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Notley legacy as Alberta premier includes pipeline, higher minimum wage, deficits

One of Rachel Notley’s prized possessions from her time as Alberta premier sits on her bedroom dresser: a framed picture of hell freezing over.

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

“They had the paper with the headline, ‘NDP Ends Tory Dynasty,”’ Notley said of the anonymous gift.

“They took the front page of the Edmonton Journal and they put it on my Dad’s statue (in a downtown park named after him) and they took a picture and they framed it and they sent it.

“And there was this snowfall over all of it,” she said in an interview, smiling while tearing up and looking to an aide for a tissue.

“Because hell did freeze over May 6, as you’ll recall.”

Notley announced Tuesday she would be stepping down as party and caucus leader after almost a decade at the helm.

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

She took it from four members to the heights of majority government in 2015, exploiting a rift on the centre-right to end the PCs’ four-decade run.

The NDP lost government four years later to an opposition reunited under Jason Kenney as the new United Conservative Party.

In 2023, Notley lost again to the UCP, under new Premier Danielle Smith, but with the consolation of a record-setting 38-member Opposition in the 87-seat house.

As premier, Notley’s government was handed a somewhat poisoned chalice, governing when oil and gas prices were at the nadir of their boom-and-bust cycle.

Nevertheless, it decided to build infrastructure and maintain spending on health and education, sending deficits spiralling into the billions and the debt soaring.

Notley’s team likened the surprising 2015 win to building an airplane in flight.

It embarked on an ambitious agenda. There was a climate leadership plan, including a consumer carbon levy and rebates, and a cap on oilsands emissions. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau cited these initiatives as justification to approve, and later purchase, the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline.

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

It phased out coal-fired electricity, revamped employment standards and labour relations codes and beefed up protections for LGBTQ students. Oil royalties were tweaked but not overhauled.

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

“You cannot pull this woman off of what she believes in. Her decisions are not based on pure politics. They are made with what is best for the most number of people at all times,” said Oates in an interview.

Asked what she misses about the Notley years, Oates said, “Meeting her in the hallway of a hotel in the middle of nowhere at 6:59 a.m. to run 10 kilometres before we got down to the business of the day, and getting to dig in on whatever the top concerns were, strategizing about what the days, hours or weeks ahead looked like.”

Notley was praised as a steady hand in 2016, as wildfires forced the evacuation of the oilsands hub city of Fort McMurray and torched more than 2,000 buildings.

Her party provoked the ire of rural residents with employment and workplace rules for farm workers that opponents warned would strangle traditional family operations with red tape.

There were protests on the steps of the legislature and chants sung to the tune of “Old MacDonald Had a Farm.”

“Now a Bill 6 here and a carbon tax there. Here a tax, there a tax, everywhere a tax, tax. Naughty Notley runs the show, E-I-E-I-O.”

The bill renewed rural discontent with the NDP that continues to resonate. In last May’s election, the NDP swept Edmonton, held the edge in Calgary but was decimated in all but a handful of constituencies outside the two major centres.

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

He kept the flickering NDP flame alight in the Alberta legislature in the 1970s, often as the party’s lone member in the house. He died in a plane crash on Oct. 19, 1984, while his daughter was in university.

Almost 30 years later to the day, on Oct. 18, 2014, Rachel Notley won the vote to become party leader, replacing the popular Brian Mason.

Notley has represented the Edmonton-Strathcona riding since 2008, winning handily in five consecutive elections.

She was politically active as a child, walking across Edmonton’s High Level Bridge before she was 10 with her mom, Sandy, in what she hazily recalls as an antiwar protest.

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

Sophie recalls friends’ first impressions of her mother: “Wow, your mom is really short and, oh my God, she curses like a sailor.”

Also in the video, Notley recalls growing up in Fairview in northern Alberta, gravitating to the contrarian or underdog position in school debates. “I inherently liked the idea of a good argument and having to fight the good fight.”

Outside school, she and friends would ride horses, including one named Jason.

She recalls the happiest of times going go to the store, getting two-for-one-cent candies, then stopping at the library and grabbing a few books, including one on Alberta’s Famous Five female political trailblazers.

She would then head home, sit and read. And read. When friends would call, she’d urge her mom to say she was not at home.

She was gone, lost in a book.

Now, as her 60th birthday looms on April 17, she is ready to turn the page.

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

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