Barring another “miracle on the Prairies,” Albertans are going to elect a woman to be their next premier.
Of course, the province got its first female premier last October, when the brainy Alison Redford defied all expectations by winning the leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party. But that’s not the same as being elected by the masses, which involves a calculus of a different sort.
Ms. Redford’s ascension caught many off-guard, especially those outside the province. Alberta was supposed to be the Texas of Canada, a rural hinterland populated by rednecks in Stetsons whose idea of fun was performing doughnuts in their pick-up trucks.
Or so the myth went. An earlier clue that the persistent stereotype was out of date came in October of 2010 when Naheed Nenshi, a Harvard-educated business professor, harnessed the powers of social media to get elected mayor of Calgary – the province’s conservative bastion.
After Ms. Redford was chosen to lead the provincial Tories, Mr. Nenshi told the CBC: “We have – if you really like tokenism – a female premier, an Indo-Canadian leader of the opposition, a woman leading the third party. The mayor of the second-largest city is Jewish and the mayor of the largest city is Muslim. You know what? That’s Alberta.”
Ms. Redford said of her victory: “What happened … is our politics caught up with who we are.”
Fact is, Alberta has experienced massive demographic shifts over the past 30 years, but many Canadians haven’t noticed. The rest of the country sees a province that has been ruled by the same Conservative Party for the past four decades, that continues to highlight a stampede as its cultural centrepiece, and assumes that nothing has changed.
But it has. And how could it not, given the number of immigrants who have poured into the province in recent years? Between 1996 and 2006, Alberta’s population of visible minorities increased three times faster than the overall population, according to the 2011 census. Their share of the overall population increased to 14 per cent from 10 per cent.
Taken as a whole, the province couldn’t be further from a rural hinterland if it tried. Two-thirds of its population is clustered around two cities, Calgary and Edmonton.
Most of the country looks at the name of Alberta’s governing party and sees only the word Conservative. The word Progressive is often speciously disregarded. But, at times, the Tories have spent money – even wasted it – in a fashion that defies any definition of conservatism. Many of the party’s policies could have been introduced just as easily by, say, British Columbia’s Liberals.
Yes, Alberta has been led by some who nourished the redneck label. Ralph Klein could be raw and insensitive. And he certainly didn’t care if reporters saw him with a glass of Scotch in his hand during working hours. But he was eventually succeeded by the more benign and liberally inclined Ed Stelmach, who was followed by the even more progressive-minded Ms. Redford. (Alison the Red, the nickname adopted by some of her critics, is not a play on her name or hair colour.)
Tony Coulson, vice-president of Environics Research, says the company’s research in the province over the past decade indicates a substantial shift in attitudes, one that is much more global in nature. He says that, when you look at public opinion, Albertans aren’t that distinct on most issues from other Canadians. It’s Quebec that is consistently the outlier.
In a recent cross-country survey, the company asked whether taxes are good, because they pay for services such as roads and hospitals, or bad, because they take money out of people’s pockets. Overall, 70 per cent of Canadians say taxes are a good thing. In Alberta, it was 80 per cent.
Ms. Redford and the Progressive Conservatives are in the fight of their lives in the provincial election campaign now under way. Some polls give the right-wing Wildrose Party the edge, under the charismatic leadership of Danielle Smith. A Wildrose victory would end the Tories’ four-decade reign.
And likely propagate old stereotypes in the process.