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'It was worth it': Former Alberta premier Rachel Notley bids farewell as NDP leader

Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley makes her last speech as the party leader in Calgary, on Friday, June 21, 2024.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Dave Chidley Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley makes her last speech as the party leader in Calgary, on Friday, June 21, 2024.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Dave Chidley
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Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley has formally bid goodbye to the party that, on her watch, won government for the first and only time in 2015.

Notley encouraged cheering delegates Friday to be ready to rally around whoever replaces her and to fight to win again in 2027.

"So many of us made immense sacrifices to do this work, and today we live in an Alberta that is better for it," Notley said in her final address as leader at Calgary’s BMO Centre.

"We can say together: it was worth it."

On Saturday, votes are to be counted and the party is to announce its new leader.

Thanking staff, party members, and volunteers for their efforts, Notley made a nod Friday to the legacy she leaves behind.

"I first got involved in politics because I would yell at the radio because nobody seemed to have my voice, and now so many people have my voice, and I feel so privileged to live here because of the work you do," said Notley, addressing her colleagues.

But she became overcome with emotion when she turned to thanking her family.

"You put up with so much so I could be leader and premier," she said.

Wearing an Edmonton Oilers jersey, Notley also interrupted her own speech to offer commentary during the dying seconds of game six of the Stanley Cup Final.

The game, and Notley, prompted a "we want the cup" chant from the crowd as the Oilers secured the win.

Notley, 60, announced in January she was leaving the top job after the party lost its second consecutive election to the United Conservative Party.

Despite last year's loss to Premier Danielle Smith, the NDP won 38 of the 87 legislature seats to become the largest Opposition in provincial history. The party also won a slim majority of seats in Calgary, a traditional conservative stronghold.

Continuity

Notley leaves after 10 years at the helm and being only the second Alberta NDP leader in the last two decades, after Brian Mason.

She followed in the footsteps of her father, Grant Notley, who led the party from 1968 until he was killed in a plane crash in 1984.

She remains the member for Edmonton-Strathcona, a seat she has won handily in five consecutive elections. She has remained mum on what comes next.

Under Notley, the NDP went from a fringe-caucus occupying a handful of seats in the corner of the legislature chamber to the dominant left-centre alternative in Alberta.

In 2015, Notley’s NDP swept to power as a majority government, ending a four-decade Progressive Conservative dynasty.

While in government, Notley raised the province’s minimum wage, cut child poverty, boosted labour standards and introduced more accessible child-care options.

She introduced a consumer carbon tax, later replaced by a federal levy. She began phasing out coal-fired electricity, and this week the last coal-generating station transitioned to natural gas.

She appointed the country’s first gender-balanced cabinet.

Naheed-come-lately?

Four candidates are running to replace her: former Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi; Notley-era cabinet ministers Sarah Hoffman and Kathleen Ganley; and rookie legislature member Jodi Calahoo Stonehouse.

 On Friday, Notley offered advice to whoever takes her place.

"Be yourself," she said. 

"Show Albertans who you are, and what you believe in every chance that you can, and never, never forget that your voice is only as strong as the party's and the people who are part of our movement," said Notley to applause.

Nenshi is considered the favourite, with membership sales spiking after he joined the race.

As of Friday morning, the party said about 80 per cent of its more than 85,000 registered members had cast votes, making it the largest contest for the party by far.

Nenshi has come under fire by some in the party as an opportunistic johnny-come-lately with political leanings more Liberal red than NDP orange.

Nenshi has dismissed that criticism, saying his values are core Alberta ones.

Nenshi has also sparked debate on the future identity of the Alberta NDP, questioning whether it should retain membership ties with its federal counterpart.

In last year’s provincial election, Smith’s UCP leveraged support by painting Alberta New Democrats as either enthusiastic co-conspirators or impotent lackeys in the federal power-sharing deal between Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh.

Party values

There is also a question of values.

An alliance with federal counterparts has forced the Alberta wing 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 federal and provincial parties openly butted heads in 2018 when Notley’s then-government celebrated 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 criticized the purchase as a bad deal for all involved.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 21, 2024.

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