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Alberta Premier Alison Redford addresses The Economic Club of Canada at Toronto's Royal York Hotel on Nov. 16, 2011. (Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail/Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail)
Alberta Premier Alison Redford addresses The Economic Club of Canada at Toronto's Royal York Hotel on Nov. 16, 2011. (Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail/Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail)

Alberta Premier on path to push province toward its potential Add to ...

Alison Redford, who made her debut appearance in both the national and international spotlight this past week, has struck a new chord, one that suggests she will turn into reality the long-known potential of Alberta, by virtue of its wealth and population, to play a make-or-break role in national issues.

The bilingual Albertan, a long-time friend of Quebec Premier Jean Charest, hopes her province will emerge as a leader in relations between the provinces as well as with Ottawa. She hopes to lead the charge on a Canadian energy strategy and play a prominent role in negotiations over health transfers by reaching out to provinces like Ontario, in addition to old allies in Saskatchewan and British Columbia.

Ms. Redford this week crisscrossed the continent, visiting Washington, New York, Toronto, Ottawa and home to Alberta with a message: Alberta must stop turning a deaf ear to critics of Alberta’s oil sands and petroleum extraction but include them in decisions.

She said the province “can’t shy away from criticism and disagreement” because “too often we speak past each other and refuse to engage with those that see things differently.”

With praise for the Ontario government’s support of wind and solar energy, Ms. Redford introduced the potential for interprovincial co-operation on matters from health care to energy. She invited Ontario, in economic disrepair because of the retreat of its manufacturing base, to adopt a new destiny and become a global energy leader along with Alberta.

She went further, saying no single source of energy across Canada – from Alberta to Quebec’s hydro power – is better than any other.

“It’s not Alberta’s job to go to the table, pounding the fist and saying, ‘We demand anything because we’re Alberta,” Ms. Redford said in an interview. “What I will say is Alberta wants to be much more present than we have in the past.”

She is not without problems – the province has a soaring budget deficit, and Ms. Redford has been accused of breaking promises made during her successful leadership campaign in the early fall, raising questions about whether she can deliver on her ambitious national agenda. And at home in Alberta, Ms. Redford will face an election within six months.

But on the bigger stage, she has been thrust into the debate over the proposed $7-billion Keystone pipeline, delayed this month by U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration but given new life after the oil company agreed to pursue an alternate route.

As she visited Washington, satirist Stephen Colbert took the moment to lampoon Alberta’s international image. “They’re getting the oil out of the oil sands, okay,” Mr. Colbert told viewers. “On the upside, doesn’t that leave us nice, clean sand when we’re done, which Alberta will need for its beaches when it is waterfront property in 50 years?”

So who is this politician whose province is so suddenly in the spotlight, and can she navigate the pressures longer-term? Her style is consensus-building, with a firm eye on Alberta’s place in the wider Canadian debate. In political terms, she is compared more to former Alberta PC leaders such as Peter Lougheed and Don Getty, than say Ralph Klein.

Married with one child, she’s a lawyer who spent much of her time overseas, including a stint helping administer Afghanistan’s first election. She has deep ties to the former federal PC party, having worked with both Joe Clark (who, during her leadership campaign, feared his own endorsement would hurt her in Alberta) and Jim Prentice, the former federal environment minister.

For Mr. Getty, Ms. Redford’s approach is long overdue.

“She should be doing everything she can to get to know all the players,” he said this week. “I think any understanding of those various items will be helpful to people in Eastern Canada and other parts of the United States as well. So, I think there’s a need to do it. I’m supportive of that.”

Ms. Redford has known the Prime Minister for more than two decades but she is further apart from Stephen Harper on the spectrum of those who call themselves conservatives.

In the 2006 election, for instance, she backed former Liberal prime minister Paul Martin’s daycare funding plan that would have cost $5-billion over five years, an initiative that Mr. Harper cancelled when he took office.

While Mr. Harper’s government is advancing a costly tough-on-crime agenda, Ms. Redford made her name as a justice minister with a “safe communities” initiative that took a broader approach to dealing with crime, addressing its root causes.

She said she wishes federal efforts to crack down on criminals had been similar to her vision, but, for this week at least, she diplomatically limits her comments. “I would like to have seen a little more attention to the preventative side, and I’ll leave it at that.”

The divergence in views between a majority government Prime Minister whose political base is centred in Calgary and a Premier who’s currently at 44 per cent in the polls raises the question: Who really speaks for Alberta?

Ms. Redford plays down the tension.

“I think the Prime Minister and I understand very well his job is not to speak for Alberta,” she said, later adding: “What I will say is the federal government is receptive to what Alberta’s priorities are.”

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