What’s Left

The NDP’s big challenge—and big opportunity

By Curtis Gillespie

On the western edge of downtown Edmonton sits a small, triangular park that commands a vista over the serpentine North Saskatchewan River valley. With its sublime and panoramic views, it’s the kind of outlook that encourages a person to reflect on the world and our place in it, which is fitting, given that the park is named after Grant Notley, the still-admired humanist and former leader of the Alberta NDP, who died October 19, 1984, at age 45, in a plane crash that took the lives of six people.

On the afternoon of October 19, 2014, amidst the vibrant colours of an aspen parkland autumn, Rachel Notley (who was 20 when her father died) said a few words at a ceremony at Grant Notley Park marking the 30th anniversary of her father’s death. Just the day before, she had become leader of the Alberta NDP. Speaking without notes, she remembered her father’s sense of humour and his commitment to social justice. “We as a movement are not about one person,” Notley told the small but emotional crowd. “We are not about the last leader, the current leader or the next leader. I’m very excited about what is to come. I think there will be another breakthrough. And it will not be because of one person.”

She has been a part of the Alberta political scene, by fate or intention, pretty much since the day she was born. She grew up watching her father act as a left-leaning tack in Peter Lougheed’s right shoe, one that subtly influenced the premier’s every step. Ray Martin, who took over the party when Grant Notley died, remembers Grant fondly and also how he and his daughter used to interact.

“You might not have guessed that she was going to go on to become the leader of the party,” Martin told me over coffee on a cold December afternoon just before Christmas. “But you could always see the spirit. I remember one day Grant was giving a talk in Grande Prairie.

Rachel was there. After Grant had finished speaking, he took questions. This girl’s voice came from the back of the room, really giving Grant the gears, asking him what he planned to do about helping out students who didn’t have enough money. It was Rachel.”

Rachel Notley eventually studied law at Osgoode Hall in Ontario, became a lawyer, and spent many years working in socially progressive settings, such as with the AUPE, with the Health Sciences Association of BC and in the BC Attorney General’s office, where she was part of a team that expanded family relations law to same sex couples. After returning to Edmonton in 2002, she occupied various roles with Friends of Medicare, the United Nurses of Alberta and the National Union of Public and General Employees. In 2006 Notley won the NDP nomination for Edmonton-Strathcona and was elected in 2008. She was re-elected in 2012 with the largest majority of any current MLA.


And now she’s the NDP leader. Although Notley may not frame it in these terms, the reality is that for all the challenges her father faced, hers may just be the more difficult, even though the NDP is in solid administrative shape—its current membership, at over 6,000, is up 20 per cent from last year, it raised over $1-million in 2014 and the party is in the black. Admired as Grant Notley was, filling the shoes of her father is not really the issue for Rachel Notley. In 2015 Alberta, she has an infinitely more vexing problem to grapple with: Why do most Albertans increasingly support progressive values but then routinely vote against those values every time a provincial election rolls around?

An hour or so before the NDP leadership vote announcement on the afternoon of October 18 at Edmonton’s Sutton Place Hotel, a cheer went around the room. A murmur was heard that someone was coming in with the tabulation. The mood in the room was joyous, expectant.

Brian Mason, who had stepped down as leader but decided to seek his seat again as an MLA in the next election, came to the podium prior to the vote announcement to great applause and said, “After that welcome from you, I think I’ve changed my mind about stepping down.” There was raucous laughter, preceded by a millisecond of horror that he wasn’t joking.

After Mason left the stage it was time for the results. The leadership campaign had been marked throughout by two principal components: first, the genuine civility of the three challengers (David Eggen and Rod Loyola being the other two), and second, the reality that if Notley didn’t win in a romp, the party deserved whatever ill fate might thereafter befall it. The officials came onstage to announce that Rachel Notley, with a 70 per cent majority, was the new leader of the Alberta NDP. After the cheering died down, Notley took the stage to say that she felt there was “something in the air” around the party and that it was now their job to change the paradigm. “Let’s not forget history,” she said, “and let’s not repeat history. Let’s make history!”

Some weeks later, I met with Notley at her office in the shabby warrens of the Legislature Annex, a building somehow symbolic of the province’s infrastructural malaise. She told me that the leadership race was a positive experience but that “it also tested us, in that it’s not really part of parliamentary tradition to call by-elections—four in this case—when one of the parties sitting in the legislature does not have a leader. I would characterize that as bad form.”

I asked Notley if she thought the Prentice PCs had done this on purpose. Did they schedule the by-elections when they did to challenge the NDP’s capacity and to take away from any real buzz the party generated around the leadership race? Or from Notley herself, whom Prentice surely recognizes as a formidable opponent? “They obviously had many considerations to do what they did,” she told me, “but I would say that respect for their colleagues was not one of those considerations.”

