Part One – Politics and Natural Disasters

The people of Alberta, particularly those in Fort McMurray and surrounding communities, have had misfortune piled upon misfortune. With the collapse in oil prices and the resulting downturn the city has been hit hard by powerful, seemingly uncontrollable, global economic forces resulting in a slowdown in production, wage cuts, sharp increases in unemployment and layoffs, along with rapidly rising inequality and poverty. From the dizzying heights of the boom to the situation now, the realities of capitalism in decline are all too glaringly obvious in Alberta.

A resource-rich province, Alberta has seen its share of booms and slumps. But there is not a lot of hope for the immediate future with oil prices expected to stay depressed and a world economic crisis looming on the horizon.

And now the people of Fort McMurray have suffered at the hands of powerful and uncontrollable forces of nature in the form of the massive wildfire that forced the emergency evacuation of some 88,000 people from the city and surrounding area last week, also shutting down vitally important oil sands production north of the city.

The total economic cost of the wildfire is as yet unknown, but between costs related to fighting the fire and emergency relief, damage to homes, property, municipal and regional infrastructure, insurance claims, and the shutdown in oil production in the Fort McMurray area, it is expected to be the costliest natural disaster in Canadian history. Losses are expected to be in the billions, with a noticeable short-term reduction in Canadian GDP. Undoubtedly, it will most definitely have a huge economic, social, and political impact on the province and the country as a whole for many years to come.

The Alberta right-wing

Major natural disasters usually end up as significant political events. A government’s response to a disaster, its preparedness, and ultimately its ability to deal with the social and economic fallout all come under intense scrutiny – not just from opposition political figures looking to score points but more significantly from the people on the ground whose lives were impacted by the disaster and the broader population as a whole. The perception alone that a government has mishandled a disaster or crisis can be fatal.

Political figures and governments can surge or crash in popularity, live or die, depending on how the disaster and relief are managed. The rabid right-wing in Alberta appears to be intensely aware of this, and with the wildfire disaster in Fort McMurray saw an opportunity to self-servingly strike at the NDP government.

In an opportunist display, they launched a campaign of fear in order to capitalize on people’s panic and uncertainties and manipulate their anger and misery in the middle of the evacuation.

The intention was to take advantage of the disaster so they could damage the credibility of the NDP government in the eyes of the evacuees. There was a decided effort to create a perception that the crisis was far worse than it actually was, and that the government was making it worse by its incompetence. They decided that the right time to do this was in an emergency when Fort McMurray was on fire, people’s houses were burning down, and lives were at stake.

Even with an awareness of just how political a natural disaster can end up being, it was still remarkable to see just how quickly the Fort McMurray wildfire became an intensely political event. The right-wing didn’t waste any time. Neither did some so-called lefts, but we’ll come to that later in Part Two.

The evacuation order had hardly been issued, the fire hadn’t even made its way into the city and yet there was already a ferocious – and clearly organized – right-wing campaign on social media and to a somewhat lesser extent in the corporate press designed to vilify the “evil” NDP government and the “arch villainess” Rachel Notley, whose sole intention apparently is to “ruin” and “destroy” the province of Alberta. Every effort was made by the right-wing to attack, attempt to embarrass, and ultimately try to destabilize the government and its response to the emergency.

Why would the right use such methods, even at the risk of endangering lives through panic?

The oil barons and their right-wing allies in Alberta have suffered huge losses in the previous period and they are frothing at the mouth. While the Tories had ruled Alberta for some 44 years, if you also count the years of Social Credit government the right-wing had ruled the province for some 80 years going back to 1935. First, they lost the provincial government in their very own heartland in Alberta to the NDP and then to top it all off a few months later they lost the Harper federal government to the utterly despised Trudeau Liberals. It certainly seems to have embarrassed them, but also to have driven them completely mad.

Always willing to overlook the facts, the right-wing campaign sunk to new lows and preyed on fear and panic to peddle their agenda. It was an attempt to make the Notley and Trudeau governments’ response to the fire and evacuation of Fort McMurray look like the Bush government’s handling of the Hurricane Katrina disaster.

