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New Alberta Premier Alison Redford and her daughter Sarah arrive at a press conference held in Edmonton Oct. 2, 2011. (Jason Franson for The Globe and Mail/Jason Franson for The Globe and Mail)
New Alberta Premier Alison Redford and her daughter Sarah arrive at a press conference held in Edmonton Oct. 2, 2011. (Jason Franson for The Globe and Mail/Jason Franson for The Globe and Mail)

Alberta's premier-designate signals a province in transition Add to ...

Booming Alberta is a changing Alberta – younger, more urban and less homogeneous. And its politics has caught up.

Early Sunday morning, 46-year-old human rights lawyer Alison Redford stunned the establishment of the long-ruling Progressive Conservative party by scoring a narrow upset victory to become its leader. She’s about to be the first woman to hold the post of Alberta premier and one of four female premiers in office in Canada.

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“It’s the miracle on the Prairies,” PC president Bill Smith said as results rolled in. “Nobody would have picked her.”

With her win, the province’s three major political parties enter a new era – the next election, expected in one year, will be the first under each of the Generation-X leaders of the Liberals, PCs and libertarian Wildrose party.

They include premier-designate Redford, Wildrose’s Danielle Smith and the Liberals’ Raj Sherman, an India-born, Canada-raised physician and former Tory. Ms. Redford’s underdog campaign was led by Stephen Carter, who also ran Naheed Nenshi’s long-shot bid to become Calgary’s mayor.

“Alberta is a pretty amazing province politically right now,” Ms. Redford said. “That’s a good thing.”

Each candidates’ case is unique. Mr. Nenshi won a race with high turnout, while Ms. Redford won a squeaker amid low turnout, but both won by projecting a centrist vision for Alberta and engaging voters with grassroots campaigns. Ms. Redford, for instance, focused on education at a time when Alberta’s baby boom has made it the only province with growing public school enrolment.

“When you’ve got candidates that want to talk about issues, and can do it in a way that resonates with people, that’s the similarity [between Ms. Redford and Mr. Nenshi] Because they’re very different people,” Mr. Carter said. “I don’t think this is about gender. And I don’t think Nenshi was about colour. We had smart candidates who wanted to talk about smart issues with their constituents. Period.”

The voters, too, aren’t homogeneous. Over the eight-month race to succeed former premier Ed Stelmach, each PC leadership candidate (including the presumed front-runner, Gary Mar, who would have been Canada’s first premier of Chinese descent) wooed ethnic voting blocks. Ms. Redford’s campaign, in turn, believes it won by targeting the votes of women with its education and health care message.

“I actually think the province changed some time ago,” Ms. Redford said. “And politics is catching up with it.”

With Ms. Redford, the PCs will be a firmly centrist party. She’s a Joe Clark red Tory who holds a thinly veiled distaste for much of Stephen Harper’s federal Conservative party, particularly on social issues. The head of her transition team, Robert Hawkes, is a Calgary lawyer whose family has long been a thorn in the side of Mr. Harper’s party. Nonetheless, Ms. Redford played down any rift and pledged to work with her federal counterparts; Mr. Harper, in turn, congratulated her Sunday afternoon.

“So much of what Alberta is doing right now is important not just for Alberta, but for Canada,” Ms. Redford said.

Mr. Nenshi said the choice of a female premier is not really a surprise, citing the Famous Five, Albertan women who won the right for women to sit in the senate.

“This is not a change in any way. Remember that Alberta has always been at the forefront of political innovation. I walk by a statue every day for five women who changed women’s rights forever,” Mr. Nenshi said, before invoking a favourite phrase of his that has become something of a slogan: “In Calgary, no one cares who your daddy was or what your last name is. They care what you bring to the table.”

A Calgarian herself, Ms. Redford has been active in politics since she was a teenager, but only won her seat in 2008. She’s bilingual and has held a series of international appointments, including a role in overseeing Afghanistan’s first election. She’s married with one daughter, nine-year-old Sarah, and served previously as justice minister.

She ran against her party’s record; in turn, few colleagues supported her. Like B.C. Premier Christy Clark, she had the backing of just one MLA. Ms. Clark was among the first counterparts to congratulate Ms. Redford Sunday.

Ms. Redford won four days after the sudden death of her mother, after which she briefly stopped campaigning. Meanwhile, the narrow outcome – she won with just 51.1 per cent of the final vote – was announced after six hours of counting fewer than 80,000 ballots.

Many conservatives in the province dismiss Ms. Redford as a closet liberal, and predict her win will be a boon to Wildrose. However, both Mr. Nenshi and PC cabinet members shrugged off the notion, saying Alberta isn’t as dogmatically conservative as some presume.

“What it really says is Albertans will not define themselves against that old, tired left-right spectrum. They are pragmatic and interested in good, competent government that improves their quality of life,” Mr. Nenshi said. “And that’s that.”

With a report from Dawn Walton

Follow on Twitter: @josh_wingrove

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