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Alberta Conservative Leader Alison Redford: ‘There are political parties out there who are talking about change who are made up of a lot of people who used to be members of this party 20 years ago. That doesn’t sound like change to me.’ (Chris Bolin For The Globe and Mail)
Alberta Conservative Leader Alison Redford: ‘There are political parties out there who are talking about change who are made up of a lot of people who used to be members of this party 20 years ago. That doesn’t sound like change to me.’ (Chris Bolin For The Globe and Mail)

Alison Redford: A leader on the brink Add to ...

Beyond borders

When The Globe and Mail went to see Ms. Redford on her home turf, she'd recently weathered a public spat with the genial Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty over Alberta's “petro” dollars harming the Ontario economy. In the legislature, the opposition was trying to score pre-election headlines about her big-spending “NDP” budget, a shelved health-care inquiry, an education bill that riled religious homeschoolers and, most ominously, a sloppy MLA bonus-payment scheme that had mushroomed in the damp darkness of a party that had been in government for almost as long as she had been alive.

Time was running out if she was going to ask the Lieutenant-Governor to dissolve the legislature so that she could call an election before farmers had to put in their crops. Within a few short days, she'd pleasured in feinting and parrying in Question Period; delivered speeches to oil-industry mavens and farmers and ranchers in rural communities in which she'd assured them she held their interests separately and collectively close to her heart; and talked with a bunch of kids in a school library about bullying as casually as though she were drinking a cup of tea at her own kitchen table. She seemed to be heeding Mr. Lougheed's election advice: “She needs to get out with the people.”

On this particular morning, though, she is late for an interview, stuck in her office, dealing with an internal crisis, as MLAs rush in and out. “They have to decide something,” one of her press secretaries confides: Ms. Redford is trying to persuade her caucus to return their bonuses for being on committees that never met – a policy that pre-dated her (although she benefited from it) but was hurting the PCs badly in the polls.

Finally, she appears, sweeping quickly and quietly into the room. A fresh-faced woman with short auburn hair hooked behind her ears, Ms. Redford has a forthright manner and a ready laugh. She is not a stylish dresser, typically appearing in open-necked shirts under lawyerly, dark-trousered suits and flat shoes.

Her most notable accessories are pearls and a series of bracelets that she wears on her left wrist. The pearls – a long strand and a shorter necklace – came from her late mother and grandmother, so they are more talismans than fashion statements. Two of the bracelets were gifts from the other significant female in her life – her nine-year-old daughter Sarah; the third one she bought herself as a birthday gift, a month before Sarah was born in April, 2002. They symbolize a melding of past and future, not unlike Ms. Redford's own political career.

Though she acts the part of the new broom with international experience, Ms. Redford also has deep Alberta roots, planted when her maternal grandparents Scotty and Robina Anderson emigrated from Scotland after the Second World War and settled in Edmonton in 1948. Her grandfather contracted pneumonia that first winter, in the days before Medicare and easily dispensed antibiotics – a point she likes to make on the campaign trail as she announces new family-care clinics. But Mr. Anderson survived to move with his wife to Redwater, a town 50 kilometres northeast of Edmonton, where they opened the corner store and became stalwart members of the United Church.

Their daughter Helen married Merrill Redford, from Turner Valley, the site of the original oil-and-gas boom in Alberta. In the early 1960s, the couple moved to Kitimat in northwestern B.C. so he could finish his apprenticeship as an electrician at an Alcan plant, and that's where Alison Merrilla Redford was born on March 7, 1965.

After a couple of years they moved back to Alberta temporarily, and then the family – which by then included two younger daughters, Melody and Lynn – began travelling, as Mr. Redford found work as an electrician on oil rigs as far afield as Nova Scotia and the island of Borneo in southeast Asia. These journeys gave Ms. Redford an early and lasting education about poverty, and the fact that “that there was a big wide world out there and we were part of it.”

She learned these lessons “toddling along” behind her mother in the crowded streets of Miri, the centre of Malaysia's oil industry, while complete strangers stroked her ginger hair: “We were a privileged minority, but we were different, and being different helped me understand that there are a lot of people who feel different,” she says, sitting at a polished oval table in a boardroom in her Legislature office suite – another potential hurdle on the campaign trail. (Last week, Ms. Smith attacked a scheduled $275-million renovation of the century-old building, calling it “the Taj Mahal of provincial waste.”)

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