‘There Are Alternative opinions in Alberta’

Edmonton NDPer Linda Duncan breached Tory stronghold in 2008

After Parliament was suspended and talk of a coalition government was winding down in mid-December NDP MP Linda Duncan was on a plane to a climate change conference in Poznan Poland.

The sound system on the eight-hour flight was down and there was no TV. Duncan was plowing though a pile of old issues of The New Yorker she’d brought along when she noticed that Jim Prentice Canada’s environment minister was on the same flight. The 59-year-old walked down the aisle and offered him a couple of magazines. In exchange she wanted national regulations on mercury emissions from coal power plants. Their trade didn’t result in any actual changes but Duncan did kick-start what she expects will be an ongoing conversation with the Tory minister. “I’ve just decided that’s how I’m going to do it” she says laughing. “I’m used to dealing with Conservatives.”

Duncan was the only opposition MP from Alberta elected to Parliament in the October federal election a feat that alone makes her one of the biggest Alberta newsmakers of the year. When the Liberals and the NDP signed their historic agreement to form a coalition government her international experience as an environmental lawyer also aroused speculation that she could become the first-ever federal NDP environment minister.

At home in Edmonton her constituency office in Old Strathcona still doesn’t have an Internet connection and she’s just finished hiring her staff.

Duncan downplays any expectations that she’ll hold a cabinet post in the New Year. Instead she casts herself as the bumbling new MP trying to figure out how to help her constituents with immigration and unemployment claims.

She admits to feeling a little discombobulated by her first eight weeks as an MP commuting to Ottawa. She has returned each weekend to Edmonton even when it looked as if a coalition government might propel her into a cabinet role. She only just signed a lease on an Ottawa apartment and left finding furniture until after the holidays. “I’ve never been so tired in my life” she says her usual frantic energy noticeably lower.

But the near-government experience is just one of a number of firsts for the environmental and community activist. She founded the Environmental Law Centre in Edmonton in 1981 after receiving a law degree from the University of Alberta. The centre was a first in Alberta and provided a resource for both lawyers practising in the relatively new area and for citizens learning about their rights.

Donna Tingley currently a member of the provincial Natural Resources Conservation Board worked with Duncan at the Environmental Law Centre in the early years when Tingley served as executive director. Environmental law can be stressful and depressing but Tingley says Duncan always found the joyful human side of the work.

Tingley also admired Duncan’s ability to reach across ideological lines. When the two were involved in the Clean Air Strategic Alliance a multi-stakeholder group battling air pollution Duncan was able to work out agreements with industry and other players even though she held strong views about environmental protection. “She’s not dogmatic” Tingley says. “She’s about solving human problems.”

Part of that was her upbringing in Edmonton. Her father was a Liberal and the debates she had with her two sisters and brother around the dinner table were political but rarely as she puts it “big-P Partisan.” Her father and grandfather were both lawyers and there was always someone at the table willing to play devil’s advocate for the sake of a robust argument. Although her work as an international environmental law consultant took her to Jakarta Whitehorse and Montreal she remained close to her family into adulthood.

Tragedy struck in the early 2000s when her two sisters and father all died of separate illnesses within three years of each other. Instead of continuing her work in the Yukon Duncan moved back to Edmonton to be close to her brother and niece.

It was in Edmonton where she made her big political breakthrough. The fight in trendy Edmonton-Strathcona was one of the hottest Edmonton races. In the past both the Liberals and NDP had a strong presence there and usually ended up splitting the vote allowing a Conservative to come up the middle.

“There was a really big sense of strategic voting” said Duncan volunteer Ross Penner on election night. The 25-year-old says he worked for Duncan because of her environmental credentials and because she represented a viable chance to beat Conservative MP Rahim Jaffer and not because she was the NDP candidate.

The morning following the election Duncan received a call from a retired farmer living near Camrose. He congratulated her on her win and then went on to ask her what she could do to protect the Canadian Wheat Board. It was the first of many calls from people outside her riding but who get in touch with her anyway because she’s the only non-Tory MP in the province.

“Contrary to what a lot of Canadians think” she says “there are alternative opinions in Alberta. I think in many ways I was elected not so much because I was part of one party but because people saw someone who was willing to speak up for the underdog.”

And that’s an important role in a healthy democracy says U of A political scientist Steve Patten. As a member of the NDP Patten argues Duncan actually has more freedom and therefore more clout to speak up for her constituents than backbench Conservatives. “The opposition’s role is to represent views that are not in the government” he says. “In that respect there’s a lot more freedom to speak up and speak out and that’s what many Liberals and New Democrats would hope Linda Duncan will do.”

And although Patten was hesitant to make any predictions about what will happen on the Hill come January if there is another election he says Duncan will have to work just as hard as she did in the 2008 race to keep the strategic voters on her side.

“Wait a minute!” she says at the suggestion of another election. “We haven’t even opened the constituency office!” She rolls her eyes in mock exasperation laughing and dramatically resting her head of bouncing curls on the boardroom table.

She may be exhausted but she still has enough good humour to laugh at herself.

Angela Brunschot is news editor for SEE Magazine.