Rachel Notley, flanked by her husband and daughter, at the news conference yesterday at which she announced she would step down as Alberta’s Opposition leader.
Rachel Notley, flanked by her husband and daughter, at the news conference yesterday at which she announced she would step down as Alberta’s Opposition leader. Credit: Alberta NDP Credit: Alberta NDP

Say what you will about Rachel Notley, she made Alberta democracy great again!

Notley, who yesterday announced her plan to step aside as Opposition leader in the Alberta Legislature as soon as her New Democratic Party chooses a new leader, turned the Alberta NDP from a marginal “party of conscience” to an electoral and fund-raising powerhouse that formed a majority government in 2015 and came close again last year. 

Never again can any Alberta government assume its election will be guaranteed simply because it has the word “conservative” in its name.

Notley can be thanked for that. 

Never again will being an intelligent person with progressive instincts and a social-democratic vision mean an Alberta politician must be automatically considered a “fringe” candidate, as is the case in the United States. 

Notley is responsible for that, too.

For more than 70 years – from about the time Ernest Manning took up the reins of the Social Credit Party after the sudden death of William Aberhart in 1943 – we didn’t really have a functioning democracy here in Alberta.

Sure, we had occasional elections and a few other democratic trappings, many of them thanks to the good fortune Alberta was part of the Dominion of Canada. 

But for all intents and purposes, Alberta was a one-party state and, while that one party had a pro forma capitalist ideology, in a surprising number of ways the place resembled a kinder, gentler version of the Soviet Union.

Now and then an opposition party could elect a couple of MLAs. Every so often, the Opposition would do a little better for a spell. But conservatives ruled the roost and Albertans trooped out every four years or so to re-elect them. 

If you caught Albertans complaining and asked them why they voted Social Credit – or after 1971 when Peter Lougheed and his Progressive Conservatives lent a new face and a new name to the same old thing – they’d answer with a question: “Who else is there?”

And fair enough, who else was there? Laurence Decore’s Liberals, who in 1993 challenged the PCs led by Ralph Klein in what the Edmonton Journal called a Ralpherendum by promising to implement and even harsher version of the same ideology?

Notley’s father, Grant, a popular and respected NDP politician, tried – and died tragically in an airplane crash in 1984.

Now and then the PCs, soliciting new memberships on the arrogant logic that their leadership contest was the only one in which Albertans could actually vote for change, would elect someone with progressive instincts. And soon enough they would be encouraged to leave – so long Alison Redford, farewell Ed Stelmach …

And then came Rachel Notley, who really changed everything.

First elected as an MLA in former leader Raj Pannu’s Edmonton-Strathcona riding in 2008, Notley was chosen as leader to replace leader Brian Mason in October 2014 in an NDP race she was odds-on favourite to win. Less than a year later she was premier of Alberta. 

As she put it in her remarks yesterday, “At the time we were the fourth party in the Legislature with a massive caucus consisting of four MLAs. Less than seven months later we had a caucus of 54 MLAs, and Alberta’s first NDP government.”

Sure, she caught a lucky wave – which included a PC party so arrogant it didn’t think losing was a possibility – but she certainly knew how to ride it. 

As political commentator Dave Cournoyer put it in his Substack column yesterday, “Notley was impressive in that election. She brought a new kind of energy and professionalism to the NDP campaign that the party had never seen before in Alberta. A few killer blows in the televised leaders debate solidified her as Albertans’ chosen alternative, but the PCs also met her halfway by running one of the clumsiest re-election campaigns in recent memory.”

And, yeah, as she acknowledged, she had an inexperienced caucus with many members who hadn’t expected to get elected, and they certainly didn’t get everything right. But as Notley accurately said, “we governed with integrity, an ambitious agenda and an earnest desire to make life better for Albertans.”

As successes, she cited building the Calgary Cancer Centre, standing up for the rights of working people, and seeing Alberta become the first jurisdiction in  North American to raise the minimum wage to $15 – albeit, $15 Canadian.

“We secured Alberta’s first pipeline to tidewater in over 50 years, ensuring that the return to Albertans for the sale of resources we all own is permanently increased,” she boasted.

“We eliminated coal-fired electricity in Alberta, thereby increasing the health of countless citizens, and at the same time kickstarting our renewable energy industry to be the fastest growing on the continent … all while significantly reducing our emissions in one fell swoop. 

“And, finally, in the midst of a recession caused by the international collapse in the price of oil (seriously folks, I did not cause that), we cut child poverty in half.”

All true, and it all still gets up the noses of the United Conservative Party (UCP) that successfully replaced the NDP in 2019, and managed to hang on to power last year after chasing Jason Kenney out of office an replacing him with Danielle Smith, who has run the place like gong show ever since. 

One imagines quite a few UCP voters in Calgary, where the 2023 election was won and lost, are suffering a severe case of buyers’ remorse by now. 

But as Notley reminded us yesterday, “if there is any one accomplishment that I can leave behind me, it’s that we are not a one-party province where Albertans have no real choice about how their province is run. 

“Albertans do not ever have to feel that elections and their opinions don’t matter. It was that way when I started. It’s not that way anymore.

“Not only do I leave Albertans with that electoral choice, I leave them with a caucus that is filled with expert, dedicated, diverse people.” 

Of course the Conservatives tried to characterize the 2015 election as a fluke. But as the NDP’s fund raising efforts ($7.1 million in 2022) and vote totals in 2019 and 2023 proved, Notley’s NDP remains a force to be reckoned with.

And there is little danger, as some who ought to know better have suggested, that with Notley gone, the NDP will crumble. 

No, Rachel Notley made the NDP a party worth leading. A party, even, that can survive a bad leader or two and still form a competent, quintessentially Canadian government. 

That day can’t come too soon!

NDP to set leadership race rules on January 27

In a statement made soon after Notley’s announcement, Alberta NDP President Nancy Janovicek said the party’s Provincial Council will meet in Red Deer on January 27 to set the process and rules for the leadership contest. 

“Council will determine the start and end date of the campaign period,” she said. The party has chosen as chief returning officer Amanda Freistadt, a former Alberta NDP Table Officer who is now director of labour relations for the Saskatchewan Government and General Employees Union.

Freistadt shouldn’t have too much trouble ensuring Take Back Alberta founder David Parker, the far-right eccentric who takes credit for forcing out former UCP premier Jason Kenney and replacing him with Danielle Smith, doesn’t succeed where George Clark failed and engineer Kudatah 2.0 to take over the NDP. 

To hatch a hare-brained scheme like this, Mr. Parker must fear that the NDP is going to form the next Alberta government when voters get a chance for a retake.

David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...