As the fires were still burning in and around Fort McMurray, social media exploded with accusations that Notley and Trudeau were responsible for the crisis because they “hate Alberta” and “hate the oil sands”. The campaign was so absurd that The Beaverton felt compelled to have a laugh, with the Edmonton Journal even weighing in to debunk some of the myths surrounding the fire.

Yet aside from the ridiculousness and absurdity of the right-wing propaganda campaign, it does highlight a disturbing trend in Alberta. From designating themselves as the natural governing party who were at first seemingly only insanely upset at losing power both provincially and federally, the right-wing in Alberta seems to have shifted to a fundamentally antidemocratic position whereby they feel it is their mandated duty, their God-given right – and their right only – to rule because they are the only ones “qualified” and “fit” to govern.

The campaign seems to have slowed somewhat in the face of reality, although it still rears its ugly head at almost every turn. The response of the provincial and federal governments does not appear to have been like that of the Bush government and its handling of Hurricane Katrina. There does not seem to be wildfire experts, firefighters, local/provincial/federal officials, or credible media sources implying that the response of the governments has been inadequate or incompetent, for example like we saw with Hurricane Katrina and the Bush regime. In fact, it has been the opposite.

It would seem likely that the right-wingers will in fact see their irresponsible propaganda campaign backfire and blow up in their faces. While they hammered on about the “incompetence of the government” and their “inability to deal with the crisis”, droned continuously on about how the “NDP hates Alberta” and “wants to see the oil sands burn”, the right-wing also launched racist arguments by claiming that the Notley and Trudeau governments wouldn’t provide any real assistance or relief because they were “more concerned with helping Syrian refugees than helping Canadian evacuees”, people can see that the facts and reality stand in stark contrast to the right-wing propaganda.

In fact, the reality is that an out-of-control wildfire forced some 88,000 people to evacuate on an emergency basis and on short notice and there was no significant death toll. While no deaths have been attributed directly to the fire in Fort McMurray, sadly there were two deaths in relation to the evacuation as the result of a traffic accident on Highway 881 along the evacuation route, something which should be part of the political fallout from the disaster and which we will discuss further in Part Two.

Political disaster

The right-wing was only able to gain room for their campaign on the basis of the initial chaos and confusion of the situation. The evacuation and immediate period afterwards would inevitably have been ones of panic and chaos, as it would be with any emergency evacuation of that many people.

Firstly, there aren’t many areas of the country that could easily and quickly deal with the sudden influx of 88,000 evacuees from a major disaster. Capitalist society in general, and Canada in particular, isn’t set up that way (more on this in Part Two as well).

The tiny little Hamlet of Lac La Biche, for example, essentially doubled in population with the arrival of some 4,000 evacuees from the Fort McMurray area. While many evacuees eventually made it to other larger centres more equipped to deal with the crisis, many small towns in northern Alberta had their own supplies and resources stretched to the limit trying to accommodate the massive influx of people.

Another complicating factor is the relative isolation of Fort McMurray, technically not a city but an “urban service area” with a total population of around 82,000. Fort McMurray is some 430 km north of Edmonton, which has a population of 1.1 million and is the closest major city. Given the speed with which the situation developed and the emergency nature of the evacuation, it was inevitable there would initially be chaos and confusion and that it would take some time to get relief supplies and resources to where they are needed most. This isn’t to say that there weren’t legitimate problems, but the assertions as to the degree of the problems surrounding the disaster by the right-wing are simply untrue.

In any case, once the state of emergency was declared and the relief effort moved into high gear, the initial chaos and confusion waned. People are now seeing the exact opposite of what the right-wingers have been screaming about. Alberta has suffered a series of natural disasters in the past few years with the Slave Lake wildfire in 2011 and the floods in 2013. It does seem that some lessons have been learned in terms of emergency management and many processes seem to have been streamlined, according to the standards of bourgeois politics in Canada. Are these procedures perfect? Probably not. Is there room for improvement? Probably. Are there criticisms to be made? Undoubtedly, but these criticisms need to be based on fact and made in a rational manner.

This is obviously not the end of the question, and we will look at the issues surrounding the evacuation further in Part Two and how it was handled by the NDP government, but there wasn’t really a shred of truth to the orchestrated right-wing campaign. At the initial time of writing, the Red Cross was some 24 – 48 hours away from providing emergency funds in what the organization claims is “the most important cash transfer we have done in our history and the fastest one” and in just over a week after the disaster the Alberta government was issuing pre-loaded debit cards with emergency relief funds for evacuees.