The hustle and bustle of the cafe at Spinelli’s in west Edmonton feels vaguely like an updated version of a Brooklyn family grocery, the kind of working-class place you might find a union rep. I met the Edmonton Journal’s political columnist, Graham Thomson, there one day in early January to chat about Alberta’s political climate and where progressive politics and the NDP fit into the Alberta equation.

“Good question,” he said, laughing, as he stirred his coffee and nibbled his biscotti.

Thomson has been observing Alberta politics for many decades and he thought he’d seen it all, but the floor-crossing of Danielle Smith floored him. We now know that while Smith was labelling the PC party not just a fossilized dinosaur but practically bituminous, she was engaged in precisely the kind of behind-closed-doors political machinations she’d made her career criticizing.

“To me,” Thomson said, “it was reprehensible. I actually took them at face value on issues of accountability. Then they went and did exactly what they’ve attacked the government for doing for years. It was cynical and a slap in the face to Albertans.”

Smith’s defection from both party and principle was in some ways the second half of a horror show double bill for Albertan women, many of whom believed in Redford’s “single-moms heading off the neanderthal Wildrose together” narrative, and many of whom gathered around Smith’s “hold power to account” tent pole. Gender is not the only or the most important issue in any election cycle, but it becomes relevant when politicians clearly target female voters.

The last premier truly in touch with Albertans’ progressive tendencies was Lougheed, who was arguably more left than the NDP today.

For her part, Notley never bought Redford’s act, but understood what was behind it. “Alison ran a distinctly unconservative campaign in the last election,” she said. Redford struck a chord (though a false chord in the end) because people were looking to hear someone talk about public services, education, healthcare and social justice. “It was frustrating to me,” said Notley, shaking her head at the memory, “because I’d been across from her in the assembly long enough to know that that was not who she was. I’d been in enough debates with her to know she was posing all along.”

She was posing because she could see that an increasing number of Albertans are not right-wing and may not even be conservative at all, though they may not quite consciously phrase it that way yet. Notley’s challenge, as she sees it, is to get Albertans to understand that amidst all the PCs’ pre-election progressive chest-thumping and post-election neo-con reversals there is only one party that actually matches talk to policy year after year, instead of merely reacting strategically to polling data. “The PCs poll before they get up in the morning,” said Notley with a grin. “Prentice probably polls about what shoes he should wear that day. But this time around,” she continued, meaning the current election cycle, “it’s going to be a question of being able to successfully reach out to people who voted against their values last time. These people went so far as to vote PC, in many cases holding their noses because they weren’t that pumped about the PCs going into the last election to begin with. We want to say to them, ‘This time let’s try it this way, our way.’”

What does it mean when Notley says “our way”? The political landscape of Alberta is both rigid and volatile, in the way that a volcanic mountain is hard, craggy and stable… until the moment the top comes off and lava pours out. On the surface, it seems like we’re all just hiking along as usual, while under the dome (political and otherwise) is all kinds of tectonic activity.

Notley knows she has to somehow precipitate that eruption without alienating voters. “People are always a bit cautious in Alberta,” she said. “The government and the oil industry tell us continually that we are entirely dependent on the success of the oil and gas industry. Yes, of course, to some degree we need them to be successful.” Notley added that the pace and level of resource exploitation in Alberta are essentially both out of control and not under control, which are not exactly the same thing. “And yet we just accept it.”

Graham Thomson is considerably more blunt. “People in Alberta like to think we’re mavericks, but we’re sheep.”

In a 2010 interview Notley cast the issue in not dissimilar terms. When asked why progressive politics has had a hard time gaining traction in Alberta, Notley did not mince words. “Sometimes we act like an abused partner, the left, acting in ways that allows the Tories to hang on to power. We’ve spent too much time casting our activities in non-partisanship because people don’t get contracts if they’re partisan for the wrong party. We don’t push back the way they do in other provinces. The way out is to encourage people to re-embrace politics and to re-embrace the partisanship that most reflects their political values, to not apologize for them, and to push back.”

The timing and ideological framing of the political discussion Alberta so badly needs today is exceedingly delicate for Notley, because the electorate she’s speaking to doesn’t seem to realize that it’s allowed to think outside the box—even though at this point in our history, said Notley, “Albertans are just not that far right.” For Notley in many ways it boomerangs back to revenue generation, to the flat tax. “It has to be replaced with a tax where very wealthy Albertans pay their fair share,” Notley told me. “It’s time to get off the royalty rollercoaster and build a responsible, stable economy. We just need a government willing to plan for the future by implementing a system of funding that doesn’t rely entirely on the price of a barrel of oil.” She donned an expression of slapstick surprise. “There’s been a blip in the oil and gas market! Really? I could never have predicted that the price of oil would fluctuate! I never saw that coming!” She paused for effect. “I mean, come on.”

