Notley's legacy as Alberta premier includes pipeline, higher minimum wages and deficits


EDMONTON — One of Rachel Notley's most prized possessions from her time as Alberta premier sits on her bedroom dresser: a framed picture of Frozen Hell.

It's a photo of a newspaper headline taken the day after Notley's NDP pulled off a shocking political upset, forming a majority government for the first time while delivering the coup de grace to a gasping, scandal-plagued 44-year-old Progressive Conservative dynasty.

“They had the paper with the headline 'NDP ends Tory dynasty,'” Notley said of the anonymous donation.

“They took the front page of the Edmonton Journal and stuck it on my father’s statue (in a downtown park named after him), took a photo, framed it and sent it.

“And there was this snowfall on top of it,” she said in an interview, smiling, teary-eyed, and looking at an aide looking for a tissue.

“Because on May 6th, as you will remember, hell froze over.”

Notley announced Tuesday that she was stepping down as party and faction leader after nearly a decade at the helm.

During her time in power, the 59-year-old dog-loving, marathon runner, Fluevog shoe-wearing labor lawyer became the face and dominant force of the party.

She went from four members to the top of the majority government in 2015, exploiting a rift in the center-right to end the PCs' four-decade rule.

Four years later, the NDP lost government to an opposition that formed the new United Conservative Party under Jason Kenney.

In 2023, Notley lost again to the UCP, under new Prime Minister Danielle Smith, but with the consolation of a record opposition of 38 members in the 87-seat house.

As prime minister, Notley's government was handed a somewhat poisoned chalice, having governed when oil and gas prices were at the bottom of their boom-and-bust cycle.

Nevertheless, they decided to expand infrastructure and maintain spending on health and education, which led to billions of dollars in deficits and an increase in debt.

Notley's team likened the surprising 2015 win to building a plane in flight.

An ambitious agenda was set in motion. There was a climate leadership plan that included a carbon tax and rebates for consumers, as well as a cap on oil sands emissions. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau cited these initiatives as justification for approving and later purchasing the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.

Notley's NDP raised the corporate tax, raised the minimum wage to $15 an hour, piloted a $25-a-day day care program and broke ground on a new cancer hospital in Calgary.

It phased out coal-fired power, overhauled employment standards and labor relations rules, and strengthened protections for LGBTQ students. Oil royalties have been optimized but not revised.

Cheryl Oates, a senior adviser to Smith during those premier years, recalled a boss who encouraged collaboration around the Cabinet table, where there were no stupid questions and Notley herself asked a million because she had to know everything about everything.

“You can’t turn this woman away from what she believes in. Their decisions are not based on pure politics. They are made with the best possible for as many people as possible,” Oates said in an interview.

When asked what she misses about the Notley years, Oates said: “We met her at 6:59 a.m. in the hallway of a hotel in the middle of nowhere to run 10 kilometers before getting on with the day's business and “We started digging.” We address the most important concerns and develop strategies for what the coming days, hours or weeks will look like.”

Notley was praised as a calm man in 2016 when wildfires forced the evacuation of the oil sands city of Fort McMurray and burned more than 2,000 buildings.

Her party raised the ire of rural residents with employment and workplace rules for farm workers that opponents warned would stifle traditional family farms with bureaucracy.

There were protests on the steps of Parliament and chants of the song “Old MacDonald Had a Farm”.

“Now a Bill 6 here and a carbon tax there. A tax here, a tax there, a tax everywhere, a tax. Naughty Notley runs the show, EIEIO.

The bill renewed rural dissatisfaction with the NDP, which continues to resonate. In last May's election, the NDP won in Edmonton, was ahead in Calgary, but was decimated in all but a handful of constituencies outside the two major centers.

As leader, Notley continued the political tradition of her father, Grant Notley.

In the 1970s, he kept the NDP's flickering flame burning in the Alberta legislature, often as the party's only member in the House of Representatives. He died in a plane crash on October 19, 1984, while his daughter was still studying.

Almost exactly 30 years later, on October 18, 2014, Rachel Notley won the election as party leader, replacing the popular Brian Mason.

Notley has represented the Edmonton-Strathcona race since 2008, winning five elections in a row.

She was politically active as a child and, before she was ten, walked with her mother Sandy across the High Level Bridge in Edmonton in what she vaguely describes as an anti-war protest.

In a party promotional video for the 2019 election, Notley is highlighted alongside husband Lou Arab and children Sophie and Ethan.

Sophie remembers her friends' first impressions of her mother: “Wow, your mother is really short and, oh my god, she swears like a sailor.”

In the video, Notley also remembers growing up in Fairview in northern Alberta and being interested in the contrarian or underdog position in school debates. “I inherently liked the idea of ​​having a good argument and having to fight the good fight.”

Outside of school, she and her friends rode horses, including one named Jason.

She remembers the happiest time when she went to the store, bought candy for two cents, then stopped by the library and picked up a few books, including one about Alberta's five famous political trailblazers.

Then she went home, sat down and read. And read. When friends called, she told her mother to say she wasn't home.

She was gone, lost in a book.

Now, as her 60th birthday approaches on April 17, she's ready to turn the page.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 16, 2024.

Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press