Walter Grant Notley, leader of the Alberta New Democratic Party 1968–84, Member of the Legislative Assembly of Alberta 1971–84 (born 19 January 1939 in Didsbury, AB; died 19 October 1984 near High Prairie, AB). Grant Notley was elected leader of the Alberta New Democratic Party (NDP) in 1968. Three years later, he was elected MLA for the riding of Spirit River–Fairview. For 11 years, he was a one-man caucus and won respect for his parliamentary skills. He became leader of the official opposition when the NDP elected a second member in 1982. Notley died in a plane crash in 1984, two years before the NDP won 16 seats in the provincial legislature.
Early Years and Education
Walter Grant Notley was born in Didsbury, Alberta, the first of two sons to parents Francis and Walter (brother Bruce was born two years later). Notley was named after his father but always used his middle name, Grant, which was his mother’s maiden name. He and his brother were raised on a succession of farms in the Olds region.
Notley’s mother, Francis, was a teacher at a one-room school in Westerdale. His father was deeply involved in the Farmers’ Union of Alberta, which convinced the Alberta government to begin a hail-suppression system that continues today, with cloud-seeding airplanes aimed at reducing the power of hailstorms (in the early 1990s, hail suppression was taken over by the private sector) .
Notley demonstrated a talent for public speaking at an early age and was the first student in two decades to go on to high school from Westerdale junior high.
After graduating, he went to the University of Alberta in 1957. Paying his own way through university, Notley took summer jobs on road construction and even sold encyclopedias.
Early Political Activity
He so impressed members of the CCF that they wanted him to run as their candidate in Edmonton Northwest in the 1959 provincial election, but Notley was just 20 years old and the legal minimum age for candidates was 21.
At the University of Alberta, Notley was a member of the students’ model parliament that included future prime minister Joe Clark, future federal Liberal advisor Jim Coutts, and future leader of the Social Credit Party Ray Speaker. During his time at university, he also reactivated an on-campus club of the CCF (a precursor to the New Democratic Party). Under his leadership, the club eventually gained the nickname “Notley’s Motley Crew.”
After graduating in 1960 with a degree in political history, Notley entered law school at the University of Alberta. After one year, he left to accept a position as organizer of the National Committee for the New Party (which headed the creation of the NDP).
In 1962, the Alberta New Democratic Party (NDP) was established at a convention in the Hotel Macdonald, where Neil Reimer was elected president and Notley provincial secretary. In June of 1963, Notley ran in the provincial election as the NDP candidate for Edmonton Northwest, where he finished fourth.
On 6 July 1963, he married Sandra Wilkinson, an American social activist from Massachusetts who had become involved in Alberta politics while visiting a friend in Edmonton.
In May of 1967, Notley, once again, ran as an NDP candidate in a provincial election — this time in Edmonton–Norwood — and, once again, lost. Following the disastrous results for the NDP in the 1967 election, party leader Neil Reimer indicated he was resigning, opening the way for Notley.
Notley was elected leader in 1968, inheriting a party that was out of money and torn apart by infighting. In 1969, he ran in a by-election in the provincial district of Edson, finishing third behind the Progressive Conservatives and Social Credit.
In financial trouble, the Alberta New Democratic Party (NDP) laid off its staff and closed its office. Rather than giving up, Notley travelled constantly to raise money for the party while issuing a stream of news releases to ensure the media didn’t forget about the NDP.
In 1970, Notley began campaigning in economically depressed northwest Alberta, where he had the best chance of winning a riding in the next provincial election.
In the 1971 election that saw the Progressive Conservatives under Peter Lougheed defeat Social Credit and win a majority government, Notley became the MLA for Spirit River–Fairview — and the sole NDP politician in the Assembly.
Member of the Legislative Assembly
After the election, Grant Notley moved his family to Fairview. By then he had three children, Stephen, Paul and Rachel (who would go on to become Alberta’s first NDP premier after winning the provincial election on 5 May 2015).
According to Grant Notley: The Social Conscience of Alberta, a biography written by friend and colleague Howard Leeson, the NDP leader embarked on a legislative campaign to champion the cause of the underdog: “Throughout Grant’s career there is a consistency, a devotion to the rights of the underprivileged, the disadvantaged, the ‘little guy’ in society, that cannot be completely explained by electoral opportunism.”
In his reply to the throne speech on 6 March 1972, Notley criticized both the old Social Credit government and the new Progressive Conservative government in an address that continues to echo through NDP rhetoric:
In my view, passive government is bound to fail despite the sincerity of its advocates … because of its limited philosophical perspective.… We will introduce meagre programs in agriculture but only after thousands of farmers have been forced off their land.… There will be timid proposals on environmental controls, but again, only after oil spills, strip-mining and industrial pollution get out of hand. There will be belated promises to deal with mental health, but more than a quarter of a century after our sister province of Saskatchewan began mental health reforms.
In the 1975 election, when the Progressive Conservatives consolidated power by winning 69 of the Legislative Assembly’s 75 seats, Notley and the NDP hung on to his one seat.
In 1979, the Assembly was enlarged to 79 seats, and the PCs won 74 of them in that year’s election. The NDP again won just one seat, Notley’s. Although Notley told reporters he was deeply disappointed by the result, he pushed ahead, as before.
When the Alberta government reduced oil shipments to central Canada in protest against the National Energy Program of 1980, Notley was the only Alberta legislator to oppose the move. He also participated actively in the constitutional debate of 1980–81, criticizing the extreme views of both the federal and Alberta governments.
Leader of the Official Opposition
The Progressive Conservatives won another crushing majority government in 1982 (75 seats), but the NDP made a modest breakthrough by winning two seats: Notley in Spirit River–Fairview and Ray Martin in Edmonton–Norwood.
In March 1983, the party made another breakthrough when the Speaker of the Assembly declared the NDP the official opposition.
Death and Significance
On the evening of 19 October 1984, Grant Notley boarded a small commuter airplane operated by Wapiti Airline for a flight from Edmonton to Fairview. The plane crashed near Lesser Slave Lake, killing Notley and five others.
The NDP would go on to win 16 seats in the 1986 election under the leadership of Ray Martin.
Rachel Notley, who became Alberta’s first NDP premier in 2015, said her father’s legacy helped pave the way for an eventual NDP victory. “He kept the NDP alive in Alberta at a time when that was very difficult,” she said. “He gave hope to people who were looking for a different path forward.”
In the 2010 overhaul of Alberta’s electoral division boundaries, Notley’s original constituency of Spirit River–Fairview was redrawn and renamed Dunvegan–Central Peace–Notley.