What she continues to find fascinating is that Albertans “don’t even really know how progressive they are.” And not just in social values—which we can see through the increasing attention to minority rights and cultural diversity, the ongoing rejection of full-service private healthcare despite relentless government pitching, and the election of highly progressive mayors in both Edmonton and Calgary. Albertans are also progressive on fiscal and taxation issues. “Part of the problem,” she added, touching on one of the essential reasons why we vote the way we do, “is that people think there’s a larger group of people opposing them than there really is.”

North Americans do not currently live in a “hospitable ideological climate” for dialogue around taxation, as professors Paul Saurette and Shane Gunster write in their contribution to the 2013 anthology Tax Is Not A Four Letter Word. For the last four decades, they note, the conservative movement has invested not just in campaigns to discredit the very notion of taxation (introducing and popularizing such value-laden terms as “tax burden” and “tax relief”) but in a wider-ranging strategy to stigmatize collective political action. Progressives, therefore, must not only draft good policy around taxation but also create the conditions in which to have the discussion.

It is apparent that Notley is the only voice of any really substance or credibility to challenge Prentice in the months and years ahead.

In the spring of 2004, when Ralph Klein polled Albertans about their feelings on the Kyoto Protocol, he found that fully 70 per cent of Albertans supported Kyoto. This was not the number or trend that he wanted, and so, in time-honoured manner, he spent his summer locating and skewing data. He found a report projecting that if Alberta supported Kyoto it might generate half a million fewer jobs over the life span of the oil sands, and that Alberta could go from being a hot economy to merely a strong economy. There would still be job growth, but it would be strong as opposed to rampant. Klein took this single number and told Albertans that supporting Kyoto would cost the province half a million jobs and that it would downgrade the provincial economy. When Klein polled again in the fall, 70 per cent of Albertans were against Kyoto. It was dishonest, but strategically brilliant.

Ironically, the last premier truly in touch with the progressive tendencies of Albertans was Peter Lougheed, who was arguably more left-wing than the NDP today. State ownership of resource companies? Check. Recommendations for measured and highly regulated development of the oil sands? Check. Socialized savings to create economic diversity? Check. Significant funding for the arts? Check. Forward-thinking legislation to protect the marginalized? Check.

What all this tells us is that for many decades the gut instinct of Albertans has been, if not progressive, then centrist for sure, even if we remain consciously motivated by fear, particularly economic fears. This is not abnormal. Politicians since time immemorial have understood that people prefer having a job to not having a job. But the right wing in Alberta and in most of the westernized world has been spectacularly successful in laying sole claim to fiscal responsibility, painting the left as a group of tax-and-spend dreamers who cannot be trusted to run an economy.

“Which is ridiculous,” said Ray Martin. “I have always challenged people just to look at the record of various progressive governments. NDP governments in many provinces have run stable and strong economies.” Certainly Sweden and Norway, which continue to vote left or centre-left, have created strong economies and equitable societies via progressive humanist values as opposed to the free market rodeo.


Not that Norway’s example makes Notley’s job any easier. A misconception lodged in the minds of hundred of thousands of voters is not going to disappear simply because she can point to a progressive oil-rich jurisdiction halfway around the world. The election of progressive-minded mayors in both Calgary and Edmonton helps, although this value is diluted by the fact that municipal politicians do not carry formal party affiliations.

“A big part of the problem,” said Parkland Institute director Ricardo Acuña, “is a disconnect in Alberta between people’s values and their sense of politics, particularly since the early 1990s.” Partisan politics, he said, has become tainted, something people sneer at or find distasteful. Right-wing media and think tanks frame government and the political sphere as corrupt and self-interested, which is why you so often see politicians of all stripes vowing to “clean things up” when they get to Edmonton/Ottawa/Washington. Preston Manning and Stockwell Day did it. Stephen Harper did it. So did Danielle Smith. Ordinary citizens, due to this ideological blitzkrieg, come to see politics as tarnished, the playground of the self-interested.

“It’s a very complex conversation,” said Notley. “We’re facing the influence of US politics, which is broken, and we also fight against the fact that Alberta has the most outrageous financial election laws in the country. Oh my Lord. It’s absolutely out of control. There are virtually no donation limits if you’re a wealthy corporation. There are loopholes you can drive a truck through. In his leadership campaign Jim Prentice raised $1.8-million, and I raised $140,000 in mine. I had 610 donations and he had 560. Which means he had corporations donating to him and I had actual living, breathing human beings. [Alberta’s corporate donation limits are higher than any jurisdiction’s in Canada.] That being said, if you keep what you’re talking about true to what a significant number of people in the population care about, then you’re always going to have strength. If you move too far away from what people care about, you’re going to lose your focus.”

