Rachel Notley

Rachel Notley, 17th premier of Alberta (2015–19) and leader of the Alberta New Democratic Party (2014–), lawyer (born 17 April 1964 in Edmonton, AB). As a lawyer, Rachel Notley specialized in labour issues, working in both British Columbia and Alberta. The daughter of Grant Notley, Alberta NDP leader from 1968 to 1984, she won her first election in 2008 and was elected party leader in 2014. Notley led her party to a surprise electoral victory on 5 May 2015, defeating the longest-serving government in Canadian history — the Progressive Conservatives, who had been in power since 1971. However, in the 2019 Alberta general election, Notley and the NDP lost to Jason Kenney's United Conservative Party.

Rachel Notley
Rachel Notley, 17th premier of Alberta (photo taken 6 April 2015)

Family and Early Years

Rachel Notley was born in Edmonton, Alberta, on 17 April 1964, the eldest of three children to Sandra and Grant Notley, a trailblazer for the New Democratic Party (NDP). Her family moved to northwest Alberta after her father became the MLA for Spirit River-Fairview.

Her mother, Sandra Wilkinson, a native of Massachusetts, had been a social activist in the United States involved with protest leaders of the day such as Abbie Hoffman. She came to Alberta to visit a friend and became interested in the province’s burgeoning New Democratic Party, where she met her future husband. Rachel Notley has said that her mother had as much influence as her father on her social conscience, her mother taking her to protest marches before Notley had turned 10.

Through her father, she met some of the icons of Canadian socialism, including federal NDP leaders Tommy Douglas and Ed Broadbent. She remembers annoying her father when, as an adolescent, she met Broadbent: “I met him at some event; he smiled and introduced himself and shook my hand and I said, ‘Oh, you have that same fake politician smile as my father.’ Just horrible, right? I was just your standard obnoxious 12- or 13-year-old.”

She exasperated her father on several occasions, perhaps most notably when, as a college student, she attended one of his town hall meetings in Grande Prairie and challenged him on the issue of student debt. She complained that while her parents made too much money for her to qualify for a student loan, her father was too cheap to give her enough money to buy food.

“He was very irritated with me,” said Notley, recalling the event with a smile. “Everybody who worked with him was hyperventilating, they were laughing so hard. But he was really irritated. And then he gave me twenty dollars and that’s the story of how damned cheap he was.”

Education

Rachel Notley spent two years in college in Grande Prairie, Alberta, before moving to Edmonton to enrol at the University of Alberta. On 19 October 1984, the 20-year-old student learned that her father had died in an airplane crash near Lesser Slave Lake.

Notley graduated with a bachelor of arts in political science and moved to Toronto, Ontario, where she earned a law degree from Osgoode Hall Law School.

Legal Career

Rachel Notley moved back to Edmonton, Alberta, where she worked for the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, specializing in workers’ compensation cases. In 1994, she moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, to work for the Health Sciences Association (HSA) of British Columbia as an occupational health and safety officer. She took a leave of absence from the HSA for a year to work as an assistant to then provincial attorney general Ujjal Dosanjh on files that included safe communities, family relations law for same-sex couples, and improving how police and courts handled domestic abuse cases. Upon returning to the HSA, she was appointed by the BC government to help rewrite its health and safety legislation.

In 2002, she and her family returned to Edmonton, Alberta, where her husband took a job as director of communications for the two-person provincial New Democratic Party (NDP) caucus. Notley began contract work for the National Union of Public and General Employees, a labour coalition that monitors provincial and federal labour laws.

At various times, she was also an appeals commissioner for workers’ compensation cases, a tutor at Athabasca University and a sessional instructor in business law at Grant MacEwan College. She eventually went to work part-time with the United Nurses of Alberta.

In a June 2015 interview with The Canadian Encyclopedia, Notley said that, at the time, she was avoiding working too many hours: “I was doing all these little things because I was trying to work part-time while dealing with a three-year-old and a one-year-old.”

Political Career

Rachel Notley had been involved in provincial politics on several occasions as a New Democratic Party (NDP) volunteer but never as a candidate. In 2006, she decided to enter provincial politics by campaigning to succeed Raj Pannu, who was retiring as the NDP MLA for Edmonton-Strathcona.

