Raj and his partner, Sharon, picked me up at the airport in Edmonton. He was unmistakable. His open enthusiasm telegraphed that this is the leader of Alberta's Liberals almost as much as his big red Dodge Ram truck. On the way into the city we talked about Alberta's oil sands, the economy and, of course, his recent history as a health critic with both the provincial PCs and the Liberals.
To say that this guy is controversial is an understatement. Stories roll of his tongue like chapters of a rags-to-riches novel. Apparently, his family already had a long history in Canada before Raj was born in India. By the age of six the family had migrated to Squamish, BC, where Raj learned the ropes in a tough frontier logging town where East Indians weren't exactly welcomed. While his father moved into the labour union movement, young Raj accepted the prejudice, smackdowns and bruises stoically.
And I couldn't identify any bitterness in Raj the man, the successful ER doc and now, seasoned politician. In fact, the Raj I met was clearly as Canadian as I am. And a real character, to boot. Which is great since I enjoy working with colourful characters, and I'll be working closely with him (and Sharon) for the next four years as the new executive director of the Alberta Liberal Party.
The learning curve during my first week on the job has been nearly vertical. I've had a mind-meld with Alex, the unofficial party strategist, for two days, had dinner with the party president, took in an executive board meeting, made an off-the-cuff presentation to 20 or more staunch Liberal women over breakfast, tip-toed into the in-house systems and files, and struggled to remember names of a several dozen key people.
In the middle of this I got into two late night sessions with Raj that ended in the big red sled (aka "The Sherman Tank") on the way home talking about everything from our personal histories-philosophies to global resource management issues. Not to mention the curious coincidence that my wife is also named Sharon, who is also an American like his Sharon, also hailing from New England, which I learned while we watched Obama give his big speech at the DNC at their place over takeout Thai.
What have I learned about Alberta's Liberals in just one week? It's too soon to say and probably more than I can possibly remember. But I have learned a bit about Alberta itself, at least as a comparison to life back home in New Brunswick.
I've learned that there's an epidemic of potholes in the streets of Edmonton. That its water and sewer utilities have been partially privatized and that the water tastes just fine. That housing prices are through the roof relative to East Coast prices, and that the cost of a mortgage can eat up a large portion of an Albertan's paycheque.
I've also discovered, I think, that Albertans seem to be, at least after one week, to be friendlier and more optimistic than eastern Canadians. They smile at you and look you in the eye even in the big city, which comes as a bit of a surprise to someone more attuned to the Toronto-Boston-New York street society. That said, I've been told that Edmonton is the murder capital of Canada, attributed feuding immigrant drug dealers.
But I'm an immigrant here, too, just like all those Newfoundlanders and Somalis, Middle Easterners, Asians and the rest. If they're part of the problem, then perhaps I am too, just another newcomer looking for new opportunities and challenges in the Promised Land.
And that land is big and beautiful, as I found out this weekend when a friend drove me up to Athabasca for the weekend. The farmers were out combining their fields, swathed into rows in the sunshine under that indescribably big sky. I had my friend stop the car so we could get out and walk into a cut grain field and stand among those huge round bales parked like spun gold discs against the bright blue horizon.
Is it easy to be here? Would I advise others to come? I don't know. A lot of easterners and even westerners like Raj have made the leap before me. I do know that the logistics of putting the house up for sale back home, staying connected with family on Skype, buying a new car, finding a place to live, shopping for houses and fumbling my way around a new city is slightly daunting.
Of course, the whole experience will seem insignificant a year from now, as they say, like a woman remembers childbirth.
But remembering is the thing. We moved from Ontario 8 years ago. New Brunswick has been the only home our kids have known, and a lot of our memories are there: sailing on Passamaquoddy Bay with the tides and seals, walking down to the St. Andrews blockhouse and the reef, having lunch at Olde Tyme Pizza in January when you could shoot off a cannon and not hit a tourist if you wanted to, and those slow, slow days of summer living beside the retired people who have nothing much to do except maybe cut the lawn and go for a walk. And for me the days of writing and hanging out with the kids.
It isn't going to like that here. But that's OK. I'm looking forward to the challenge of a more active, liberal chapter after a long sojourn in the slow moving, conservative East. So goodbye, New Brunswick, you will be missed. And hello, Alberta, let the adventure begin.