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Alberta NDP leadership candidates torn about automatic ties to federal party

What began as a race to pick a new leader for Alberta’s Opposition NDP has triggered a broader existential debate over why being provincially orange must automatically tie you to the federal brand.

According to party constitutions, members of a provincial NDP are automatically members of the federal party.

It’s a linkage that caused headaches for Alberta’s NDP when it was in government from 2015 to 2019 and continues to prove politically problematic as it seeks to wrest power from Premier Danielle Smith’s United Conservatives in 2027.

The NDP got a big boost in profile — and a reported spike in memberships — earlier this month when former Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi joined the race.

Rakhi Pancholi, a two-term Edmonton legislature and one of the leadership candidates, immediately quit the race to back him.

Nenshi says it’s time for the Alberta NDP to cut the apron strings.

“I think the membership has to have a very serious conversation about its links with the federal NDP,” Nenshi said in an interview.

“I believe that our ties to the federal NDP are remnants of a party that wasn’t confident, a party that wasn’t grown up yet, that relied on big brother to look after us.”

A man wearing a suit smiles in front of a backdrop.
Former Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi entered the race for leader of the Alberta NDP earlier this month. (CBC News)

“Now this party is confident and a modern force and I don’t think we need that anymore,” he said. 

“The costs of allying with people who we don’t control, whose values and ethics may not line up with us, greatly outweigh the benefits.”

Nenshi isn’t alone in his views. Pancholi began her now-abandoned campaign by questioning the link.

“Membership in one political party should not require membership in another,” she said.

“Albertans who want to join the Alberta NDP should get to decide if they also want to become a member of the federal NDP.”

Candidate Kathleen Ganley, a former Alberta justice minister and current Calgary legislature member, has said she won’t shut the door on the debate.

“I think the concerns of members, especially when you hear them repeatedly, are very valid,” said Ganley.

Alliance with their federal counterparts has forced Alberta New Democrats to walk a policy tightrope on energy and environmental policy in a province where jobs and billions of dollars in revenue are tied to non-renewable resources like the oilsands.

The two wings openly butted heads in 2018 when Notley’s then-government celebrated Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government spending billions to purchase the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion to ensure more Alberta oil would get to the B.C. coast.

The move outraged environmental advocates, including those within the NDP. Federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh disparaged the purchase as a bad deal for all involved.

In last year’s provincial election, Smith’s UCP happily harvested anti-Trudeau sentiment among voters by gleefully painting the Alberta NDP as either enthusiastic co-conspirators or impotent lackeys in the federal power sharing deal between Trudeau and Singh.

Shared history between parties

In an interview, former Alberta NDP leader Ray Martin said it’s wrong-headed to dump the ties, adding there is strength and pride in a shared history.

“Nenshi made some statements about the federal party that haven’t gone over very well here,” said Martin.

“The reality of it is when you look at the history of it going back to Tommy Douglas and the whole history of the party, it’s been the NDP provincially and federally.”

Douglas, the former premier of Saskatchewan, is widely seen as the father of medicare. He also served as the first federal leader of the newly formed NDP in 1961 when it changed its name from the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation.

Until today, six people were vying for the leadership of the Alberta NDP. Top row, from left, Jodi Calahoo Stonehouse, Gil McGowan and Kathleen Ganley. Bottom row, from left, Sarah Hoffman, Naheed Nenshi and Rakhi Pancholi, who dropped out of the race on Tuesday, trimming the field to five.
Six people were vying for the leadership of the Alberta NDP. Top row, from left, Jodi Calahoo Stonehouse, Gil McGowan and Kathleen Ganley. Bottom row, from left, Sarah Hoffman, Naheed Nenshi and Rakhi Pancholi, who dropped out of the race on Tuesday, trimming the field to five. (David Lipnowski/The Canadian Press, Jason Franson/The Canadian Press, Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press, CBC News)

Martin is backing Sarah Hoffman, an Edmonton legislature member and former deputy premier in Notley’s government.

Hoffman said the party doesn’t need to cut ties to sell itself.

“I don’t think we need to try to trick people into voting for us. I think if we really tell people who we are and demonstrate what our values are, they’re going to vote for us,” she said. “I never shied away from our values and I never will.”

“You’re not going to get some repackaged Liberal Party.”

Political analyst and Mount Royal University professor, Lori Williams, said that while severing ties may be controversial, the debate is not just coming from the outside.

“It’s making people angry because it’s [Nenshi] saying it. He’s not seen as somebody who is on the inside,” said Williams.

“But Pancholi said it [and] Kathleen Ganley expressed openness to it.”

WATCH | Why Calgary’s former mayor is running for the Alberta NDP leadership: 

Former Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi announces bid for Alberta NDP

19 days ago

Duration 2:19

The politician, known for his “purple” brand of politics, enters race to replace former leader Rachel Notley

Williams said shifting away from the federal NDP also may make the provincial party more palatable to those alienated by Alberta’s move further to the political right under the UCP.

“There are a lot of former Progressive Conservatives who do not see their conservatism in the current UCP government but can’t bring themselves to vote NDP,” she said.

The new Alberta leader is scheduled to be announced June 22.

The other two leadership candidates — Gil McGowan and Jodi Calahoo Stonehouse — did not return requests for comment.

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