Alberta's premier-designate warned Ottawa yesterday that his wealthy, energy-rich province wants to be treated equally with all provinces, including Quebec.
"I'm going to fight for the same rights and privileges being assigned to this 'nation within a nation,' Ed Stelmach said, referring to the federal government's recent declaration that "the Québécois" are a nation within Canada.
During his first news conference after winning the Progressive Conservative leadership, the soft-spoken 55-year-old veteran with a reputation as a political "nice guy" choked back tears when he thanked his campaign volunteers. But he was firm and unusually animated while stressing he will vigilantly protect Alberta's interests and ballooning treasury after he's officially sworn in Dec. 15.
Mr. Stelmach, who emerged as the surprise winner Sunday morning in the race to replace retiring Ralph Klein, said he's confident Alberta and Ottawa can still work together to "build an even stronger Canada."
Mr. Stelmach spoke briefly to Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Sunday, but he said he plans to address the nation issue again "once we get a better definition" about what it entails. The former intergovernmental affairs minister, known to supporters as "Steady Eddie," also views the so-called fiscal imbalance issue and future of the national equalization program as another pressing provincial-federal issue.
During Mr. Klein's 14-year tenure, Alberta had high-profile fights with Ottawa over a number of issues, most recently private health care.
"We are going to take Alberta the next step," he said, promising to announce his cabinet in the coming days. "We want to place Alberta on an even larger world stage, and that means a lot of work to be done."
Alberta's unprecedented prosperity has brought major challenges in recent months, including acute housing and labour shortages. Mr. Stelmach wants to address these problems quickly.
Unlike his predecessor, who told reporters last August that the government didn't have a plan to deal with the boom, the former infrastructure minister wants to tackle it with a set of different timelines and plans that will be firmed up after his cabinet is announced.
However, Mr. Stelmach, who has promised to review the province's oil-and-gas royalty regime, said his government will not interfere with the growth brought on by the massive investment in the province's oil sands.
"There is no such thing as touching the brake . . . the economy and growth, that will sort itself out. We just want to make sure that we are globally competitive."
Mr. Stelmach said he will make clear that the kind of environmentalism articulated by new Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion must be addressed carefully. "Any damage to Alberta's economy is going to severely hurt Ottawa," he said.
Alberta NDP Leader Brian Mason emerged from yesterday's news conference praising Mr. Stelmach's promise to listen to all Albertans. Both the provincial New Democrats and Liberals had a rancorous relationship with Mr. Klein, a shoot-from-the-hip populist who often dismissed them and their ideas.
"He's not a guy that I'm going to underestimate," Mr. Mason said.
University of Alberta economist Paul Boothe said the province's finances and economic growth need to be addressed quickly. Pell-mell development across the province and in the vast oil sands must be slowed down or even halted in some circumstances, he said.
"We have a dangerously heated economy right now. If we don't try and manage the boom, basically the whole thing will come to a collapse," Prof. Boothe warned.
Mr. Boothe, who advised the Klein government in recent years, said his warnings about overspending, especially on expensive capital projects that have driven up prices around the province, were ignored.