coming in second with 34%. Medicine Hat was the best municipality for both the Liberals and the NDP who won 22% and 9.5% of the vote respectively.

Within the city of Medicine Hat itself, Hillyer's best neighbourhood was Saamis Heights, a newer suburb on the city's south side, where he won 73% of the vote. Hillyer's worst neighbourhood was the Downtown, where he won 47% of the vote. Downtown Medicine Hat was the best neighbourhood for the NDP's candidate, who won 18% of the vote. The best neighbourhood for the Liberal candidate was the Southeast Hill / South Flats area, on the south side of downtown, where they won 31% of the vote. 

2015 federal election results by community

Overall, the best poll for the Conservatives was poll #170, which covers the community of Leavitt, south of Cardston. Leavitt is a Mormon village in Cardston County, which was founded by Thomas Rowell Leaveitt, who had fled the United States after a crackdown on polygamy laws. Hillyer won 94% of the vote there, with just ten people voting for all of the other parties combined. On the other end of the spectrum, there were three polls on the Blood Reserve where Hillyer won a grand total of zero votes (polls #148, #149 and #150). These polls cover the northeastern half of the reserve, and are close to Lethbridge.

Google Streetview photo of Leavitt, Alberta
Google Streetview photo of the Blood Reserve

When it comes to federal elections, voters in the Medicine Hat area are very inelastic. That is, they tend to not change their votes too often, even when the rest of the country is. Despite the Conservatives losing a lot of support across the country in 2011, they actually gained a swing 0.1% in the riding. The Liberals did see an uptick in support, receiving a swing of 6.8%, but this pails in comparison to the 21% national swing they won. Overall, the two party average swing to the Liberals was 3.3%. The Liberals saw the biggest swings in their direction in Medicine Hat and in the Blood Reserve. The Conservatives saw some reasonable swings in more rural areas, and especially in Cypress County. 

In the last provincial election, the election results were not as homogeneous as in past federal elections. The NDP orange crush was big enough to not only win a few polls outside of the Blood reserve (which they won by nearly 90% of the vote), but an entire riding: Medicine Hat, which covers the northern and central parts of the city. Within the Medicine Hat provincial riding, the NDP won the central part of the city, while the Wildrose won the more suburban parts, and the PCs won a few polls in the Norwood and Meadowlands neighbourhoods. Outside of Medicine Hat and the Blood First Nation, the NDP did not win any polls. Most of the rural polls voted for the Wildrose Party, except for a few scattering polls that the Tories won.

Historically, the provincial riding of Cardston-Taber-Warner which overlaps the western third of the Medicine Hat—Cardston—Warner riding has been very favourable to right wing third parties. In the 2004 provincial election, it was the only riding to vote for the Alberta Alliance (which later became the Wildrose Party), which helped give that party the credibility which led to its future success.


The next MP for Medicine Hat—Cardston—Warner will likely be Conservative candidate Glen Motz, who is a retired Medicine Hat police officer. Motz is a social conservative, who became a police officer after following “God's call”, and has a bachelor's degree in religious education. His main opponent is Liberal candidate Stan Sakamoto, a Medicine Hat businessman who is credited as being the first Japanese-Canadian to be born there. Despite a Justin Trudeau rally in Medicine Hat that attracted 2000 people, it would be a huge surprise if Sakamoto could pull this off. Despite going NDP in the provincial election, Medicine Hat is a fairly conservative city, and the rural part of this riding is about as conservative as it gets.

Let's not forget there are other candidates running as well. The NDP is running Bev Waege, who was the party's candidate in Cypress-Medicine Hat in the 2015 election, but was not swept up in the orange wave, finishing third. The Greens are not running any candidates, but look for the Christian Heritage Party candidate (and leader) Rod Taylor to do well here- and by that I mean possibly finish ahead of the NDP. The Libertarians are also running a candidate, as is the Rhinoceros Party.

While I predict the Conservatives will easily win this by-election, I predict the Liberals will win a few polls in central Medicine Hat. They will also likely win the Blood 148 Reserve back from the NDP, as they did in the 2014 Macleod by-election (albeit with comically low turnout). We'll see just how well they do when the polls close at 8:30 Mountain Time (10:30 Eastern).

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