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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/The Globe and Mail

A few days after she won the leadership of the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party last October, Alison Redford had an appointment to call Prime Minister Stephen Harper. "Well, Alison," he drawled – and here, in her retelling, she lowers her voice and flashes a mischievous smile – "when we were sitting in Jim Hawkes's basement, who ever thought we would be having this conversation?"

Who, indeed? Back in the mid-1980s, Mr. Harper was a parliamentary aide to Calgary-West MP Jim Hawkes; Ms. Redford, already a veteran politico, was engaged to his boss's son, Robert Hawkes. "I don't know if he would want me to repeat this conversation, but it is kind of fun," she allows in an interview in her suite of offices two weeks ago at the Alberta Legislature, a massive Beaux Arts edifice that dominates the landscape of central Edmonton.

Connections are one thing. What you do with them is what matters in the political arena. She and Mr. Harper have both made an effort, she says, to reconnect and to build on "their natural rapport" to get "constructive things" done for the province. Despite their differing brands of conservative ideology, Ms. Redford says, "both of us know that it is very important for Alberta and Ottawa to have a strong relationship."

While the two are collegial now, Ms. Redford can't recall if Mr. Harper attended her first wedding in August, 1985. And she shows no signs of following the tortuous path he took to 24 Sussex. Such was the drama surrounding conservative politics in those days that Mr. Harper chose twice to run for office against his old mentor Mr. Hawkes, losing once and then finally heading to Parliament as a Reform MP in 1993. Originally a Liberal supporter, Mr. Harper flirted with several political persuasions before the 2003 merger of right-wing parties in the new Conservative Party.

No one has ever needed a dance card to keep track of Ms. Redford's political affiliations. Although she says she supported the merger, she has been an unwavering "progressive" Conservative – a Red Tory, by many definitions – since she was 16 and Peter Lougheed was premier of Alberta.

"He was a larger-than-life figure," she says – he represented the same values and attitudes that she had absorbed around the dinner table from her grandfather. When she decided to get involved in politics, she phoned the PC party "because that was the party that Mr. Lougheed led."

Outside Alberta, people tend to think that Ms. Redford came out of nowhere to win the leadership of the Alberta PCs, but she has been mentored for decades (she is now 47) by icons of the provincial and federal parties, including Mr. Lougheed, Joe Clark and Jean Charest – yes, that Jean Charest who once was a Tory and has been the Liberal Premier of Quebec since 2003.

Today, they engage in the kinds of conversations between Alberta and Quebec that haven't occurred since Mr. Lougheed retired from politics. "We are filled with joy to see how this young woman has progressed to become Premier of Alberta," Mr.Charest said before delivering a speech on March 5 in Toronto. "We did a small press conference afterwards and she spoke in French. The media's jaws dropped," he said, "and the first tweet I had afterwards was: 'Can she coach the Habs?' " Pausing dramatically, Mr. Charest answered his own rhetorical question: "No. She is busy."

That she is. Not only is she using her Rolodex to build a national conversation with other premiers, she is running hard to become the first woman elected premier of the resource-rich province. That may be the toughest item on her agenda: A little more than a year ago, she was a rookie MLA and Minister of Justice when she decided to contest the leadership of the Alberta party after Premier Ed Stelmach announced he was stepping down. Not one cabinet minister supported her leadership bid, which shows how at odds she was with the old PC party Mr. Stelmach had inherited from former Calgary Mayor Ralph Klein.

"Mr. Klein came along and he reverted the party backward to what I call the old Social Credit days, when Alberta was the whole focus and it wasn't a cross-Canada focus," said Mr. Lougheed in an interview. Today, Premier Redford's progressive outlook is turning that tide back again, he said, "and I think that is exceptionally important."

Anybody in Alberta can pay $5 to join the party and vote directly for the leader. That allowed Ms. Redford to gather support from outside a crony-dominated caucus, campaigning on education and health-care reforms that appealed to women voters. "She was not the front runner and yet she moved into being the front runner," Mr. Lougheed said, "because she went into all those constituencies where we didn't have strong organizations and won supporters, and hence won the leadership."

And then there was the sympathy vote. Late in the campaign, her mother developed a sudden systemic infection; she died in hospital on Sept. 27, with Ms. Redford at her bedside. Ms. Redford won respect and voters the following evening in the leadership debate, appearing composed, articulate and smart, despite her grief, compared to leading rival Gary Mar, an overly confident PC old boy.

