Since she clinched the leadership of Alberta’s Progressive Conservatives in October to become premier, Alison Redford has focused her efforts on promoting the province’s interests across Canada and the U.S., including the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which was put on hold by the Obama administration last month. Her whirlwind tour through Washington, New York, Toronto and Ottawa in November was a sharp contrast with Redford’s homebody forerunner Ed Stelmach. But her approach is no surprise to those familiar with the important work she did on the international stage, which she has rarely discussed in detail.
Q: The potted biographies about your international work are very jargony—“she facilitated this,” “she served in such-and-such an office.”
A: Well, I think part of the reason for that is the biographies are written by people that don’t have international backgrounds. They’re written for the way my political life has been for the past two or three years, as opposed to when you get into the guts of it.
Q: Can you talk about your career in plain English, then?
A: I’d gone to law school in Saskatchewan and taken a lot of human rights law, on top of the regular training, and I had always been involved in politics, so I spent time in Ottawa working for Joe Clark, who was then chair of the Commonwealth Ministers on South Africa. That’s where the debates were happening over whether sanctions should be applied to South Africa—debates that involved Mulroney and Reagan and Thatcher. I worked for Clark on a regional desk that included South Africa, and then I went back and articled, but I never got it out of my system.
I had an opportunity in about 1990 to go back to South Africa on what was originally a six-week contract, working for the European Union. At that time in South Africa you had a government that was getting ready for transition. Nobody knew what it was going to look like. You had the African National Congress, which was not just a political force but was really almost becoming a de facto government. Essentially, a government in parallel was beginning to be established there.
Q: What was your role there?
A: I was a technical adviser to the legal and constitutional affairs committee of the ANC, which was providing advice to the most senior leadership levels of the ANC. The constitution was essentially being written and negotiated at the same time. So I worked on that; and I also worked on individual special projects. They were going to have to create a public broadcaster with a governance board; they were going to have to create a human rights commission. So I would go out and work with Canadian experts, or experts from other countries, and provide policy recommendations on institutional change. And then they would make decisions as to what they wanted to do.
When a lot of that work started to get done, I went to work for the Australian Embassy doing what you would think of as nuts-and-bolts development work. I funded projects through the embassy on things like sports development, HIV/AIDS, theatre groups that were teaching local communities about education. We built water projects, we dealt with domestic violence. All of the issues about huge, transformative social change, but at a community level.
I was there until 1996 and then I came back to Calgary and I practised family law. I was in a partnership with a couple of people who were criminal defence lawyers, but I didn’t like that.
Q: Why not?
A: I’d come out of a South African tradition, which involved mediation, intraspace bargaining, all that kind of stuff. It was the beginning of the “getting to yes” model of the world. And I came back to Canada and practised family law, and saw a criminal law that was completely litigious and adversarial. I practised law for about four or five years in Calgary and then decided I wanted to go back to development work. I moved to Ottawa and managed a constitutional development project for the Canadian Bar Association. Our partner in South Africa was called the Legal Resources Centre; it did a lot of test-case litigation on freedom of expression, employee rights, whether pregnant women had the right to antiretroviral HIV drugs, that kind of stuff.
Q: Was there a moment when you considered committing to South Africa permanently?
A: Yes. When I lived in South Africa in 1995, I applied for citizenship. And they turned me down. I don’t think South Africa in 1995 was looking for a lot of white people to immigrate, quite honestly. So I just went through the normal process and didn’t get accepted, and I thought, well, that’s fate telling me it’s time to come home. Which it probably was.
Q: In a hypothetical future after politics, is there a chance you’d go back?
A: No, no. The second time I went back I had the chance to spend a year in Cape Town, on and off, not working, just living. I really did love it. But it felt like I’d been there long enough. And so we came back to Calgary, and that’s when my daughter was born, in 2002. I carried on in Calgary doing international development work for a company called Agriteam Canada, which would run projects for the World Bank, the United Nations, the European Union, that sort of thing. They’d done education, health care, water, but they’d never done governance. We started to get projects around things like judicial training in Vietnam, judicial training in Bosnia. And I managed three or four of those projects over a long period of time.
Q: And is that what ultimately put you in Afghanistan?
A: I was in Afghanistan in 2005 for the first parliamentary elections. It’s a compelling country. I felt very fortunate to get to go. It wasn’t dangerous like being there during the worst of it, and I think it’s more dangerous now than in 2005, but there was so much to do and we were starting from nothing. That was the first time that I’d taken one of the most senior leadership roles in an election system. We ended up not just having to organize a system where you were telling people it was okay to vote, and safe to vote. I’d be going and talking to women about what a vote was. They knew it was something important, because I’d go to these meetings and they’d bring their daughters. This was very fundamental voter education, with comic books and theatre and trying to get communication to the mosques and imams.
We also had to draft the election law. When I got there the first night, I said to my two colleagues, an American and an Australian, “Okay, where’s the elections act?” “Well, you’re writing it.” A group of us wrote the election act, took it to cabinet, and got it approved. We were doing things like negotiating who was going to be allowed to run as a candidate; we’d have rules, like, if you still funded your own private standing army, we didn’t think you should be able to run. That was really difficult to get through cabinet, because there were some people at the table who had private armies.
Q: Is your international experience going to be a particular asset to you as premier? You took the Keystone XL pipeline file by the throat with your recent trip, and it makes one wonder why this sort of thing wasn’t tried before things started to get out of control in D.C.
A: Well, first of all, the process of making a regulatory decision on Keystone is one that has to run domestically in the United States and we needed to respect that. The citizens of the United States need to talk about how that infrastructure project will impact communities and state governments and all of that.
What I do think is that it’s a really big world out there. There are a lot of players. There’s no doubt that we have known for some time that we were going to start to see the agenda around energy issues and environmental issues change. And my view has always been that it’s possible to be effective in that arena if you can anticipate what’s coming next. I’ll tell you that I believe that in the last while Alberta hasn’t had leadership that understood Alberta’s role internationally. We needed to understand that decision-makers in Europe could impact us, not just decision-makers in Ottawa. It’s not just us in control of our own destiny. We are part of a global economy, and a global energy sphere, and we need to understand the impact that the political dialogue could have on our province.
Q: Is that part of why you won?
A: I believe Albertans saw in this leadership campaign that it was time to have a leader who understood all that. I’ve gotta tell you, I’m a little surprised by some of the commentary around the fact that [I’ve done] a lot of travel. Really? In my life? This isn’t a lot of travel.
Q: So we should expect to see you on the road a lot more then?
A: I’m very ambitious and bold on trade missions. I think Alberta’s future is China, India and Vietnam. We need to be in those countries. I look at the people in this province, whether they live in Edmonton or Fort McMurray or Calgary, and the way that they do business. They move around this globe pretty fast. They’re doing it effectively and making important decisions and attracting investment to this province, and I think Albertans want their government to be that way. And we’re gonna be that way.