The Battle of Castle Downs: an Alberta election sideshow

Elections are made up of a lot of little things—and this one is pretty amusing

Elections are made up of a lot of little things, and this controversy from Alberta’s election is perhaps a very little thing for me to belabour you with, but it is amusing. On Saturday, Edmonton-Castle Downs MLA and provincial education minister Thomas Lukaszuk was doorknocking in his riding when he had a surprising confrontation with Al Michalchuk, a grouchy 67-year-old homeowner who lives on the city’s 97th Street. The news broke in the form of an alarming tweet from Stephen Carter, a senior communications strategist for the Conservatives:

BREAKING: While door knocking, PC Candidate and Education Minister Thomas Lukaszuk was assaulted. Police on scene. #abvote #pcaa

Election-watchers were concerned about Lukaszuk’s fate; I suppose many of us feared he had been brutalized by some angry young meth dealer, as opposed to a rotund senior citizen with a bum liver. Mercifully, Carter reported 27 minutes later that the minister was “shaken but not injured”. There followed clashing accounts from assailant and alleged victim. Lukaszuk said he did not expect an attack of any kind, and has never met Michalchuk. Here’s an early account he gave to local radio station iNews 880:

“…I encountered a house that happened to have Wildrose signs on the front lawn,” remarked Lukaszuk. “Rang the doorbell, and the moment I opened the door a fellow—older gentleman—opened the door and he looked at my face. He instantly realized who I was and started pushing and punching me in the chest, saying ‘get off my property’. He was fixated on his property rights. Kept telling me how he has the right to his property and how he can use any force he wants to just to get me off of his property.”

Michalchuk, for his part, says he asked Lukaszuk to leave several times before physically escorting him off the premises. Lukaszuk’s account of the assault has varied a tad, but he has settled on having been punched in the chest and shoulder. There is security-camera footage, which Michalchuk played for Global Edmonton, but the cameras didn’t capture the blows, and the footage is otherwise pretty inconclusive.

An important way in which the men’s stories conflict is that Michalchuk says the two have, in fact, met. Lukaszuk visited his house in 2008, the homeowner says, and after an argument he gave Lukaszuk verbal notice that he should not return. Jen Gerson broke down the disagreement for the National Post Tuesday:

When he left, the Edmonton resident said Mr. Lukaszuk pointed to the Wildrose sign on his lawn and said: “‘We kicked your ass three times in a row now and we’re going to do it again.’”

Mr. Michalchuk said he believes the Minister remembered his house from 2008.

“When he was leaving my property, he said to his campaign helper, ‘That’s the guy I told you about, that’s the guy I told you about’ that he had problems with last time.”

The Minister denies he said anything of the sort to the senior.

“We randomly stumbled on his house. If I had had problems with this house, why waste my time and imperil myself?” he asked, adding he had no memory of any previous problems with the man.

An excellent question. But in 2008, when asked for a “funny story” about electoral doorknocking, Lukaszuk did not seem so worried about dangerous constituents. Here’s an excerpt from an interview he gave the Edmonton Journal’s Scott McKeen in February of that year.

There was this guy in 2001 who literally wanted to shoot me at the door. We had to call the police and everything. So I remembered where his house was and always avoided it. This time I forgot.

I rang the doorbell. He opens the door. We make eye contact. He recognizes me. I recognize him. And he says, “[Blank] off” and just closes the door. Next time, I’m going to remember his house.

The homeowner in this story sounds an awful lot like Michalchuk. Edmonton-Castle Downs covers a lot of ground, but could there be two guys that irascible living in it? I asked Lukaszuk on Tuesday night—asked him specifically if he is very certain that the person who told him to “[blank] off” was not Michalchuk. He insists that the person in the 2008 fish tale is definitely not the same one that attacked him on Saturday.

As I told you, I don’t believe that I have ever met this man. I would recall this kind of greeting at a door…

That is where the story would ordinarily lie down and die, but someone else does recall that greeting.

In 2008, Brent Rathgeber, the (successful) Conservative candidate for the federal riding of Edmonton-St. Albert, joined Lukaszuk for doorknocking in Michalchuk’s neighbourhood. The federal riding covers much of same north-Edmonton territory as Lukaszuk’s provincial riding. Rathgeber was reluctant to give Maclean’s an account of his 2008 jaunt with Lukaszuk, but his memory is distinct, and it does not agree with Lukaszuk’s.

The MP knows the neighbourhood well, since a friend lives very close to Michalchuk. They visited that friend, Rathgeber says, and on their way out, Lukaszuk piped up:

TL says to me “Remember that incident in ’01 when that guy pulled the gun on me? It’s right around here somewhere.” I didn’t really know much about the ’01 incident but I had heard about it.

We proceed to a house almost directly across from [the friend’s place], an old man answers the door in his undershirt, takes one look at TL and says “[Eff] off”. We immediately leave the property but TL exclaims “That’s the house!”

We kind of laughed about the incident, and the irony of him still being that angry, and then went on to the next house.

Rathgeber adds that he recognized both Michalchuk and Michalchuk’s house immediately when he saw them on television Saturday night. His story not only suggests that Lukaszuk had (in 2008) a pretty clear memory of Michalchuk that he has now unaccountably lost; you’ll notice it actually features Lukaszuk showing off for an acquaintance by deliberately provoking the local Grumpy Old Bear.

Michalchuk hasn’t said anything about threatening a political candidate with hot lead in 2001, but then, that’s not really surprising. Thomas Lukaszuk, as Edmontonians will know, has an excellent sense of humour. Prudence, however, is not his strong suit. On balance, I do suspect that at some point prior to this weekend’s incident, he probably uttered words very much like “Hey, I know this house. Wanna see something funny?” I have talked to friends who agree that the temptation to do this—especially while doorknocking as a political candidate, which must be the most tedious activity this side of Hell—would be almost irresistibly powerful. But it would also be terribly irresponsible.

I don’t think it would be right to ascribe any wider significance to the incident, whatever the real background. But I’m not sure Lukaszuk agrees. He has emphasized the presence of a Wildrose lawn sign on the premises of his assailant, and he suggested to the Journal that his trouble might have arisen because “the campaign has been a little bit different…much more emotional. Some people have been scared into believing things that are not happening.” Which, come to think of it, actually seems like an odd thing for Lukaszuk to say if he was threatened with a firearm two elections ago.

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