By Paula Simons, Edmonton JournalEDMONTON — On Wednesday, Premier Alison Redford delivered a short speech to the Edmonton Chamber of Voluntary Organizations.That might not sound like historic or headline news. But for the packed audience at the Citadel’s Zeidler Hall, it was a landmark moment.Think of the Edmonton Chamber of Voluntary Organizations as the equivalent of the Chamber of Commerce for the not-for-profit sector. It represents dozens of local charitable foundations, performing and visual arts groups, and health and social service agencies, large and small, from the ABC Headstart Society to the YWCA. The arts administrators, environmentalists, charity fundraisers, social service providers and community activists gathered to hear Redford’s speech were not, to put it mildly, your typical Conservative crowd. Another PC premier might have entered that room with trepidation, afraid of being booed or hissed. In 15 minutes, Redford had the audience eating out of her hand.The premier’s official government speaking notes weren’t so very remarkable — they talked in broad, bland terms about her commitment to public education and public health care, about her personal concern for the crisis of fetal alcohol syndrome, about her admiration for community volunteers.Then, she went way off-script. She apologized to these representatives of the not-for-profit sector, for downloading public services for the vulnerable to community agencies, without providing proper support.Redford bluntly called that “an abrogation of government responsibility.”(That’s your first clue that she was off-script. “Abrogation” isn’t the kind of word government speech writers use in speeches. It’s the kind Redford does.)When the speech ended, Redford stayed on at the podium to take questions from the audience, responding empathetically and intelligently to their concerns, basking in their generous praise, even cracking jokes. She thanked the delegates for allowing her to give long, thoughtful answers — something, she chuckled, that she hadn’t had much of chance to do during the election.By the time she left the stage, her audience seemed almost stunned to find themselves enthusiastically applauding a Conservative premier.It was as though the Borg Queen had arrived, decked out in pearls and a simple grey suit, and assimilated a group of left-wing community activists into the Tory collective. Resistance appeared futile.“It’s odd. No one really knows quite what to do now,” laughed Keri Mitchell, the executive director of Theatre Alberta, and a new member of the chamber board. “But if I were her, I’d be afraid, because we all now have very high expectations.”“It was all very inclusive, aspiration language,” said Janice Melnychuk, a former Edmonton city councillor and outgoing member of the chamber executive. “That is refreshing. Now we have to see that she really means it.”For too long, said Melnychuk, not-for-profit agencies, most of which rely on the province for grants or contracts, have been afraid to speak out, question, or criticize the government, for fear of financial reprisals. Redford, she said, needs to change that culture of fear.“This sector has been very quietly grumbling — too quietly — for a long time about cuts to funding, about the downloading of public services to community organizations. What she has to deliver is a new ethos, so that people in our community don’t have to hide the truth, because we’re afraid of recrimination.”Bill Moore-Kilgannon is the executive director of the left-of-centre, labour-affiliated activist group, Public Interest Alberta — the sort of person who’d seem a most unlikely Redford fan. Yet Wednesday, he was praising what he called her unpretentious “totally straight-up” speech, and her “bold” commitment to end child poverty within five years.“Now she has to do what every politician has to do. She has to deliver on her promises. Let’s see how real it is. If it’s not real, if it’s just window dressing, you can bet everyone in this room who has such high hopes is going to become very cynical.”Can Redford possibly fulfil all the expectations for political reform and social progress she has raised — and still hold on to her traditional party base? Can she figure out how to be both progressive and conservative, holding the centre, while fending off the Wildrose on the right? Or will she disappoint her new admirers, by defaulting to old Tory habits of squelching dissent and down-loading critical public services on underpaid, overworked, not-for-profit employees.Redford’s unexpectedly warm and witty performance left her audience with a honeymoon glow. Let’s see how much love is in the air, when the honeymoon’s over — and just who has assimilated whom.
By Paula Simons, Edmonton Journalpsimons@edmontonjournal.com
Facebook.com/EJPaulaSimonsTo read Paula’s blog, The Edmonton Commons, go to edmontonjournal.com/PaulaticsThis article was published in the Edmonton Journal on May 18, 2012. Read the full article on the Edmonton Journal website.