But trying to stay close to what Albertans care about leads to the question of what chance the NDP has in the next election and what its true role should be. The real question is about seats, about who forms the Official Opposition and about who is able to step into the question mark posed by those who say “If not PC, then who?” Much more likely than overthrowing the PCs in the near term is the possibility that if Notley leads her party to Official Opposition territory it will kill off the last vestiges of the Liberal brand in Alberta. And with the Wildrose rapidly losing petals, it’s not inconceivable that we could see a two-party race between the PCs and the NDP in 2020. Notley is closely noting the trends and likes what she sees. “Just look at the fall by-elections,” she said, her voice animated. “The PCs loaded the deck. The NDP could have solved world hunger and still not won those seats. Those were their absolute strongholds. But even so they still dropped 20 points in their support. We went up 15 even though we were against their star candidates.”

Still, in a general election Notley will have to tread smartly, firmly but lightly, in two essential arenas: taxation and the oil industry. In Alberta 2015, saying you’re going to more tightly regulate the oil industry is like barging into a room of oil executives in 1980s Calgary and shouting “Don’t you just love Pierre Trudeau?!” Yes, the industry badly needs rigorous regulatory oversight and some day it will happen. But not today.

A spring 2015 election is likely, since there’s really no good reason for Prentice to wait until 2016. The fall in oil prices, the economic uncertainty, the unwitting capitulation of Smith and her colleagues, the looming federal election—all point to a spring election. In that election, Notley will come up against an ossified PC party that Prentice has stocked with a few fresh and competent faces, such as Stephen Mandel, who performed admirably as Edmonton’s mayor for three terms. The problem with the PC party, however, is that it’s been rendered dysfunctional through institutional complacency that is also slowly choking off the province’s political vitality. And so what will Rachel Notley have to do to put the defibrillator to Alberta politics?

“She’s going to have show that she’s moderate,” said Thomson. “Progressive but moderate.”

“It’s a good time for the NDP,” said Acuña. “And Rachel is who they want leading them. But many different things could happen. With this amalgamation on the right, the NDP could actually get wiped out. People like David Eggen and Deron Bilous benefited from a split on the right.”

“Alberta voters feel oppressed,” said Notley, “which is one of the reasons they tend to vote so strategically, just so they can find a way to make their vote count. The task in front of us is to get our message out and to convince Albertans that there is strategic value in casting a ballot for us. And we’ll have that discussion on doorstep after doorstep after doorstep.”

The day I visited Notley in her office at the Legislature Annex, she offered me coffee while we spoke. She put her coffee down on the table without a coaster, prompting her assistant to speedily produce one. “Brian was always getting on me about that, too. I mean, my tables at home are covered in coffee circles. They don’t really bother me, I guess.” She laughed. “Anyway,” she continued, “I just think that in many ways we’re actually more progressive than any other part of the country. But there’s still that disconnect, that gap, between how Albertans feel about the world and how they vote.”

Of course, Notley understands that there are layers of political crusting accumulated over the decades that will first need peeling back for Albertans to have the freedom to express themselves politically. Factors such as our outdated first-past-the-post election system, our corporate-friendly electoral financing laws, the neocon-driven, bitterly ideological political climate, the job security whip of the oil sands—all of which still only partly explain why Albertans so regularly vote against their own values.

Perhaps in the same way that an art historian might have to remove a century of grime to uncover the real beauty of a work of art, maybe Alberta’s political and economic landscapes have to be cleaned up first for us to uncover who we really are. When Rachel Notley accepted her party’s leadership on October 18, she did so to wild applause and outright adoration. It was a partisan audience of course, but perhaps they sensed what only became fully apparent the day Danielle Smith crossed the floor to join the Prentice PCs about six weeks later: Notley is the only voice of any real substance or credibility to challenge Jim Prentice in the months and years ahead. Still, at some level, what Notley is doing is trying to help us understand ourselves.

Curtis Gillespie is author of many books, most recently the memoir Almost There, and has won three National Magazine Awards.


The Nenshi Years

I find it easy to forget what Calgary was like when it all began—before what I’ll call the Nenshi Years. It feels like a lifetime ago, several political epochs back. Before the pandemic, before the Olympic bid, before the flood. Before the boom—and whole boom–bust cycle—ended. Before the PC collapse ...

Amarjeet Sohi

On a Friday morning in spring 2016, Amarjeet Sohi sat barefoot in the den of his craftsman style home in south Edmonton. His first few months as Canada’s federal minister of infrastructure had been frantic, sending him across the country to listen to the wants and needs of every big-city ...

The Legacy of Don Iveson

They called it “Project Sixteen” because of the odds. When Don Iveson first entered city politics to run for council in 2007, he and his young team ignored an open race in a ward filled with university students and profs. Instead, the 28-year-old candidate went up against incumbent Mike Nickel ...