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Rachel Notley's Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Year

Premier Rachel Notley has had something of an "annus horribilus." Just over a year ago, she shocked the country when her New Democratic Party swept to power, with promises to create jobs and wean the province of its dependence on oil and gas revenue. Then the price of oil collapsed, 120,000 Albertans lost their jobs, and a devastating wildfire forced 90,000 people from their homes. She spoke to Michael Enright from Edmonton.
Alberta Premier Rachel Notley leaves a news conference in Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada, May 9, 2016 after wildfires forced the evacuation of the town. (CHRIS WATTIE/AFP/Getty Images)

Premier Rachel Notley has had something of an "annus horribilus."

Just over a year ago, she shocked the country when her New Democratic Party swept to power, with promises to create jobs and wean the province of its dependence on oil and gas revenue. Then the price of oil collapsed, 120,000 Albertans lost their jobs, and a devastating wildfire forced 90,000 people from their homes. And although Premier Notley's leadership throughout these crises has been widely praised, many challenges remain.

 This weekend at the Alberta NDP convention in Calgary, delegates gave Premier Notley a strong vote of confidence -- 97.8 per cent voted in favour of her leadership. Premier Notley spoke to Michael Enright from Edmonton.

The following sections are excerpts from a longer conversation and have been edited for clarity and length. To hear the full interview, click the 'play' button above. 

A giant fireball is visible as a wildfire rips through the forest by Highway 63, 16 kilometres south of Fort McMurray, Alta. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

On rebuilding Fort McMurray 

I remember watching footage of — I guess we can call them refugees — walking back from their cars into the city. It was quite a striking moment. What are the key challenges [of] redevelopment? We now know that there are parts of Fort McMurray that contains mounds of toxic ash, benzene, arsenic, and so on. Perhaps those areas are not livable anymore. Where do you begin? 

We begin and we end with the people of Fort McMurray. What we know about instances like this, when you have this kind of disaster and catastrophe, is that people pull together often at the beginning of it, but often as the tensions and the frustrations wear on over months, that so too do tempers and frustrations grow. We need to do everything we can, so that spirit of rebuilding, that dedication to the community that we're seeing from so many people, continues. 

There have been a number of people the most prominent, I suppose, is the activist and author Naomi Klein — who've used the fire, or pointed to the fire, as a talisman, in a way, to attack the oil industry and to raise the question of climate change as a factor. There was a lot of talk at the beginning saying, "We don't want to talk about this right now, because people are in desperate shape." What about in retrospect, when you talk about climate change and the way her criticisms have come up? 

Well, I don't think they were terribly helpful, unfortunately. They continue to reflect a perhaps blinkered view of certain of these issues. We introduced, as you know, our Climate Leadership Plan last fall. It's a very, very ambitious plan, especially coming from an energy-producing province, but quite frankly, in relation to any jurisdiction. And what people sometimes forget is that some of the people that were on the stage with me as I was introducing this plan were, in fact, the leading producers from the oil and gas sector, and indeed, from Fort McMurray and from around the oil sands.

There are those within the energy sector who understand that they need to invest in better technology to reduce their emissions and reduce the amount of carbon in every barrel that's produced. So that is something that's often forgotten,  I think at the end of the day, we as a province embarked upon a plan to make some very major progress on the issue of climate change, but part of the way we finance that is by ensuring that we have a healthy economy, and at this point, that also means having a healthy energy economy. 

"You can develop energy — even Norway does — sustainably, responsibly, and that's the kind of direction that I want to take the province in," says Alberta Premier Rachel Notley. (CP)

On oil and the resource economy 

But ultimately, your goal is to wean Alberta off gas and oil. Is that not the case? 

It depends on whether you're talking about a hundred years from now or ten years from now.... Let's talk about the life of my government.

What I'm interested in doing is not weaning people off of oil and gas. What I'm interested in doing, is promoting a more responsible, sustainable energy industry that is able to meet the demands more responsibly worldwide. And then have our product be accepted into more environmentally-focused economies, while that demand continues to exist.

Then in the meantime, change our behaviour here in the province of Alberta, both in terms of what we use for our electricity, for our power, for the way that we get from point A to point B. 