She was acclaimed as the party’s candidate and won the seat in the 2008 election — she and party leader Brian Mason were the only NDP candidates elected. The two-person caucus divvied up 24 shadow cabinet positions; as a rookie, Notley was critic for aboriginal relations, advanced education, agriculture, children and youth services, culture, education, employment and immigration, environment, justice, seniors, sustainable resource development and tourism.

Although she has admitted to being nervous at the beginning, Notley soon proved herself one of the most able MLAs on either side of the assembly. She also demonstrated a parsimonious streak similar to her father’s famous tight-fisted ways. In 2010, she filed so few expense claims that her total compensation for the year was $129,857 — the second lowest of any MLA.

Notley has said her highlights as an opposition MLA included helping the homeless maintain the right to vote, establishing the independence of the Child and Youth Advocate and forcing the government to kill legislation that would have reduced pension benefits for public workers.

Notley held her seat in the 2012 provincial election and the NDP caucus doubled to four.

NDP Leader and 2015 Provincial Election

On 18 October 2014, Rachel Notley won the leadership of the Alberta New Democratic Party (NDP) with 70 per cent of the vote, defeating two other candidates.

On 7 April 2015, Premier Jim Prentice called a provincial election one year ahead of schedule. This was an attempt to win a mandate from Albertans for a tough-news budget that was a response to the drastic drop in provincial revenues caused by declining world oil prices.

Unlike the leaders of the Wildrose and Liberal parties, Notley campaigned to win the election, not simply to form the official opposition. At the beginning of the election campaign, public opinion polls pointed to a three-way race between the Progressive Conservatives (PC), Wildrose and the NDP. By the midpoint, polls had the NDP pulling ahead with a focus on repealing PC budget cuts to education, instituting a review of energy royalties and increasing the corporate tax rate by two percentage points.

Notley pulled further ahead in the polls after a strong performance in the only leaders’ debate, broadcast on television. PC leader Prentice stumbled when trying to make light of an NDP gaffe in its budget numbers, telling Notley, “I know math is difficult” — a flippant remark that was attacked by many as condescending.

Notley’s campaign displayed a mischievous sense of humour that helped engage voters, at one point issuing “Notley Crue” T-shirts, a play on words referencing the American heavy metal band, Mötley Crüe. Notley said she was delightedly shocked to learn, after the campaign, a little-known fact — that her father Grant, leader of the NDP until his death in 1984, had started a political club at the University of Alberta in the 1950s nicknamed “Notley’s Motley Crew.”

Rachel Notley
Rachel Notley after being sworn in as the 17th Premier of Alberta alongside her cabinet on the steps of the Alberta Legislature Building (24 May 2015).

First NDP Premier of Alberta

The Alberta New Democratic Party (NDP) won 54 of the province’s 89 seats on election night, capturing every riding in Edmonton, 15 in Calgary and 20 in other areas of the province. Despite what the polls had already predicted, Rachel Notley’s victory — and the election of a majority NDP government in Alberta — stunned political observers across Canada.

The Wildrose party finished second with 21 seats and the Progressive Conservatives (PC) dropped to third with 10 seats — the PC total immediately dropped to 9 when Jim Prentice announced he was resigning. The Liberals and Alberta Party each captured one seat.

Notley was sworn in as premier on 24 May in a celebratory outdoor ceremony on the front steps of the legislature. The ceremony featured a folk music band, free frozen treats, a fleet of food trucks and thousands of spectators, many of whom brought their children to splash around in the public reflecting pool during the formalities.

The new premier’s Cabinet was also sworn in during the ceremony — a Cabinet that, including the premier, had only 12 ministers, about half the usual number under PC administrations.

The new government soon began rolling out its agenda, including an increase in corporate income taxes from 10 to 12 per cent, a controversial review of the energy industry royalty system, and a ban on corporate and union political donations. The government revamped the Employment Standards Code and the Labour Relations Code so Albertans could, among other things, take a job-protected sick-day off work without being fired.