The new guard

If women helped Ms. Redford win the leadership, it may well be a woman who will deny her victory in the provincial election when Albertans go to the polls on April 23.

Danielle Smith, the leader of the upstart Wildrose Party, is running hard in a well-financed campaign, fielding candidates in every riding. Although the two women attended the same high school in Calgary, they don't really know each other: Ms. Smith, 41, came of age during the rise of the Reform Party, and belongs to a political persuasion much further to the right.

In the opening days, the Wildrose and PCs had been running neck and neck; Ms. Smith's party is now surging in the polls. Their visions for Alberta are radically different. "I come from a hands-off, laissez-faire approach and she very much comes from a hands-on, activist approach," Ms. Smith said in a telephone interview. "Are we going to go down the path of more and more government interference, more and more government spending, more and more government taxes? Or are we going to go down the path – which I think Albertans are more in line with – where we believe that individuals and families and communities should be free to govern themselves in their own way, without too much interference from the provincial legislature?"

For Ms. Redford, though, "change" is more about attitude. "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." For her, this is an opportunity for a change of the guard. A younger generation – people with young kids and aging parents – can come to the cabinet table with fresh ideas and new approaches about what government needs to do: to "think differently," says Ms. Redford, "about what research and post-secondary education looks like, what renewables look like, what we need to do to create a different energy economy. That is change."

In her grand vision, the development of Alberta's oil sands and pipelines (for access to Asian as well as American markets) is as crucial to the economic future of both the province and the country as the construction of Canadian Pacific Railway or the St. Lawrence Seaway was in their eras.

"We have a resource in this province that belongs to Albertans, but it is also of tremendous economic benefit for Canadians,' Ms. Redford says. Part of her Canadian Energy Strategy, she readily admits, is to make decisions on the federal and provincial levels that will help market landlocked Alberta's resources. But what she wants to discuss with other provinces "is not just our resources, but how do we partner on other economic opportunities" by sharing research and manufacturing and refining opportunities.

Set aside rhetoric, campaign promises, and photo ops – the stuff of partisan politics – and the real struggle between the contenders in this election is between an insular, protectionist view of Little Alberta and the image of the province as the pulse of a dynamic country in a surging global energy economy.

If Ms. Redford can persuade Albertans to come along with her, she might change the province and perhaps the country. Is she the nationally focused, truly progressive Conservative who can bring a new political conversation to Ottawa?

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.")

By the time Ms. Redford's family returned to Alberta, she was 12, and the odd one out in her own country. She and her sisters were used to wearing uniforms to school and having servants. "I can remember my mother fighting with me for months to make my bed because I had never made my bed," she says.

And then there was the culture shock: "These were the days of Welcome Back, Kotter [the schoolyard sitcom that made a star of John Travolta] and kids being 'cool' at 10 or 12," a concept totally foreign to her – she'd never even watched TV.

The youthful activist

Meanwhile Alberta was undergoing a cultural upheaval of its own, as Peter Lougheed swept the Alberta Progressive Conservatives into power and the Social Credit Party out after three decades. Mr. Lougheed brought with him a modern, progressive agenda, determined to make the most of Alberta's resources. Ms. Redford became the president of the party's youth executive and was excited to sit in meetings with the new premier: "I learned a lot from him including how to behave as a leader." On the federal front she devoted her energies to Joe Clark, another Alberta Red Tory.

By then she had graduated from high school and begun a patchwork progress through university, spending a year each at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Mount Royal in Calgary and Queen's in Kingston. But politics was her real education. It also played the matchmaker in her romance with her first husband, Robert Hawkes. They met in 1985, working for Ron Ghitter, who ran against Don Getty for the leadership of the provincial party after Mr. Lougheed retired.

"She was super-smart and very engaged and very likeable," recalls Mr. Hawkes, now a lawyer in Calgary. They married in August, 1986, while she was a law student at the University of Saskatchewan.

After finishing her degree in 1988, she was set to article with Jim Prentice (who would become Minister of Industry and later the Environment in Mr. Harper's cabinet before quitting politics in 2010), but the Free Trade campaign had a stronger pull than a Calgary law office: She headed east to Ottawa to work for Brian Mulroney and then stayed on after the election.

