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Western Canada's Gen X premiers cast as 'the new powerful'

In the dining room of the grand sandstone pile known as Government House in Edmonton, three Western premiers met to discuss the complex details of an expanded free-trade pact.

But as British Columbia's Christy Clark, Alberta's Alison Redford and Saskatchewan's Brad Wall lingered over that meal in December, the conversation turned to something much more personal – their age.

"The three of us sat together and we had a chat about this," recalled Ms. Clark. "It's a rare confluence of events. The population is moving to the West, the economy is almost solely based in our three Western provinces, we are all from free-enterprise parties, we are already working with this [free-trade]base. And we all happen to have been born in the same year. We are all Gen Xers."

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Demography is not destiny, but Ms. Clark may be on to something. Each of the three Western premiers, all born in 1965, say they have been shaped by the classic Generation X experience: growing up in the shadow of the baby boomers, who gobbled up jobs leaving little behind but scraps. While boomers outperformed their parents, Gen Xers were told to lower their expectations and recognize the constraints that can exist on government.

These three Gen X premiers are conservative in their views, regardless of party label. All three believe in free-enterprise politics. All three juggled work with raising children. Two of them attended the University of Saskatchewan at the same time, members of the campus Progressive Conservative club. They all completed their education amid a troubled economy and an era of state largesse, which would ultimately shape their approach to managing government.

Joseph Garcea, a political scientist at the University of Saskatchewan, says he isn't surprised Ms. Clark, Ms. Redford and Mr. Wall rose through the political ranks so quickly and so young. The Gen X mindset is a snug fit with the kind of pro-development philosophy common to the conservative-leaning parties of Western Canada – but with a sharing, caring twist. "What we have is a group of Generation Xers who can preach and reconcile two or three gospels," Prof. Garcea said. "One is a pro-development gospel; the second one is the doing-politics-differently gospel; and the third is we have to try and make sure that nobody's left behind."

For Ms. Redford, the shared birth year is significant. "It signals a change in Canada," she said. "It signals a change in political dialogue. And I think it signals a change in what we want to accomplish as three Western provinces that are very important to Canada's economy."

"We have the opportunity to reshape Confederation," Ms. Clark said. "The country is going to change dramatically in the next 10 years. And our three provinces are going to make that happen."

Defining Generation X

Canadian economist and demographer David Foot defines Generation X as those born between 1960 and 1966. The generation faced a harsh recession as they emerged from high school, and scant career prospects.

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After Mr. Wall graduated from Swift Current Composite High School in 1983, he spent the next four years in university studying public administration. Government debt and deficit levels were soaring, as were interest rates. Farmers were coping with drought, and prices for commodities, including oil and uranium, were tumbling. When members of Mr. Wall's generation couldn't find jobs at home, they fled the province in search of work.

Mr. Wall said the memories of watching his friends and family leave Saskatchewan – his brother lives in Claresholm, Alta. – affected his political world view and how he now governs. "More than any generation that we may have been a part of, for me and for many that serve in our government … there's a real growth motif, there's a growth orientation to our government because of the history of our province and, I think, a history of economic underperformance."

Ms. Clark graduated from Burnaby South Senior Secondary in 1983 with no job prospects. She studied at university while working – in a bar, as a nanny and as a clerk in a record store – and never finished a degree. Seeking to gain a foothold in that time shaped her attitude toward running a government – that our resources are not infinite.

"That's a dramatically different approach from lots of the baby-boomer politicians, which was this view that there could be this ever-expanding tax base, ever-expanding array of social programs. Ultimately, what it got us was ever-expanding debt," she said. Ms. Clark won the leadership of her BC Liberal Party a year ago on a "families first" platform, and her February budget focused on reining in spending, arguing that fiscal prudence is the best legacy for the next generation.

When Ms. Redford graduated from Calgary's Bishop Carroll High School in 1982, she bounced from the University of Alberta to Mount Royal College in Calgary to Queen's University in Kingston, Ont. She never got a degree, but she did get into law school and graduated in 1988. Actively involved in politics from a young age, she once worked in the Prime Minister's Office under Brian Mulroney when the economy was struggling.

In February, Ms. Redford delivered a big-spending budget, which included no new or raised taxes, promised new infrastructure, and aid for postsecondary students, but had increased payments for child care and higher income for those on disability insurance. Mr. Wall, who will offer his Saskatchewan Party government's budget on March 21, also campaigned heavily on social initiatives for families and seniors.

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"We are leaders that have what I would call a pretty modern perspective on family structure," Ms. Redford said. "It's formed my perspective of what I believe people think government needs to do."

Premiers challenged

All three leaders have ascended the political ladder just as the West's economic and political power reaches new heights. Prof. Garcea, the political scientist, says that's no coincidence – economic booms beget shifts in power that create openings for newcomers. "It's a little bit like the nouveau riche – the new rich – and this is the new powerful."

How will the Gen X premiers exercise that power, propelled by the commodity riches of the West? David Emerson, a former federal minister under both the Liberal and Conservative governments, offers a provocative challenge. "When you look at governmental policy over the past decade, it's been abysmally short-sighted," he said. "The long-term perspective has been lacking. Maybe this younger generation of premiers can bring back that core principle."

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About the Authors
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

B.C. politics reporter

Based in the press gallery of the B.C. Legislature in Victoria, Justine has followed the ups and downs of B.C. premiers since 1988. She has also worked as a business reporter and on Parliament Hill covering national politics. More

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