After years as a social justice champion, Notley became a social justice premier. Her government raised the minimum wage to $15 an hour, instituted an Alberta Child Benefit, reduced school fees, protected gay–straight alliances in schools and introduced workplace protections for farm workers.

Notley faced significant challenges as premier but none so dramatic as the forest fire that devastated the oilsands community of Fort McMurray in May of 2016, almost one year to the day after her election victory. The fire destroyed more than 2,400 homes and buildings, generating insurance payouts of about $3.7 billion. Notley was widely praised from friend and political foe alike for her quick, cool-headed, and effective response to the disaster.

The economy, which had been hit by declining world oil prices, gradually improved but not quickly enough or robustly enough for the provincial treasury. As part of a deliberate plan to help the province’s economy, Notley borrowed billions of dollars to maintain government services and build infrastructure projects such as schools and hospitals — as well as paying teachers and nurses and others in the public sector. Wages for both nurses and teachers were frozen for two years. By 2019, the provincial debt had grown to more than $50 billion, providing a target for conservative opposition politicians, who attacked the Notley government for reckless spending.

A sputtering economy undermined some of Notley’s more ambitious social plans. She reduced the scope of daycare subsidies and a free lunch programs for schools. Her royalty review in the energy industry steered clear of a major overhaul in favour of tweaks.

But she pushed ahead aggressively in other areas.

Notley’s most controversial policy was the Climate Leadership Plan, which included a carbon levy that imposed a tax on the consumption of fossil fuels including gasoline at the pump and natural gas in the home (seeCarbon Pricing in Canada). Notley saw her plan as a way of winning the social licence needed to get approval for a new energy pipeline. She saw this as crucial to get more of Alberta’s oil to tidewater (i.e., ocean ports) for shipment overseas so the landlocked province could receive a world price for oil rather than sell it for a discount to the United States.

Thus, one of the high moments of Notley’s career as premier came on 29 November 2016, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau invited her to Ottawa as the federal cabinet gave conditional approval to the $6.8-billion expansion of Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain pipeline. “Let me say this definitively, we could not have approved this project without the leadership of Premier Notley and Alberta's climate leadership plan,” said Trudeau. “Alberta's climate plan is a vital contributor to our national strategy.”

However, the pipeline expansion project faced opposition from Indigenous people, environmental groups and politicians, including Notley’s provincial counterpart, British Columbia’s NDP Premier John Horgan. When a frustrated Kinder Morgan threatened to cancel the project, Notley persuaded the federal government to buy Trans Mountain for $4.5 billion in 2018, a deal announced with great fanfare on 29 May 2018. “We said we would get the pipeline built, and we are getting it built,” said Notley. But the pipeline expansion faced further delay.

Meanwhile, conservative opposition to Notley’s government increased. In 2017, it coalesced under the newly created United Conservative Party led by former federal MP Jason Kenney. Kenney had entered the provincial political theatre in 2016 with the expressly stated goal of unifying members of the Progressive Conservative party and the Wildrose party to defeat the NDP.

2019 Election Campaign

Notley entered the 2019 campaign on 19 March by proudly pointing to a record of achievement on the social front, while her conservative opposition, led by Jason Kenney, pointed to what he characterized as a failed economic agenda.

Public opinion polls had indicated for months before the election that the UCP was ahead of the NDP but that Notley herself remained relatively popular with Albertans. This prompted Notley to characterize the election as a fight between herself and Kenney, someone Notley said was too socially conservative, and too entrenched in old-style backroom politics, for a 21st century Alberta. “This issue goes directly to the choice before Albertans; this goes to the choice of who’s going to be premier and who’s fit to be premier of Alberta,” said Notley in her campaign kick-off speech. “Elections aren’t decided by polls, they’re decided by the voters.”

However, on 16 April 2019, Jason Kenney's UCP won a majority government in the Alberta general election. Notley and the NDP will form the Official Opposition.

Personal Life

Notley is married to Lou Arab. They have two children.


Further Reading

  • Howard Leeson, Grant Notley: The Social Conscience of Alberta (1992); Larry Pratt (editor), Socialism and Democracy in Alberta: Essays in Honour of Grant Notley (1986).