Eventually an opening came up in Mr. Clark's office – he was Minister of External Affairs, and taking a leading role in mounting Commonwealth sanctions against the apartheid regime in South Africa. "Even then," Mr. Clark remembers in a telephone interview, "she had a great intuitive understanding of politics, of how people related and what the issues were."

Once a year, Mr. Prentice would call from Calgary and ask if she was coming back, and she would always beg for an extension. "Finally," she recalls, "he said 'No, it is time you come back.'" So she returned to Calgary (after meeting and travelling with Nelson Mandela after his release from prison in February, 1990) and did her articling at Rooney Prentice. Mr. Prentice was unavailable for an interview but it is clear from some of his recent speeches that he shares Ms. Redford's pan-Canadian view of resource sharing and infrastructure building.

She split up with Mr. Hawkes in the spring of 1991, and both have since remarried – her second husband is Glen Jermyn, the father of her red-haired daughter Sarah, and a senior lawyer in Aboriginal Law Services for the federal Department of Justice in Calgary. But she and her first husband remain friends – although she says they still argue ("Now, that's why I divorced you," she will parry), she did ask Mr. Hawkes to lead her transition team after she became Premier.

After completing her articles, Ms. Redford formed a small law firm with another lawyer with whom she had articled and then went out on her own, before deciding to become a consultant with Agriteam Canada, a Calgary-based NGO that works internationally on development issues such as legal and judicial reform. One of her first assignments was in South Africa, working with Mr. Mandela and the African National Congress in their discussions with the beleaguered former apartheid regime.

"The negotiations were amazing," she says. "They would often turn to Canada in a critical way and say, 'This is what you did – explain it to me: Why did you do that, how does it work, what are the problems?'" She found herself examining how our legal and political systems work, an experience she repeated in other assignments in developing countries over the next several years. "You learn a lot about your own country," she says.

After returning home, she was determined to test her ideas, but the forum she chose – the federal riding of Calgary West – showed her inexperience in partisan politics. She put idealism ahead of pragmatism by running against Rob Anders, because, as she said later, he "did not speak to the province that I wanted to live in." (Their divergent views dated back at least to 2001, when Mr. Anders was the sole dissenting vote in making Mr. Mandela an honorary citizen of Canada, on the grounds that the president of South Africa was a terrorist and a Communist.)

For her next political foray she went for a winnable provincial riding: Ralph Klein's former seat in Calgary Elbow. Premier Ed Stelmach immediately appointed the rookie MLA Justice Minister, and then Attorney General. That might seem like challenge enough, but Ms. Redford was still impatient to make real change in the party and the government.

"A lot of people said it must be really difficult to be premier," she says. On the contrary, she feels "an awful lot more comfortable being part of government now as the premier than I did as a cabinet minister trying to make change from a position around the cabinet table."

Dog bites politician

For all Ms. Redford's sense of mission, however, election campaigns are often predominantly about dealing with the issues that come out of nowhere, like a feral dog sneaking out of the shadows to bite you on the leg – the MLA-bonus imbroglio being a prime example. How does she find a way to cope?

She says she still abides by the lessons she learned as a teenager, watching Mr. Lougheed in action: "You have to set the plan, do the groundwork, set the foundation and know what direction you want to take, so that the work of government on the policy side can continue, no matter what comes at you. That doesn't mean you are never going to change course. If there is a cataclysmic event, of course, you have to deal with that."

And that is precisely what she did early this week by publicly changing course about the phantom committees: She had compromised in the emergency caucus meeting before the writ was dropped, agreeing that MLAs should only give back the money they'd received since she became premier. Now, however, she was demanding – not asking – that they refund the money as far back as the 2008 election, if they wanted to sit in her caucus.

"When you are in a political campaign," she says before climbing back on her campaign bus, "some of these issues become focused very quickly and that is a good thing. I am not beyond admitting when I have made a mistake."

Her mistake was not sticking to her values in the first place. She'd known the payment system was wrong – she'd said so in her leadership campaign and then set up an inquiry to figure out how to fix it.

"I didn't change my mind. The system was in place well before I was elected, and I wanted to change it and we are going to."

What she wants now is to move beyond the issue and get back to debating the future of the province.

"Albertans deserve that," she says.

Sandra Martin is a feature writer for The Globe and Mail.

Editor's Note: Alison Redford was an MLA, not an MP, before she ran for the leadership of the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party. This version has been corrected.