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'Rachel brought democracy to the Prairies': A look back at the legacy of Notley as the NDP chooses a new leader

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Growing up on a farm near Fairview, Alta., over 500 kilometres from Alberta's capital, a life in the legislature might not have seemed the most obvious choice for Rachel Notley.

In a video featuring the Alberta NDP leader on the party's website, Notley jokes about an incident building a fence with her father which resulted in his truck driving off a cliff.

"I don't think I can really repeat what my dad was saying as he realized that he couldn't stop the truck from going over the cliff. Let's just say it was a bit more colourful," joked Notley.

Her father served as a political influence in her life. Grant Notley was a member of the legislature and former leader of Alberta's NDP for 16 years. He died in a plane crash near High Prairie in October 1984.

Thirty years later, his daughter was named NDP leader, in 2014. In an interview one day after being named leader, Notley told CTV News, "I want to speak to Albertans as Rachel Notley, not as Grant Notley's daughter."

'A little bit of history'

Seven years after being elected as one of only two NDP MLAs in 2008, Rachel Notley ended a 44-year Progressive Conservative reign and became the first new democrat to lead Alberta.

"I think we might have made a little bit of history tonight," Notley joked as she took the stage in May 2015 following her election win.

"It's always devastating for politicians because whether it's you or the party, it feels like a personal rejection," recalled former PC MLA and deputy Premier Thomas Lukaszuk. He was one of 61 PC MLAs to lose their seats in 2015.

Notley's former director of communications Cheryl Oates remembers the night more fondly.

"It was still almost disbelief to be in the room and realize that we had done it, and that Rachel would become premier."

Alberta NDP leader Rachel Notley speaks on stage after being elected Alberta's new Premier in Edmonton on Tuesday, May 5, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

As premier, Notley was tasked with governing a party that grew from four to 54 MLAs overnight. Former political reporter turned consultant for Crestview Strategy Tom Vernon recalls questions surfacing in the following days.

"Who is going to help usher in this new government? And what was this going to look like over the next four years?"

Legislative legacy

Notley got to work naming new ministers. She appointed the first gender-balanced cabinet in Canada's history and Alberta's first Status of Women minister. When asked about the new ministry, Notley explained, "We need a government that understands ensuring that women's rights are addressed."

Oates says Notley didn't end up with the first gender-balanced cabinet by accident, adding, "This was something that Rachel fought really hard for – and could not be persuaded. She ensured that in every election that she was leader – in 2015, 2019 and 2023 – that the slate the NDP ran was at least 50 per cent women."

In pursuit of change, Notley also ushered in a climate change plan aimed at cutting greenhouse gases through a consumer carbon tax. She also committed to ending coal-powered electricity generation by 2030.

"Love it or hate it, but it was the first step Alberta took when it came to a consumer carbon tax, taking a leadership role when it came to dealing with the environment in this province," Vernon said.

Not all of her changes were welcomed. By December 2015, crowds of farmers and ranchers gathered outside Alberta's legislature in opposition of a bill Notley promised would improve farm safety.

"We do not like it that we have a communist-socialist government in that is not listening to the people," said protestor Ann Stewart in 2015.

Oates acknowledges the party's misstep.

"I think the NDP and Rachel specifically have been pretty honest. We did not roll that out the way we should have," Oates said.

"The way this was handled was a very hard lesson for this government. They did not properly consult rural Albertans." Vernon said.

The end of the orange crush

Anger over environmental and labour policies, coupled with plummeting oil prices, left the NDP vulnerable. Voter discontent simmered as a new United Conservative Party took shape under former Conservative MP Jason Kenney. In 2019, Kenney's UCP swept the NDP taking back 63 seats with a majority government.

Premier-Designate Jason Kenney and Alberta Premier Rachel Notley meet in Edmonton on Thursday, April 18, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

After three years of questioning Kenney on health care, education and workers rights, Notley was presented a new challenge. The 2022 UCP leadership race resulted in Danielle Smith taking the helm of the conservative party. The 2023 election saw Notley and Smith clash over credibility and the economy. The vote left the province painted UCP blue, aside from Edmonton and half of Calgary.

Eight months later, Notley announced her resignation.

Remembering Rachel

For former PC MLA Thomas Lukaszuk, Notley will be remembered for maintaining diplomacy in democracy.

"Her government was the last government that I can think of that you could sit down with and agree to disagree at the end of the debate in the house and still have mutual respect for one another," Lukaszuk said.

Others say her legacy was giving Albertans choice.

"A real two-party system in Alberta, Rachel brought democracy to the Prairies," Oates said.

A two-party system Vernon believes was able to thrive under her leadership.

"She has built them into a dominant force where she has taken the progressive side of the province and coalesced it around her party. It started with that win in 2015, but it could have easily faded away and they didn't under her leadership."

A new NDP leader will be named this Saturday in Calgary.

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