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The circle of politics

In Alberta, they say if you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes and it’ll change.

When it comes to Alberta politics, the wait for change has been a little longer — 43 years to be precise, and counting, since the Progressive Conservatives were first elected under a young, refreshing Peter Lougheed.

That was 1971, the same year Grant Notley first won a seat in the Alberta legislature. Most Albertans today might not remember that Notley was the one and only NDP MLA for the next 11 years. That was until Ray Martin was elected alongside Notley in 1982.

The remarkable thing is that these two “lefties” were enough to actually form the official Opposition. That’s because in that election, the Conservatives won every other seat. So there sat Notley and Martin, facing off against no less than 75 PCers.

If you didn’t support them, you had to at least admire them.

Tragically, Notley, the MLA for the northern Peace Country riding of Spirit River-Fairview, was killed in a plane crash at the age of 45 in 1984. He was going home from Edmonton, bound for Peace River. The plane went down in foggy conditions, crashing into a hillside near Lesser Slave Lake. Four other people died as well.

I was working at the newspaper in Grande Prairie at the time and recall the shock felt by so many at the time. It was a big provincial story and a sad one. Notley was a likable, charismatic guy who drew respect from all parties. He had connections to Central Alberta because he grew up on a farm in Didsbury. He left behind his wife Sandy and three children, including daughter Rachel. (I’ll come back to Rachel in a minute.)

Notley’s party went on to make more history two years later in 1986 when, under Ray Martin, they won what could be considered significant in any recent Alberta election, a whopping 16 seats. Some of that is likely attributable to posthumous respect for Notley. Two elections later, the NDP lost it all. They won zero seats in 1993. Every election since then has seen them win no more than today’s number of seats in the legislature, just four.

Alberta continues to prefer the right side of politics, and today with the arrival of the new kid on the block, the Wildrose Party, there’s much speculation that the Progressive Conservatives are done like dinner.

Wildrose only came to existence in 2008. Today, they hold 17 out of 87 seats in the legislature and are the official Opposition.

The Alberta Tories, by their own fault, and without going into the plethora of reasons, may finally be past their glory days — even with the likelihood that would-be saviour Jim Prentice will become their new leader. Is anyone paying much attention to this race?

For years, pundits have complained about how boring Alberta politics were. Recently that’s changed, given the arrival of Wildrose, who, in spite of themselves, have the PCs on the run.

Enter the fold one Rachel Notley, daughter of an Alberta political folk hero.

The next Alberta election, in 2016, will be even more interesting than the last one, in 2012.

Rachel Notley recently decided to run for the leadership of the party that her much-respected father once headed. Brian Mason is stepping down after a decade as leader.

She’s the best bet to win the job, and she’ll be taking NDP supporters into an election that will possibly see more and deeper right-wing voter splitting. The PC and Wildrose parties are going to fight tooth and nail in the next election. This time around, Wildrose really can smell blood.

So what are the chances a split vote would see the NDP win more seats than they have in recent memory? That’s anyone’s guess — Albertans haven’t seen Rachel Notley in the trenches.

Now 50, she has been an MLA since 2008, in Edmonton Strathcona. She was 20 when her father died. She is a lawyer and has a earned a reputation as an activist.

Sometimes your kids do follow your footsteps successfully. Think Pierre Trudeau and son Justin when you think about Rachel Notley.

Sometimes the circle does come around again. We shall see.

Mary-Ann Barr is the Advocate’s assistant city editor. She can be reached by phone at 403-314-4332 or by email at

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