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Alberta politics meets the federal NDP's 'island of calm'

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NDP candidate Anne McGrath (right) poses with Premier Rachel Notley. Photo: Anne McGrath/Facebook

"Alberta punches way above its weight in Confederation," said Anne McGrath, "particularly in the last few years, when we've led the way with climate change plans." She should know.

McGrath has served as chief of staff to Jack Layton and other federal and provincial NDP leaders, winning kudos for her strategic planning and for keeping cool under stress. She has also run for the Alberta legislature before, in 1993 and 1995, and is the current NDP candidate for Calgary-Varsity. No wonder conservative gadfly Danielle Smith -- whose scorn is a medal of honour for some progressives -- has dubbed her "the candidate I am most afraid of in this election."   

British-born to Irish parents who moved to Montreal when she was five, Ann graduated from the University of Ottawa and moved to Edmonton to work as a field officer for the Alberta Federation of Students. From there, based in Calgary, she went on to be executive director for Oxfam-Canada, and to work at the Canadian Mental Health Association.

In 2000, McGrath and her family moved to Ottawa. She served as Jack Layton's chief of staff from 2008–2011. She was among the core team that planned the wildly successful 2011 election campaign where the NDP won Official Opposition status.

During Jack Layton's election travels with a cane due to hip surgery, after his announcement he had prostate cancer, she was always at his side. "We were very, very close," she told an interviewer. And she helped him write his famous "Love is better than hate" letter, scant weeks after the election, and two days before he died.

As the NDP's former national president (2006–2009) and former national director (2014–2015), McGrath told the CBC, "Rachel's victory in 2015 was one of the proudest moments in my life as a New Democrat," showing that "a principled, progressive party can win and make the change we all believe in." Small wonder that, for the past few years, she has been Premier Rachel Notley's executive director for Southern Alberta. In that position, she has had input into major policy decisions.

As the NDP candidate for the Varsity riding, McGrath's website lists her top issues as health care, education and childcare. Childcare, she told rabble.ca, is important for improving at least three outcomes: children's early learning to prepare them for school, mothers' increased participation in the paid workforce, and increased overall prosperity from increased productivity. Study after study shows that "more money is returned to the economy than is spent on the childcare program."

By the same token, McGrath pointed out, the NDP responded to the slump in oil prices by launching major infrastructure projects, to capture the benefit of having a more abundant workforce and lower material costs than during a construction boom. Calgary Mayor Nenshi announced the same approach a couple of years ago, when oil prices started to slide.

"When there's a downturn in the economy," said McGrath, "you don't have to cut services just when people need them. You can take concrete actions to improve the economy at the same time you take action to reduce poverty."

For example, she cited construction now underway on a massive new cancer treatment centre to replace Calgary's outdated and overwhelmed Tom Baker Cancer Centre. In an interview with the Gauntlet, the University of Calgary student newspaper, she said,

"When you have capital infrastructure programs, you have to staff them and you have to fund them. In this riding, for instance, we're building a cancer care centre that was promised over and over again by previous governments and was never built. We will build it and we will staff it."

Finally, to the question of jobs, she emphasized that, "We do still need to get full value for the [oil and gas] resources we have." On the other hand, the NDP have been pursuing and promoting diversification much more vigorously than the Conservative governments before them, she said.

"We need to diversify to agrifood, agribusiness, tourism, arts and culture -- the whole range of economic activity" she said. "One area that's really taking off has been the area of renewable energy and clean technology," as Alberta's oil field engineers adapt their expertise and equipment to other resources, such as geothermal energy.

Calgary-Varsity is a mostly-affluent inner-city riding around the University of Calgary and Foothills Medical Centre. The last MLA was Stephanie Maclean, minister of Service Alberta and status of women -- and the first Alberta MLA to give birth while in office -- who stepped down in January 2019. So while there is no incumbent for her to have to defeat, in the past the riding has elected both Liberal and Conservative MLAs.

Among other Varsity candidates, Anne McGrath's best-known opponent is Cheryle Chagnon-Greyeyes, Leader of the Alberta Green Party. While she's been a longtime prominent activist for green, Indigenous, and women's issues, Chagnon-Greyes is somewhat new to partisan politics.

After more than 30 years working for social justice in Alberta, McGrath seems quite familiar with making the rounds of neighbourhood events and all-candidates meetings. And while her views have evolved over the years, she said, she's still "proud to be progressive and an activist for communities."

Award-winning author and journalist Penney Kome has published six non-fiction books and hundreds of periodical articles, as well as writing a national column for 12 years and a local (Calgary) column for four years. She was editor of Straightgoods.com from 2004 - 2013.

Photo: Anne McGrath/Facebook

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