Alberta Votes

Alberta Votes history lesson: When the NDP had 16 seats

In 1986, the NDP became the Official Opposition for the very first time by winning 16 seats, including three in rural Alberta. Now in 2015, party members think the timing is right for a replay.

In 1986, the NDP held 16 seats across the province. By 1993, they were shut out of the legislature

Then-leader Ray Martin reacts to the NDP winning 16 seats in the 1986 Alberta election 1:45

"Thank you my friends. Isn't it sweet?"

On May 8, 1986, a jubilant Ray Martin, leader of the Alberta NDP, stood before a cheering crowd, beaming as if he had just won the election.

After capturing 16 seats in an election won by Premier Don Getty and the Progressive Conservatives, the NDP would become the Official Opposition for the first time.

Eleven of those seats were in Edmonton, two in Calgary. The remaining three were in Athabasca-Lac La Biche, Vegreville and St. Albert.

The NDP kept the same number of seats three years later. NDP MLAs were elected in Stony Plain, West Yellowhead and Vegreville, where Derek Fox won his second term in office.

However, the NDP presence faded in 1993, left with no seats after 51 Tories and 32 Liberals were elected to the 83-seat legislature. 

The election was a battle between PC leader and former Calgary mayor Ralph Klein and Liberal leader and former Edmonton mayor Laurence Decore. The NDP found themselves shut-out of the debate. 

"Who could promise bigger cuts was the message of the day," said Fox, who lost his seat to Tory candidate and future premier Ed Stelmach that year. "So it was one or the other."

In 2015, the party is hoping to make a comeback with a push to win seats in Calgary, and possibly Lethbridge, in a bid to expand its reach outside of Edmonton.

While the party's support is growing, few believe the NDP has any chance of winning in rural Alberta, where right-wing parties like Tories and Wildrose are firmly entrenched.

The party wasn't bound by those expectations in 1986. The NDP's predecessor, the CCF, had its roots in rural areas. Candidates and volunteers were also motivated by the death of former leader Grant Notley, father of current leader Rachel Notley, in a plane crash in 1984.

"When he lost his life in that plane crash, it did have a galvanizing effect for a lot of people, that they wanted to work hard and not lose the vision that he had helped fan," said Bob Hawkesworth,  NDP MLA for Calgary-Mountain View from 1986 to 1993.

"For those of us who were around at that time, the current campaign with his daughter Rachel as the leader takes on special meaning and significance."

'It didn't just happen'

When Fox was elected in Vegreville in 1986, it wasn't a one-time oddity in Alberta electoral history. He repeated that feat in 1989.

Fox, who still lives in the town east of Edmonton, said his first win didn't entirely come out of the blue.

The incumbent had decided to step down, so the riding was wide open. The NDP had a strong organization in Vegreville at the time, and candidates had performed well in earlier elections.

Fox's strength as a candidate and the past NDP support made Vegreville one of seven ridings the party targeted for success in 1986.

Still, winning the election wasn't a given.

"It didn't just happen," Fox said Sunday. "I was nominated a year before the election and we campaigned with enthusiasm and vigour, and by the time the election was called, we were raring to go."

The same time Fox was campaigning in Vegreville, Hawkesworth, a long-time Calgary alderman, was running for the NDP in his city.

Hawkesworth sees many parallels between the 1986 and 2015 campaigns — the governing Progressive Conservatives at the time had a new leader and Albertans were anxious about a ballooning deficit caused by plunging oil prices.

It was for those reasons that Hawkesworth decided to run for the NDP, even if it meant leaving a comfortable seat on city council.

"With a government looking for a very large majority again in the legislature, it felt like there needed to be a strengthening of democratic voices and alternative points of view that needed to be represented," he said.

Hawkesworth won by a small margin in 1986, beating a young PC candidate named Jim Prentice.

Rebuild based in Edmonton

The party has been rebuilding since the devastating loss in 1993, which contributed to the current image of the NDP as an urban party based in Edmonton, Martin said.

The NDP was able to regain a toehold in the legislature in 1997, when Raj Pannu and Pam Barrett were elected in Edmonton-Strathcona and Edmonton-Highlands, respectively. Martin made his way back to the legislature in 2004.

Still, the party was never able to capture more than four seats, none of them outside Edmonton.

Martin, Fox and Hawkesworth believe that will change in 2015.

The factors that pushed the NDP to win 16 seats in 1986 exist again today. Hawkesworth believes the unpopular measures introduced by the government in the budget may help his party.

Then there's Notley, who Hawkesworth said reminds many of her father.

"I think one of the reasons the New Democrats are tracking so well is the popularity of Rachel Notley," he said. "She has all of the qualities of her father, and more."

Martin said he's hoping for the NDP to make a breakthrough.

"Sometimes in politics, it depends on the timing. And this time, I believe, like in '86, the timing is right."

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