Alberta Votes

Rachel Notley: a premier 50 years in the making

Rachel Notley was four when her father became NDP leader. He went on to become a legend in Alberta politics. Now his daughter joins his legacy as she prepares becomes Alberta's first NDP premier.

Her father helped start the NDP in Alberta, now she's pulled the party to centre stage

Rachel Notley led the populist party her father helped found more than 50 years ago to victory Tuesday, toppling the Progressive Conservative colossus that has dominated the province for more than four decades. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

Rachel Notley was born with orange roots.

She came into the world, and a very political world it must have been, two years after her father helped found the Alberta NDP.

She was four when her father, Grant, became the nascent party's leader.

He went on to become a legend in Alberta politics. Now his daughter seems poised to join him.

Throughout her childhood, Rachel Notley's father ran for office again and again. He lost in 1963, lost in 1967, lost a byelection in 1969.

NDP supporters cheer as the results come in at Notley's headquarters in Edmonton Tuesday night. (Mike Ridewood/Canadian Press)
He kept trying. And finally, on his fourth kick at the political can, he won the party's first Alberta seat in 1971, the same year Peter Lougheed's Conservatives swept aside a moribund Social Credit Party that had been in power since the 1930s.

No one could have guessed at the time that the Conservatives were on their way to building their own political dynasty, one that would last for nearly 44 years.

During one-quarter of those years, Grant Notley was the lone NDP member in the legislature. He became leader of the Official Opposition in 1982.

October 1984 plane crash

Then, in October 1984, he was killed in a plane crash near High Prairie, Alta. He was 45.

Grant Notley died two years before his party finally made a breakthrough; in the 1986 provincial election, the NDP under leader Ray Martin captured 16 seats. That total, until Tuesday, had been the NDP high water mark.

Rachel Notley has now taken her father's party to new heights.

Born on April 17, 1964, she grew up in Fairview in northern Alberta, the oldest of three children to Grant and Sandy Notley.

'Let's leave the parties of the past behind,' Notley said when she won the party leadership in October 2014, and that's just what the NDP did Tuesday night, winning 53 of 87 seats in the Alberta Legislature. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

She was 20 when her father died. After studying political science at the University of Alberta, she got a law degree from Osgoode Law School in Toronto and went to work as a labour relations officer for the United Nurses of Alberta.

No one was surprised when she announced in 2008 her intention to run for the party in Edmonton-Strathcona.

The riding had a mixed past. The Conservatives held it from 1971 until 1986, when New Democrat Gordon Wright wrestled the seat away from PC Julian Koziak. The NDP held the seat for three terms, before the Liberals won in 1993. Former NDP leader Raj Pannu took the seat back in 1997, retained it in 2001, and won by 5,000 votes in 2004. He stepped down in 2008 and Notley took over, winning the seat in March by 2,800 votes.

A bump on the road

Her career hit a bump a month after the election, when two Greenpeace protesters snuck into Edmonton's Shaw Conference Centre and dropped from the ceiling in harnesses to unfurl a banner that read, "Stelmach: The Best Premier Oil Money Can Buy."

One protester turned out to be a woman who worked two days a week in Notley's constituency office.

"It was something that I didn't find out about until after she had done it," Notley said at the time. "It's a personnel matter, and so it's something I'm going to discuss with her in person and not through the media."

Notley was re-elected in 2012, this time with a margin of more than 6,000 votes over her nearest competitor.

The NDP built it's campaign around Notley, and her message of change resonated with Albertans. (CBC)

In the fall of 2014, she ran for the leadership once held by her father. During the race, she collected $108,815 in campaign contributions, more than double the total of her two competitors.

But that pales in comparison to the more than $1.8 million Jim Prentice raised to fund his run last summer for the Conservative leadership.

Notley won her race handily, getting 70 per cent of the 3,589 votes cast in the first ballot, easily defeating member of the legislature David Eggen and union leader Rod Loyola.

'Let's make history'

In her victory speech before a crowd of several hundred supporters, Notley promised change and a viable alternative to the Progressive Conservative and Wildrose parties.

Notley, a lawyer by training, represents Edmonton-Strathcona. She was first elected in 2008. (Jason Franson/Canadian Press)
"In the next election, Albertans will have a choice to make between the past and the future," Notley said at the time. "In the past, you have a tax on pensions, you have lakes of fire, you have arrogance, you have entitlement, you have a narrow-minded vision of days gone by.

"Let's leave the parties of the past behind," she said. "This time, let's not forget history. Let's not repeat history. Let's make history."

The next day, in a sad nod to history, her own and the province's, she spoke at a memorial service to mark the 30th anniversary of her father's plane crash.

'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- Rachel Notley in October 2014

"We as a movement are not about one person," she said that day. "We are not about the last leader, the current leader, 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."

But in the Alberta election of 2015, this one particular person played a major role in turning her once-small and sidelined party into a fully realized political force.

Poll after poll this spring showed the NDP leading by wide margins over the PCs and the Wildrose. At least some of that support seems directly linked to issues of trust and leadership. A CBC-ROI poll released last week asked respondents to rate the overall performance of the leaders of all five parties. Fifty-three per cent gave Notley a favourable approval rating. That was the same percentage who disapproved of Prentice's performance as leader.

'Shades of Jack Layton'

"Rachel Notley has built this campaign around her," pollster Bruce Cameron said last week. "It has shades of Jack Layton, in that she is quite popular and she has a lot of energy."

Notley showed some of that energy last November, during her first sitting as leader, when she rose in the legislature to attack Prentice on the issue of gay-straight alliances in schools.

Notley's campaign had shades of the late Jack Layton's federal election campaign in 2011. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)
"This premier has shown himself to be as socially conservative as any 'lake of fire' candidate," she said, in reference to a blog post by a Wildrose candidate that surfaced during the 2012 election and was credited, in part, with derailing the right-wing party's electoral chances. "Indeed," Notley said. "it's as though he's consciously trying to move this province back in time."

Her comments were greeted by a chorus of catcalls from the government bench.

But Notley, now five years older than her father was when he died, stood her ground.

"I'm sorry, you may not like this," she told the boo-birds, "but this is real."

It appears the same can now be said of the tiny party Grant Notley helped found more than 50 years ago, the party his daughter has now moved to the centre of the Alberta political stage.


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