HIGH RIVER, Alta. - Melissa Mathieson says her social-worker parents were horrified 13 years ago when she put up posters on her bedroom wall of her first serious crush.
"It probably should have been the Backstreet Boys or something but it wasn't. It was Ralph Klein," the 24-year-old recalls now. "I was just his biggest fan."
Mathieson, is one of four people vying for the Conservative nomination for the upcoming byelection in the federal riding of Macleod. It's a sprawling rural area dotted with farms and ranches that stretches from south of Calgary down to the foothills of southwestern Alberta, and includes the flood-devastated town of High River.
The yet-to-be called byelection became necessary when Ted Menzies, former minister of state for finance, stepped down in November. The Tories are to pick their candidate March 8.
It's one of the safest Conservative seats in the country, so the nomination race has been intense. Mathieson has helped ignite a debate over what's become one of the hottest issues — gun rights and the seizure of firearms by the RCMP from evacuated homes in High River during Alberta's floods last June.
"It's the biggest thing in High River," she said in a recent interview, noting that, while she doesn't own a gun, her door was broken down by police searching the town.
"For people here it's still real. People say, 'Oh come on ... get over it and move on.' But I go to doors and people still have the police tape on their doors, their doors aren't repaired and they haven't been reimbursed yet. It's a daily thing still here."
The RCMP took the weapons and stored them as officers searched homes in the town's flood zone to look for stranded people, pets and anything that might pose a threat to safety.
The move was criticized by the Prime Minister's Office and in July the head of the RCMP asked the Public Complaints Commission to look into the matter, saying he and a lot of Canadians had questions about the force's actions. A report is expected soon.
That hasn't stopped the issue from burning bright in the leadup to the Conservatives picking their candidate.
"That resonates from south of Okotoks all the way down. People care about property rights and from my perspective we need to come out with the truth — whatever the truth is," said candidate Phil Rowland, a 52-year-old rancher who has been involved in a number of agriculture organizations, including the Western Stock Growers Association.
"My parents live in High River. It's a major issue for my dad and my mom. It's a major issue for all of their neighbours. I've talked to every one of them. None of them think that they know the truth yet. They need the truth to move on mentally."
Candidate Scott Wagner said he will push for a public inquiry regardless of what the commission comes back with.
"There is a percentage of those people who are scared to voice their opinion because they don't trust the authorities any more. I think that's an underlying issue with the gun seizure that isn't being talked about," the 51-year-old businessman said. "I hear some people are OK with this, but the overwhelming majority are going, 'This is uncool.'"
Mathieson, who spent two years working for Menzies in Ottawa, triggered controversy when she and Calgary MP Rob Anders posed for a photo back-to-back brandishing weapons at a gun range. One of the targets in the background featured a cartoon image of Osama bin Laden with a machine gun.
The National Firearms Association has waded into the race and endorsed Wagner, Mathieson and Rowland. The gun group didn't back candidate John Barlow, a newspaper editor from Okotoks, who as a provincial Tory came within 2,000 votes of beating Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith in Alberta's last election.
Barlow, 42, said the gun issue is being driven by the other candidates. He said he wants to see all efforts put into rebuilding High River, not dwelling on one thing that happened in the past.
"This is just picking at a scab that is only starting to heal. We want to put 2013 in the rear-view mirror."
Barlow said he is content to wait for the independent report from the RCMP and, if it is warranted, he could support an inquiry.
"It's been eight months. The justice minister and Prime Minister Harper have had every opportunity to call for an inquiry if they want one — and they haven't done that."
David Taras, a political scientist at Calgary-based Mount Royal University, said there is a lot at stake for the four nominees. The only thing that could prevent the Conservatives from winning the riding would be the "bubonic plague," he suggested.
"It's not a surprise that this has become the hot issue. One of the other realities is given a nomination fight in that part of the country there's not that much they would disagree on," Taras said.
"When there's live ammunition on the table, pardon the pun, in a fight like this when you have an advantage, when you can line up supporters, when it's emotional, you're going to seize on that issue."
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