A conciliatory voice from Alberta

Premier Alison Redford displays a pan-Canadian perspective during her two-day swing through Toronto and Ottawa

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The Gazette, Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Alison Redford served notice last week that she's not just the premier of Saudi Alberta - she intends to play a leadership role in the Canadian federation.

Not since Peter Lougheed took office 40 years ago has an Alberta premier made as strong an impression as Red-ford did on a two-day swing through Toronto and Ottawa, following a two-day whirl-wind through New York and Washington.

In Toronto, she made nice with Premier Dalton McGuinty and, in an important speech to the Economic Club of Canada, she reminded Ontarians that they are beneficiaries of the Alberta oilsands.

"Over the next 25 years," she said, "Alberta-based companies will buy $55 billion of goods and services from Ontario."

In other words, what's good for Alberta is good for Ontario and for that matter, Quebec, which stands to gain $23 billion in economic activity from the oilsands over the same period. But far from throwing Alberta's weight around, she was courtly, even seductive, in her choice of words.

"You invested in the oil-sands at a time when other businesses were pulling out. Ontario's help has been crucial to our success."

You don't hear that every day from the premier of Alberta about the province of Ontario. There was more. "I speak for all Albertans," she declared, "when I say we are proud to join with Ontario in making this country strong. We rise together or we fall together. There is no other way."

This is pan-Canadian rhetoric, a striking departure from her predecessors, Ed Stelmach and Ralph Klein, who were never known to say anything memorable about Canada or anything else.

But Redford's Toronto speech was a game-changer on two fronts, federalism and clean energy.

"A truly national vision for energy that we can take to the rest of the world," she said, "requires us to set our sights high."

How high? "We must expand in a sustainable manner," she said.

"The desire for new customers can never trump our responsibility to keep this country beautiful for Canadians."

Which opened the door for her to make the case that innovation has already brought significant improvements to the oilsands, where Alberta hasn't always done a good job of telling its story.

For example, as she pointed out: "Over the last 20 years, greenhouse-gas emissions from oilsands operations declined by almost one-third per barrel. And oilsands projects recycle up to 90 per cent of the water they use."

You won't hear this message from celebrity protesters in Washington. Nor will you hear, as the Toronto audience did, that Alberta companies are currently investing "more than $6 billion in climate-friendly technology."

But while Redford made it clear that "environmental sustainability is our most important shared outcome," she also endorsed the Keystone XL pipeline from Alberta to the U.S. Gulf Coast, and made it clear that Canada needs to diversify its market. The United States now receives 99 per cent of our oil exports.

The only way to do that is to build the Northern Gate-way pipeline and ship to Asia from Kitimat on the West Coast. There are issues with First Nations and the environment around that, but Redford clearly agrees with Stephen Harper that the project is in the national interest.

The engagement of Alberta as a leader in the federation is an important development.

A clean-energy dialogue is one policy area where no progress is possible without Alberta leading by example.

But there are other federal-provincial conversations, such as the one upcoming on renewing the Health Accord, which expires in 2014.

The Harper Conservatives already committed in the spring election to renewing the Health Accord for two years at current funding levels, which increase by six per cent a year. But be-yond that, there's some tough bargaining in prospect.

Redford's outreach to Ontario also presents an opportunity for renewing relations with Quebec. The two provinces are natural partners in defending provincial interests in the federation. This goes back 40 years to the relationship forged by Lougheed with Robert Bourassa.

The Alberta-Quebec alliance was badly strained in 2009, when Jean Charest trashed the oilsands on the world stage of the Copenhagen conference on climate change.

But there's an opportunity to turn the page here. Charest and Redford have known each another since he was environment minister in the Mulroney government and she was a young adviser to Joe Clark at Foreign Affairs.

She has the kind of biography that will play well in Quebec. She's a human-rights activist and former provincial justice minister, as interested in rehabilitation as in incarceration.

In any discussion among the provinces administering Harper's omnibus crime bill, there's a natural affinity between her and Charest. The federal-provincial conversation just got a lot more interesting.

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