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Thomas Lukaszuk, born behind Iron Curtain, came in from the cold to politics

PC Alberta leadership candidate Thomas Lukaszuk speaks during the Alberta Progressive Conservative leadership forum in Edmonton, Alberta on Thursday Aug. 21, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

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PC Alberta leadership candidate Thomas Lukaszuk speaks during the Alberta Progressive Conservative leadership forum in Edmonton, Alberta on Thursday Aug. 21, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

EDMONTON - Thomas Lukaszuk was born behind the Iron Curtain and came in from the cold — literally — to join Alberta politics.

It was when Lukaszuk, now 45, was a high school student waiting for the bus in northern Edmonton on a cold winter morning just a few years removed from his native Poland.

It was bitterly cold, so he went across the street to warm up in the trailer of federal Progressive Conservative candidate Steve Paproski.

Not so fast, kid, they said. If he wanted to warm up, he had to work.

"They gave me some envelopes to stuff," said Lukaszuk.

He ended up sticking around to volunteer.

Soon after, the provincial PCs came calling, asking him first to organize constituencies and finally to run — and win — in 2001.

Thirteen years later, Lukaszuk has been at the forefront of decision-making as jobs minister, education minister, advanced education minister, deputy premier and now candidate to become the next premier of Alberta as leader of the provincial Progressive Conservatives.

His calling card has been plain speaking, swept-back hair, natty clothes, and a political compass that never seems to stray far from controversy and confrontation.

He was called a "complete and utter a-hole" in a leaked email from federal cabinet minister Jason Kenney.

Lukaszuk has alleged he was once attacked at the doorstep of an unruly, elderly voter.

He helped make a citizens' arrest of two police impersonators.

In 2004, he became Thomas Lazarus, the man who lost the election by three votes, then won it back on a landmark judicial review.

He once challenged the Opposition Wildrose party to a fistfight on the floor of the legislature chamber as schoolchildren looked on aghast from the gallery.

In the current leadership campaign, he has been the target of leaks to the media over a $20,000 cellphone bill he racked up while on vacation in Poland, and trips by his daughter on government airplanes.

There have been triumphs, including the 2004 passage of his private member's bill requiring fluid samples from people treated by police or first responders to determine the risk of exposure to blood-borne illnesses.

Lukaszuk said he is energized by a good argument and seeks out staffers who aren't afraid to say to him, "Are you nuts?"

"If you have a room full of people where everyone is thinking exactly the same thing, odds are no one is thinking in the first place," he said.

Lukaszuk was born in the bustling Baltic seaport city of Gdynia on April 15, 1969. He grew up furtively listening to Radio Free America and tossing rocks at police cars and officers, the hated agents of the state.

When he was seven, his dad, a merchant marine sailor, walked off the gangplank to freedom in St. John's, N.L.

Six years later, when Thomas was 13, he said the Polish authorities tired of the rest of his family serving as a symbol of freedom and ordered them out on five days notice with one suitcase.

He opened up his room and let his friends take all his toys.

In Canada, they followed their dad, who followed the work — first in Sydney, N.S., and then to Edmonton.

His parents eventually split up and his mother was left to raise the children, working as a seamstress late into the night.

Lukaszuk took care of his brother and worked his way through university as a waiter, gaining an education degree and then opening a business to help injured workers.

As a leadership candidate, he is running a populist, low-budget campaign with the stated aim of ridding the PCs of the excesses of the Alison Redford years.

He says his personal price for challenging Redford behind closed doors was losing his post as deputy premier late last year.

But he had a front-row seat in 2014 to Redford's demise as her premiership cratered over revelations of self-indulgent travel and office spending.

As Redford faced repeated opposition drubbings in the legislature chamber, Lukaszuk could be seen grinning like a Cheshire cat at the end of the front bench.

He'd turn his chair to get a good look at his boss, twirling his earpiece, and occasionally waving to a pal in the gallery.

Former premier Ralph Klein, said Lukaszuk, had it right: Always take the job, the decisions, seriously. But yourself, not so much.

"The moment you start taking yourself as a person seriously, that's when you detach yourself from everyone," said Lukaszuk.

"We had premiers who thought of themselves as premiers — and that never really ended well."

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