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Danny Williams is back on the stump - but in Alberta

Danny Williams and Gary Mar on the campaign trail in Alberta on Sept. 5, 2011.

jacquie mcfarland The Globe and Mail

Danny Williams is back on the campaign trail.

But this time, the popular, shoot-from-the-hip former premier of Newfoundland and Labrador has turned his attention to Alberta, and specifically the oil-sands boomtown of Fort McMurray. He's attempting to drum up support in the region for provincial Progressive Conservative leadership hopeful Gary Mar.

"This is one of the most important elections – for want of a better term – in the country," said Mr. Williams, who resigned last year after seven years as Newfoundland's Progressive Conservative premier.

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"Alberta is going to be a leader in Canada for the next many decades, and as Alberta goes, Canada has got to go in a lot of ways, and the selection of the person who heads up this province is very, very important to all of us," he said.

Mr. Williams spent Labour Day in northern Alberta shaking hands and bending ears of many ex-Newfoundlanders on Mr. Mar's behalf, in events thrown together just two days after he called to offer his endorsement.

Mr. Mar, a former cabinet minister in Ralph Klein's government and Alberta's former envoy in Washington, hopes to capture a majority to succeed Premier Ed Stelmach when party faithful vote on Sept. 17. But few expect the six-way contest to be won on the first ballot. Observers and polls suggest Mr. Mar will secure a top-three spot to make the second ballot on Oct. 1.

Other perceived front-runners are former Stelmach cabinet ministers Doug Horner, Ted Morton and Alison Redford. Backbench Tory MLA Doug Griffiths and Rick Orman, who was a cabinet minister during the Don Getty era, are running further back.

Mr. Williams said he was charmed by Mr. Mar's integrity and humour as well as their shared political ideology when the pair met in 2004 at a first ministers conference. His national and international experience make him the ideal candidate to handle the "delicate situation" with the oil sands and the environment, Mr. Williams added.

Mr. Williams is appealing to Newfoundlanders who left the east coast long ago, as well as recent transplants. Under party rules, anyone can buy a membership and participate as long as they are resident in Alberta for at least six months before voting day.

Mr. Mar said fewer than 1,000 people voted in the riding during the 2006 leadership race that elected Mr. Stelmach. It's a number he hopes to improve upon with the help of high-profile support.

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"To have the endorsement of both Danny Williams and Ralph Klein is pretty important to me," Mr. Mar said.

According to the 2010 census for the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, there were 104,338 residents, with the majority – 76,797 – calling Fort McMurray home.

Estimates vary, but around a quarter of those residents hail from Newfoundland, many making the trek west to work in the oil sands and related industries.

Alberta has long attracted people from other provinces, and between 2001 and 2006, 11,355 moved here from Newfoundland, according to the provincial government. Despite the boom and bust cycle, the in-migration trend has continued and is once again on the upswing.

During the first three months of this year, Alberta counted 5,275 net migrants, the highest quarterly gain since the second quarter of 2008. Of those, 1,426 left Newfoundland.

Melissa Blake, who is in her third consecutive term as mayor of the municipality, said Mr. Williams's presence can make a difference.

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"If he does have a personal connection to anyone that's here who might not normally be a part of that process, they may just get inspired enough to [vote]" she said.

The sweeping riding of Fort McMurray-Wood Buffalo has long been a Tory stronghold, but the region is currently held by Guy Boutilier, a popular, long-time MLA, who joined the upstart, right-wing Wildrose Party last year after Mr. Stelmach kicked him out of caucus for publicly criticizing government policy.

But the constituency will be split into two ridings for the next provincial election, which could come as early as this fall as whoever is elected the next premier attempts to extend the Tories' 40-year reign.

Mr. Boutilier, who counts himself as a good friend of Mr. Williams, noted that 95 per cent of the members of the Tory board in his constituency quit and joined the Wildrose Party because of the way he was treated.

"Mr. Williams has a very valuable reputation, but will it help Gary Mar? No, I don't believe so because I think the people of Fort McMurray have already made up their mind when it comes to the next provincial election," Mr. Boutilier said. "... They are saying that 40 years is enough."

Transplanted Newfoundlanders in Fort McMurray said Mr. Williams still has a lot of power.

While hanging out at the McMurray Newfoundlanders Club, oil-sands worker Tom Knox said he isn't "big into politics." But even 11 years after leaving Newfoundland, he may well take out a Tory membership and vote for Mr. Mar because of Mr. Williams's endorsement.

"This sort of thing opens the eyes," Mr. Knox said.

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Dawn Walton

Dawn Walton has been based in Calgary for The Globe and Mail since 2000. Before leaving Toronto to head West, she won a National Newspaper Award and was twice nominated for the Michener Award for her work with the Report on Business. More

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