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MLA Manmeet Bhullar (left) speaks with Onkar Janjua owner of the Fruiticana grocery store in an Indian neighbourhood of Edmonton October 7, 2011. Manmeet Bhullar is Sikh and Alberta's youngest MLA. (Jason Franson for The Globe and Mail/Jason Franson for The Globe and Mail)
MLA Manmeet Bhullar (left) speaks with Onkar Janjua owner of the Fruiticana grocery store in an Indian neighbourhood of Edmonton October 7, 2011. Manmeet Bhullar is Sikh and Alberta's youngest MLA. (Jason Franson for The Globe and Mail/Jason Franson for The Globe and Mail)

Alberta's long battle for equality paved the way for Redford's win Add to ...

While being sworn in as Alberta’s premier, Alison Redford paused, briefly overcome, and praised her mother and grandmother for sparking her political career. In some ways, however, the groundwork for her ascent was laid long before that.

It was in 1917 that Louise McKinney and Roberta MacAdams pulled off an unprecedented feat – winning seats in Alberta’s election and becoming the first female legislators in the British empire. That same year, Calgary’s Annie Gale became the empire’s first female city alderman. Twelve years later, it was Alberta’s “Famous Five” who earned women the right to sit in Canada’s Senate.

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Sworn in Friday as Alberta’s first female premier, Ms. Redford’s ascent is the culmination of battles fought decades before her birth. Among those in the packed audience was another female Alberta politician, Melissa Blake, who broke down in tears.

“There are just moments you’re never going to see again, and this is it,” said Ms. Blake, the mayor of the municipality that includes Fort McMurray and the oil sands. “This is probably one of the most significant moments of pride for women who’ve pursued politics as a way of giving back to their community.”

Alberta is often viewed as unwaveringly conservative, leading some to dismiss the victory of Ms. Redford, a centrist red Tory, as a fluke. It wasn’t. She won the leadership of the Progressive Conservative party by putting a fresh face on old-school campaign promises of spending sprees. In doing so, she drew new members into the party at a time when Alberta has become, in a sense, as Redford as it is redneck – it’s heavily urban (82 per cent, just above the national average), young and ethnically diverse.

It has also produced a number of Canadian groundbreakers: the first Chinese-Canadian MLA, first Muslim MP and first female big-city police chief, to name a few.

“I think some people may be surprised at the speed at which our politics is catching up with our society,” said Manmeet Bhullar, 31, the province’s youngest MLA. “But they shouldn’t be surprised by that.”

The recent boom accelerated Alberta’s change. It drew 300,000 new residents between the 2001 and 2006 censuses, 39 per cent of whom identified as a visible minority. Today, roughly one in seven Albertans, one in six of its MLAs and one in five Calgarians is a visible minority.

Women, however, still hold just 17 of the 83 legislature seats.

Ms. Redford pushed a platform of education and health care, even as Alberta’s per-capita funding for both already leads the nation. They are issues aimed explicitly at Alberta’s women, young families and new residents. In other words, she won by envisioning a campaign for her evolving province.

“By targeting education, this is immigrants’ key to upward mobility – through education,” said Harry Hiller, a University of Calgary sociologist and author of Second Promised Land: Migration to Alberta and the Transformation of Canadian Society. “I would say people outside of Alberta are struggling to understand what this ascendant province is all about. They still like to work with stereotypes.”

The Calgary-born Mr. Bhullar, who is Sikh, believes the province’s boom has drawn like-minded people from around the world, and many have joined the political ranks. “Alberta gives anyone the opportunity to step forward and achieve something and not be judged on where they’re from, how long they’ve been here and whether it’s old money and new money. Alberta’s establishment is ever-changing,” he said.

It’s still an uphill battle to get women into politics, Ms. Blake says. Women also face the occasional bizarre scandal, such as one this week when B.C. Premier Christy Clark was criticized for showing too much cleavage.

Politics in Alberta, though, is changing as the province is. An election looms next year at a time when the three leading political parties are led by either a woman or a man who is a visible minority. But it was Ms. Redford who broke the gender barrier others had chipped away at for decades.

“When this journey first began, I couldn’t imagine – truly, couldn’t imagine – what it would be like to be standing before you,” Ms. Redford said during her swearing-in, praising the strength of her daughter, mother and grandmother.

“People have said that this leadership campaign marked a sea change for Alberta. I don’t agree. I think what happened here is that Alberta politics caught up with where Albertans already are.”

The long march that led to Redford's win

It was only geography that gave Louise McKinney the edge over Roberta MacAdams.

Both women were elected to the Alberta legislature in 1917, but Ms. MacAdams was overseas working as a nurse at the time. As such, it was Ms. McKinney who was sworn in first and earned the accolade of being the British empire's first female legislator.

She was later among the Famous Five, Alberta women who won a legal battle to be recognized as “persons” and sit in the Senate.

“As I said for one person: ‘I'm sure the Famous Five are dancing for joy.' They really opened the doors for women to run for office,” Frances Wright, founder of Calgary's Famous 5 Foundation, said of Ms. Redford's win, which she saw as a watershed moment for women in Alberta politics.

Ms. Redford joins Danielle Smith as female leaders of provincial parties. A third, the upstart Alberta Party, recently had a female interim leader, Sue Huff, to whom Ms. Smith wrote a Twitter message to Friday.

“Bet you're wishing you were still [Alberta Party]leader," she said. “That would have made the debates even more interesting.”

 

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