By so openly distorting the facts, by operating so distantly from reality, the right-wing are shooting themselves in the foot, which of course is a good thing from the perspective of the working class. If the NDP government was in fact behaving incompetently with regard to the disaster, there might be a point to some of their criticisms related to emergency relief management. But as it is, people will see through their lies. Their opportunism will not go unnoticed and the right-wing in Alberta will lose the trust and confidence of the very people they are trying to rile up.

From hoping to use this natural disaster for their own political gains, the right-wing are pushing themselves farther away from reality. This is partially why the bourgeois media has backed off from and been forced to debunk the more outlandish claims because they are terrified of the public losing faith in the corporate media and the right-wing. The more intelligent bourgeois and their smarter representatives in the corporate press can see that the crazy rantings of the right-wing are a serious threat to their future credibility.

Even Lorne Gunter, an arch-conservative columnist currently employed with Sun Media who is most definitely no friend of the Notley government, and also a former managing editor of the old ultra-right Alberta Report, has had to acknowledge that the NDP government “[is] doing a better job than the Redford Tories did during the the 2013 floods in southern Alberta” and in the same column later added, “In every instance in which a political decision has been needed, the NDP government has acted sensibly.”

It should go without saying, that the Notley and Trudeau governments cannot be given a blank cheque. If it weren’t for the right-wing’s orchestrated campaign, it doesn’t seem likely that the response to the emergency would even be a topic of conversation, other than people marveling at how the evacuation was completed on such short notice in such a short period of time.

However, if it turns out that the crisis in Alberta has been mishandled by any government officials or departments – be they municipal, regional, provincial, or federal – then they should naturally be exposed, investigated, and held accountable. But this can only happen if indeed there has been some sort of mishandling or incompetence. In addition to the sickening display of the right-wing trying to capitalize on the misery of the wildfire evacuees, to suggest incompetence when there hasn’t been any is simply irresponsible.

Moreover, the more farsighted of the bourgeois can see a major problem with the campaign of lies. If the NDP’s response to the crisis has been in fact sensible, but the right-wing continues to hammer on that it wasn’t, then they have also set higher standards for potential future Wildrose/Tory governments in the face of natural disasters and crises. These are standards they may not be able to meet – not to mention should they not perform adequately, it would be far more obvious to people in comparison to the current crisis and therefore easier to expose. In this situation they would have created for their own future governments the very destabilization they were trying to achieve against the NDP. As a by-product of their campaign, they could indeed be setting themselves up for their own future political disaster.

One of the biggest points in the right-wing campaign is about “leadership” – how Notley doesn’t “know how to lead” and how somehow only Wildrose/Tory politicians can “provide a real lead”. Disturbingly, there are repeated right-wing calls for “strong leadership” and a “strong leader”. Whether Notley can in fact lead is a different discussion that we will address later on in Parts Two and Three. But as most people know, good leadership generally doesn’t involve manipulation of facts, distorting reality, or outright lies. These things would usually fall under the category of bad leadership, and again the smarter bourgeois can see that if they continue with their campaign they run the risk of losing all credibility.

After this absurd right-wing campaign, more and more people, even some firmly in the Wildrose/Tory orbit, will be forced to come to the conclusion that the right-wing in Alberta are in fact incapable of leading. In fact, it was their “leadership” that got everyone into this situation in the first place. The current state of affairs in the province is much more a reflection of 44 years of Tory misrule, and not so much the product of one year of Notley’s NDP government (which we will discuss in Part Two and Three).

In politics, honesty is always the best policy. If one decides to scream and yell irrational propaganda at every turn that doesn’t square with the facts or have anything to do with reality, people will inevitably begin to lose trust and confidence and one will find oneself eventually ignored. This goes for those on the left as much as it does those on the right. If you are caught outright lying, then just like the boy who cried wolf, your audience won’t believe you – even when you are telling the truth. This is the kiss of death politically, and hopefully the right-wing keep right on doing it.

Part 1 – Part 2 – Part 3