But isn't there a fundamental hope, and indeed a prayer, that world oil prices will recover substantially in order to allow you to do this? 

One of the things we're focusing on is the issue of pipelines...Our first task in Alberta is to simply stop having to deal with the discounted price that we receive in Alberta for much of our product. So just by doing that, we can see a 15, 20 per cent rise in the return to Albertans...and let me be clear, I mean the return to Canadians, because again, it's not just an Alberta-specific problem. 

I can't control the international price of oil. What I can do, is do everything I can to make sure that as participants in the non-renewable energy economy, internationally - that Canadians [participate] in a way that is strategic, and smart, and gets the best return that we can. And we're not doing that right now by failing to get a pipeline to tidewater. 

Does your survival depend on getting a pipeline to tidewater?

Well, I don't know. I think there's no question that it is a critical component to a sound economic strategy for the province, for the country, over the course of the next decade. And we're going to continue to work on it. Whether it's a test or not a test, I don't know, but it's certainly a priority for me. 

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley urges NDP delegates to support the energy industry and the environment during the 2016 NDP federal convention in Edmonton. Notley argues the Leap Manifesto, which was the focus of an intense debate at the convention, "demonstrates a tremendous lack of understanding about how our economy works." (Codie McLachlan/Canadian Press)

On the Leap Manifesto

You are a card-carrying member of the New Democratic Party. You come from a luminous NDP family. But you've been very critical of, particularly, the federal NDP. At the convention in Edmonton, when [a resolution to discuss] the so-called Leap Manifesto was passed, calling for a ban of new pipelines, leave the stuff in the ground - you said they were tone-deaf, and naive. Can you expand on that? 

Well, first of all, I wouldn't say that I was critical of the federal party - 

You wouldn't? 

What I was critical of was the Leap document...which I believe, as you quite rightly quoted, is tone-deaf, and demonstrates a tremendous lack of understanding about how our economy works, and doesn't demonstrate that the authors have spent a lot of time sitting around talking to people who earn their living, who pay their mortgage, who support their families, by working in the resource sector in this country.

In my view, as a New Democrat — you talked about how I'm a card-carrying New Democrat. Well, I am. I'm very proud of my party and of its roots. And we are a party that cares about protecting the best interests of working people, ensuring that families have the resources they need to give the opportunities that we want to ensure are shared equally amongst all citizens of our country - and that means we need to ensure that people can have real, good-paying, sustainable, predictable jobs.

And so a document that seems to sort of wave those off as just, "Oh well, it's the cost of doing the right thing, that we'll not care about the future of those families that would be negated through our plan" - you know, that's insensitive, and frankly, it doesn't reflect a fulsome understanding of what this country was built on. 

Monica Pigeon volunteers at a local soup kitchen, on April 25th, 2015 in downtown Fort McMurray, Canada. (Ian Willms/Getty Images)

On Alberta's financial woes

You have to pay bills. Every government does. Where are you going to get the revenues now? How are you going to manage and navigate the government without cutting public service jobs, or programs, when you don't have the dough? 

First of all, Alberta's been through this before. We're not a province that is unfamiliar with the ups and downs of the price of oil. In the past, previous governments have made decisions to simply slash public spending, and to put people out of work, and to set back education and healthcare by sometimes decades as a result of the thoughtless cuts. That's not the decision that we're making.

One of the things that we do have the benefit of in Alberta is, you know, we have strong fundamentals. We come at this problem with essentially no debt. There's no other province in the country that begins with that. We do have a plan to balance. It's not as quick as historically Albertans are used to, but we do have a plan to balance...We're not going to repeat the mistakes of the past. We're not going to add to the unemployment lines. We're not going to slash healthcare and education. We're going to invest in the future and count on the great people of Alberta to engage in what needs to happen to successfully diversify our economy and resume our rate of growth. 

Do people think in some quarters, at the petroleum club or various steakhouses in Calgary, that perhaps you're trying to do too much too soon? 

I don't know. It's funny. Some days I get the message that we're doing too much too soon. Other days I get the message that we're not moving fast enough. I guess that's a sign, maybe, that we've struck the right chord. 

Click the button above to hear Michael's full conversation with Alberta Premier Rachel Notley. 

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