EDMONTON – For 30 years, Alison Redford had known Peter Lougheed and from him learned the art of politics.
In April she won a majority mandate at the helm of the Progressive Conservative dynasty he launched as premier four decades earlier. Less than five months later, in the autumn heat of the legislature’s marbled rotunda, she stood alone before his casket and gazed upon it.
For 30 seconds she was immobile, her back to the crowd, hands twice coming to her face. What was going through your mind? Redford was asked in a year-end interview.
“Flashbacks,” she said. “It was just like boom, boom, boom,” she said snapping her fingers.
“From the first time I met him to the last time that I saw him, to having lunch when I was first got elected as an MLA. Isn’t it funny when things like that happen in life how many flashbacks (there can be) in 30 seconds.”
It was a year of superlatives for Redford.
The 47-year-old became the first elected female premier of Alberta and in doing so ensured Lougheed’s party would become the longest running political dynasty in Canadian history.
In 2013 she embarks on the biggest gamble of her political career, taking on debt to pay for infrastructure and perhaps day-to-day operating expenses while an oil glut and a faltering US economy put the death squeeze on the price of Alberta’s lifeblood heavy oil.
It’s expected to be as rough a ride as 2012, which saw Redford take a political and personal pounding in the legislature.
There was controversy over an Olympic-sized $500,000 bill for ministers to mix and mingle at the London Games.
Questions swirled around reports Edmonton Oilers owner and pharmacy magnate Daryl Katz had bought himself government influence with a $430,000 contribution to the PC party.
There were revelations that Redford’s sister, Lynn, had used her expense account at the old Calgary health authority for buying tickets, liquor and even bug spray for PC functions.
In November came paper trail revelations that as justice minister in 2010 Redford herself pushed for her ex-husband’s law firm to get a lucrative government contract to sue Big Tobacco. The winning and losing firms were notified while Redford was still in charge of that portfolio, but the final papers were not signed until after she left.
Opposition politicians howled, accusing her of the grievous parliamentary offence of misleading the house by claiming she didn’t make the decision.
NDP Leader Brian Mason said the accusations were so grave, Redford had lost the moral authority to govern and needed to step down until her role in the affair was cleared up.
Redford said she was taken aback, given that Mason is respected for questions that plunge like a dagger into the heart of an issue without the grandstanding hyperbole.
“I expected that from some of the opposition parties. I was kind of surprised to hear it from him,” said Redford.
“I remember when he said it thinking to myself, ‘So you actually think an Albertan who is watching question period right now might think that the premier of Alberta — who was elected six months ago and is responsible for everything that is going on and building markets, and planning a budget and putting in place — should step down?’
“I don’t even know … what that would look like. But I just thought it spoke to the tone of the day.”
The year 2012 was also the first full year for Redford without her other confidant and political mentor, her mother Helen.
Helen died of an infection in hospital at age 71 just four days before her daughter won the PC leadership race to become premier on Oct. 2, 2011.
Redford credits Helen with pushing her toward politics and spurring her interest in government, policy and public service.
She still carries Helen close to her heart in a set of pearls passed down from grandmother to mother to her.
“I’ll tell you the last month I’ve thought a lot about her to the point where I’ve actually picked up the phone and thought, ‘God I wish I could call my mom.’ Just in the last month and I’m sure that’s because of some of the personal stuff,” said Redford.
“Just hearing her voice would remind me of everything that ever happened in my life that made me who I am today, every experience that I’d ever had, whether it’s baking with granny or going to church or whatever it is. Falling and skinning my knee.
“If you just think for a moment about everything that you could feel when you hear a parent’s voice — and in my case my mother’s — it’s sort of an affirmation of who you are as a person.”
She said Helen wasn’t a rah rah, my daughter right-or-wrong type of person.
“Sometimes she would say to me: ‘You screwed up’ or ‘I’ve got a question about this,’” said Redford. “She was always really a good gauge of (reality) because she saw the world the way that everybody else did — not the way that politicians see the world.”
Redford said she still gets firsthand glimpses of that world when she meets Albertans.
“I’m amazed by the number of places that I went to through the leadership (race) and I’d meet young girls and they’d be wearing pearls.
“I’d say ‘Oh, you’re wearing pearls,’ and they’d say, ‘That’s because you’re wearing pearls.’
“I do feel a little bit of an added responsibility when I talk to moms, when I talk to young women. They’re very aware of the fact that I’m the first female premier of Alberta.”
She said connecting with Albertans is both exhilarating and sobering.
“Sometimes they’re saying ‘You know you’re on the right track’ or ‘I’ve never told anyone, but my child was an addict,’ or ‘I’ve never told anyone that I’m a victim of domestic violence.’
“Just the fact that a person would share something that intimate with someone who essentially is a complete stranger to them is a privilege.
“And it is something that again reminds me that this role is more than a job and it’s more than sitting in meetings and running an agenda. It’s about making people’s lives better.”