NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, ONT.—The political theatre that drives Canada’s annual show of provincial summitry didn’t attract much of an audience here at the home of the Shaw Festival.
Perhaps it’s unfair to expect the premiers to compete with George Bernard Shaw’s deeper insights and keener wit during their three-day run in front of the cameras this week.
But as Canada’s premiers left this tourist town behind — gone and quite forgotten — it’s worth noting the ties that still bind. In an overcrowded room full of 13 premiers, two high-fivers stand out:
High-fives are how Ontario’s Kathleen Wynne and Alberta’s Alison Redford first bonded last February, in a memorable post-leadership photo-op at Queen’s Park that celebrated the rise of “female premier power.”
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It may seem an unlikely alliance — a Tory Albertan and a left-Liberal Ontarian — but the more they work together, the more they find in common for their two provinces.
Canada’s two most powerful provinces traditionally rise head and shoulders above the rest by virtue of their GDP. Increasingly, though, the Alberta-Ontario axis is bound up between two woman wonks with a passion for policy.
On social issues and trade ties, they are two premiers in a pod.
As Ontario played host this week at the Council of the Federation, Redford watched Wynne drawing on her past experience as a mediator to chair the meetings. As someone who also experienced the challenges of mediation during her work overseas as a human rights lawyer, Redford was impressed.
“She’s a very passionate voice for the province, and I think that is important at that table,” the Alberta premier told me.
No matter how deftly they are chaired, however, experience shows that premiers’ meetings come and go with little lasting impact. This year, they spoke out passionately against cyber-bullying, shared best practices on health care, and compared notes on disaster relief (from floodings to derailments).
But it’s always a grab-bag, with rival premiers pulling in opposing directions. Making progress usually requires a more direct, bilateral relationship.
Redford reached out after watching the Liberal leadership race last January, making a point of looking up the new Ontario premier when she came through town a few days later.
“I just wanted to connect and say hello,” Redford recalled.
It felt strange, as a relatively new premier herself, “to welcome someone else to that group,” she said.
“But I enjoyed that conversation, because I do think that even historically we have had common interests.”
Energy is one of those issues. Wynne argues that Alberta’s endless energy boom opens up opportunities for Ontario.
“Interestingly, I think where you might be looking for conflict in terms of energy, that’s exactly where I’d like to find some common ground and Alison and I have sort of had initial discussions about the need to do that,” Wynne said in an interview.
But the bond goes beyond economics, bridging their supposedly partisan divide: Redford is a Progressive Conservative, albeit a pink Tory. Wynne is a Liberal, and very much on the party’s left wing.
On social issues and a fair society, however, Redford says there is an affinity.
“I think it’s really important to talk about social values and understand that as provincial governments that we have a tremendous responsibility to support vulnerable people — and I find that when I talk to her, that that is a very core belief that she has,” the Alberta Tory argues.
“You can see that she’s a person of integrity, and very direct and honest with her answers. I think we’re going to have a very good relationship going forward, particularly . . . on the social issues.”
Both premiers are clearly struck by their shared willingness to put policy ahead of partisanship on behalf of their two provinces. Wynne says her Alberta counterpart is willing to take risks, free from ideological hangups.
“She’s very much someone who thinks about the political landscape in a very complete way — that the economy and society are intertwined, they are not separate things, that the social good is served by the economic good.”
One area where Wynne is still working on Redford — and that combines economic goals with social benefits — is pension reform. Alberta previously resisted any enhancements to the Canada Pension Plan. Now, prodded by Ontario, it appears more open to change when economic conditions permit.
As the leaders of Canada’s two economic powerhouses, these two premiers are becoming natural allies on issues that lend themselves naturally to co-operation — not least, natural disasters.
But pension reform is the pan-Canadian issue that could be the big prize for these two women wonks. Admittedly an area that can seem esoteric at times, ultimately it lends itself to their common economic smarts and shared social passion.
It could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship — and a productive relationship.