Today’s underdog election candidate is of Alberta Party candidate for Edmonton-Glenora Sue Huff. Please give a warm welcome to my co-author Lana Cuthbertson, who joined me on the door-knocking route this time.
Still to come this week: Edmonton-Centre PC candidate Akash Khokhar and Wildrose Edmonton-Strathcona hopeful Meagen LaFave.
“Well that was worth coming back,” Sue Huff says as we leave the house of a woman who’s agreed to take one of her signs. She makes a point of trying to remember people, and in this case it paid off. Huff says the first time she visited, the woman had too many questions, and had never heard of the Alberta Party. Now she’s a believer.
It’s no wonder Huff has pushed for more all-candidate forums in her riding, and invites every person she can. Her background in theatre, film and TV shines through almost as brightly as the smile she brushed before we left the campaign office. She’s got incredible charisma, and experience as a local school trustee. But will it be enough to wrest Edmonton-Glenora away from the PCs’ Heather Klimchuk?
We walked briskly to keep up with Huff and ask her about where the Alberta Party fits into a crowded political spectrum, the chilling effect that she says Bill 44 has had on classrooms, and what a party all about listening thinks of citizen referenda.
How personal questions on schools got political
As Huff brushes yet another friendly dog away from the (probably faux) fur rim of her Value Village coat, she tells us the threat of her children’s elementary school closing was what pushed her into politics.
She was so upset that Westglen Elementary was threatened with closure for low enrolment that she ran for — and won — a place as a trustee with the Edmonton Public School Board. While there, she successfully argued that they should find alternatives for closing inner city schools. And the moratorium she lobbied for has helped bring Westglen back from the brink.
During her term as trustee, Huff says she got frustrated with the way decisions were made at the EPSB. She’d be given an agenda Friday, and expected to vote on it the next Tuesday. Her fellow trustees, she says, didn’t understand why she said she needed more time to ask what her constituents thought.
Today, Huff covers the education file for the Alberta Party. Just as she shifted her career from acting to writing for radio and TV when her kids were born, they now seem to be a major force behind her political choices.
Big Listen, uphill battle to be heard
Besides the EverGreens, no partyseriously campaigningin this election has had a harder time getting recognized than the Alberta Party. Formed in 2010, the fledgling party has taken on a centrist platform aimed at making voters feel like their opinions matter more directly than in any of the old standbys. Their low profile means Alberta leader Glenn Taylor had to join in last week’s debate by chatting live online.
Huff knows the challenges of luring voters to their party better than perhaps anyone else running. She served as acting leader before Taylor took over, and guided the Big Listen process they used to take input from around the province and develop the party’s platform. And she’s been knocking on doors in Edmonton-Glenora since last fall.
This riding has swung back and forth between the PCs and the Liberals over the decades. Heather Klimchuk is now a cabinet minister, and two of their other competitors have been MLAs before.
Huff didn’t jump into this race blindly. A prominent trustee during her time on the Edmonton Public School Board, she says she was initially courted by the Liberals and NDP. But when they confirmed she’d have to vote along party lines in the Legislature, she asked whether they’d ever seen her as trustee.
Religion matters less than inclusive environment in schools
One piece of legislation that came up while she was a trustee really irks her today: Bill 44. The bill changed Alberta’s Human Rights Act to protect against [edit: against was a key missing word here earlier] discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, but came with a twist.
Socially conservative PCs (and now-Wildrose MLA Rob Anderson) opposed to those protections demanded parents be given the right to prior notice every time teachers planned material discussing sexuality, sexual orientation or religion. Huff says the threat of teachers being pulled before human rights tribunals for violating that law has had a chilling effect on classrooms.
“Teachers are not renegades,” she says. Being married to one herself, she argues the law shows a major lack of trust in teachers to appropriately bring up issues of tolerance and rights in the classroom, or even address bullying when it arises. If elected, she’d push to have it repealed.
“The fact that the Minister of Education [Dave Hancock] was willing to accept that compromise was a bad day for him.”
Huff thinks most people aren’t willing to open the can of worms around public funding for Catholic schools though, or access to secular education for parents without a public alternative. Catholic schools are constitutionally protected, she points out.
Religion matters less to her than making sure public money is going towards schools that are inclusive and open to everyone.
“Stick to your knitting”
At one house, a man draws Huff into a lengthy debate over why the Alberta Party sees itself as so different from the established options. He eventually tells her he’s a committed Liberal voter, and she later says their supporters are the ones who interrupt her the most, and have already made up their minds.
“Stick to your knitting,” is how Huff sums up the difference in her philosophy for a woman at another door. In other words, keep focused on serving your constituents, not your party. The Alberta Party policy of allowing MLAs to vote freely almost seems made for her.
She’s also promised to let her constituents judge her performance for them after her first year in office, and use online and face-to-face tools to gauge their opinions frequently on issues in the Legislature.
Is that enough to set them apart from the other parties? It’s hard to say. But eventually it occurs to us that Huff’s biggest target isn’t disaffected centrist voters. It’s the people she visits in high rises who say they’ve never voted before, because they feel like nobody ever listens to them.
Huff is adamant that government can change, even when people question her about its feasibility. She really believes in collaborating with the other parties, and seems to be very personally behind this Alberta Party idea, even though it was contentious at a few of the doors we knocked on.
The limits of listening
Before she wrapped up her route for the afternoon, we asked what Huff thought of the Wildrose plan to open up citizen-initiated referenda. The Alberta Party is all about listening, after all.
“There’s a place for referenda,” she sighs, “but you need a process first where people can get educated by listening to other perspectives.”
Meeting in living rooms in groups of a dozen or less for the Big Listen, Huff says, she saw people shift their opinions during policy conversations as they heard each other’s stories. Getting to look people who disagree in the eye and develop empathy for their challenges is key, she says.
“Checking off a box on a ballot doesn’t involve getting to know how your decision will affect your neighbours.”
Huff takes the same cautious stance when someone comes out onto the porch to ask her about proportional representation. It needs to be discussed, she says, but most people are not engaged enough yet to make a decision about it.
The heart of her outlook seems to be a desire to spend more time developing good policy.
“Is there a meteor falling on my house? Okay, go ahead, make a decision.” Otherwise, she argues, it’s better to put in the time to do it right.
Come back tomorrow for a look at Akash Khokhar, the PC candidate for Edmonton-Centre.