In conversation with Alison Redford

From the archives: Alison Redford on drafting a constitution, dealing with Afghan warlords, and why Alberta needs China

by Colby Cosh

On drafting a constitution, dealing with Afghan warlords, and why Alberta needs China

Jason Franson

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.




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In conversation with Alison Redford

  1. Thanks Colby, a fascinating, “Conservative” woman. 

    Hopefully she doesn’t have a run-in with the Ottawa Conservatives… I would hate to see the attack ads based on a failed attempt to immigrate.

    • As well as thinking about potential run-ins with Ottawa Conservatives, she will also have to keep an eye on the Conservatives in Alberta – she almost certainly has a lock on the Progressives, but are there enough of them to out vote the others.

  2. What an interesting woman with so many varied life experiences to draw from – Alberta looks to be in good hands.  Let’s get going on that national energy strategy!!

  3. Wow – facilitating the birth of the South African versions of the CBC and “Court Challenges” program!  Teaching Bosnian judges to be as activist as Canadian ones! 

    “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.”  On the other hand, if you were able to use taxpayer dollars to pay off teachers to support you, the skies the limit! 

    As for taking the Keystone pipeline issue “by the throat”, given she showed up in New York and Washington a week or so after the delay decision was announced, I think the more correct anatomical reference is “tail”

    Check the mailbox, MacLeans – I suspect there’s a big cheque coming from the AB Tories wanting to buy up all of this week’s issues to take them out of circulation! 

  4. 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.

    Huh? As it turned out, she was down there after the project decision was postponed. Can you elaborate CC?

    • Are you disputing the characterization? There was a decision by Redford that the file needed extended personal attention from the boss, as opposed to letting some worn-out “agent” in Washington handle it and hope for the best. It’s really difficult to imagine any premier since Lougheed taking this approach. I wasn’t proposing to offer a judgment on her success, but she did take charge.

      • Well I seem to recall Ralph Klein with Murray Smith meeting with the Veep Cheney in DC around the time that Alberta’s Oilsands were recognized as having 175 +/- billion barrels of recoverable oil, and pushing investment.

      • “I wasn’t proposing to offer a judgment on her success….”

        Then please accept our invitation to do so – perhaps the impenetrable bafflegab she offers up in the course of “taking the pipeline issue by the throat” is more decipherable to you.

        • You’re not really getting this whole “Q&A” thing, are you?

          • If I weren’t, I’d have criticized you for failing to comment upon it, rather than invited you to offer further comment now.  Why the kid gloves anyway – you’re not smitten, are you?

    • Not sure about how the visit dates actually lined up, but Keystone seems to have been on her radar even before she was sworn in, as per this CBC story.

  5. I would like to understand why  we are shipping bitumen to the United States in the first place. When we ship bitumen it is in an unprocessed state. It is not upgraded. The jobs upgrading the bitumen are long term jobs, not like pipeline jobs, for Alberta workers and we were about to ship these precious jobs out of our province and our country. In the time that it takes the United States to think about putting the Keystone in maybe we can think about what the Keystone is to carry.

    • It’s pure economics – the cost of creating capacity to upgrade here v. shipping unprocessed bitumen to facilities that already exist and have capacity.  Perhaps when current capacity is fully exploited, the economic case for running the environmental gauntlet and building new refineries here will exist.

      • Pure private economics, absolutely.

        There may be a case for public involvement here, however.

        • I suspect that if you’re looking for someone to use vast quantities of public money to skew the marketplace, Alison’s your gal.

          • Actually, I’m looking for some place like Manitoba, which really needs the jobs, to use quantities of public money to build bitumen upgrading plants, which it can then use to regain that public money while employing their people, helping eastern Canada deal with their energy needs, and lowering the environmental concerns for pipelines, both due to a shorter transport distance and due to the specific environments such a pipeline would have to go over/under.

          • You want Manitoba to build the Heartland Upgrader at Gretna?  Manitoba should fee free.  It’s a little bit late, however.

  6. She’s what Alberta needs…whether they’re smart enough to know that and grab her is the question.

    • Might as well start your latest round of Alberta disparagement now – I predict she’ll be back to working with “theatre groups … teaching local communities about education” in fairly short order.

      • Well, if you’re happy with a disaster-ridden Alberta, it’s your problem.

        • She is the disaster.

          •  Some Albertans are not yet ready to modernize. THAT is the disaster.

  7. A promising woman.
    Unfortunately the hard right Cons reigned her in quickly, forcing her to reverse herself in week one.
    And notably the…dark side…are promising not to run in the next election.  Perhaps her departing …confreres will soon become her…hard, hard right competition…either that or amongst a list facing criminal charges.

  8. Oh puh-lease, rolling my eyes…..

  9. Alison Redford. She didn’t come back for you…South Africa sent her back!

    Actually she sounds like a very interesting an accomplished person, and I look forward to seeing what she can do.

  10. Wow, just imagine the wonderful things she could have accomplished here in Canada with that resume! I wounder if she has any idea about Canadian Children living in poverty, going hungry and the homelessness issues? Oh ya, she probably donates cash to ease her conscience. What was it Shakespeare said about lawyers? Most politicians are lawyers or police officers as this group knows this is the easiest venue to “lie, cheat, steal and get away with it”!     

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