Life has been a whirlwind of change for Rachel Notley since leading the Alberta NDP to a majority government.
By Glenn Cook | December 1, 2015
Rachel Notley grips a mug of tea as she sits on a couch near a window in her spacious third-floor office at the Alberta Legislature, the finished wood walls dotted with proclamations and certificates. Sitting to her left, I ask her about how her life has changed since May 24, when she was sworn in as Alberta’s 17th premier. She answers with grace and aplomb, but she can’t face me. She isn’t being rude; to her right, a makeup artist is hurriedly applying eyeliner and foundation for a photo shoot that, along with this interview, has to be condensed into a one-hour time slot.
If there were ever a scene that demonstrated just how different life is for Notley as premier, this would be it.
“I used to be able to just sit in my office and yell down the hall to the other MLAs if I wanted to talk to them. We all ran into each other most mornings and would touch base a lot,” says the representative for Edmonton-Strathcona. She jokes that the premier’s office doesn’t leak like her old one did, back when she was one of two NDP members in the Legislative Assembly between 2008 and 2012 and one of just four from 2012 to 2015. “Now it’s a lot more work to plan to even talk to my own caucus members. It’s more formalized. There’s just so much to do; I’m more scheduled than I have ever been in my life.
“I think probably the person who has the most difficult job in my government right now is the person that handles my schedule,” she adds. “It’s very hard to lose the amount of independence I was used to.”
As premier, every move is put under the microscope, just as she’ll soon be under the photographer’s hot lamps. But Notley says she is adjusting well to the scrutiny. She does note, however, that she is more considered about what she says publicly, and her husband and two teenage children are doing their best to cope.
“I don’t feel like I get to spend as much time with my kids as I would like. But they’re teenagers, so I think their jury is out on whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing,” says the premier, 51. “But there’s no question that it takes a lot more planning and rigour to make sure we have time together.”
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Though she grew up in a political family, Notley never had to contend with this level of scrutiny during her childhood. Her father, Grant, was leader of the provincial NDP for 16 years and MLA for the northern riding of Spirit River-Fairview for 13 years, often the assembly’s sole NDP voice in the middle of the Progressive Conservatives’ glory days.
Growing up, Notley actually liked elections – “It meant there were a lot of changes in routine and a lot of people around,” she says – but otherwise wasn’t terribly interested in politics.
“In between elections, I wasn’t one of those kids that was running around dealing with a whole bunch of different issues. It wasn’t until I hit college, really, that I started to get politically involved.”
Her two younger brothers, Stephen and Paul, felt much the same way. Paul is a history professor at Athabasca University, while Stephen would go on to become an artist whose claim to fame is the comic strip, Bob the Angry Flower; the title character’s caustic guide to the correct use of apostrophes has circulated widely on the Internet.
“I was interested in politics, but certainly not in the practical end of things,” says Stephen, 45, who now resides in Seattle. “I never had any ambition to enter politics; it was quite the opposite. [I thought,] ‘There’s no way in hell I’m going to place my livelihood in the hands of the fickle electorate every four years.’ But we were raised in a political family; it was the family business.”
Stephen made one of his frequent trips back to Edmonton to help push his big sister over the finish line in the days leading up to the May 5 election. He was there when Notley gave her victory speech, an experience he says was “very moving.”
“I certainly never thought I would, in my lifetime, see an NDP government in Alberta,” he says. “And had it been put to me, ‘Could you imagine one with your sister in charge of it?’ I would have said, ‘Well, that’s about the only way it really makes sense.'”
Grant Notley died in an airplane crash in 1984. But there is little doubt he and his wife, Sandra (ne Wilkinson), who was also heavily involved in the Alberta NDP and passed away in 1998 – would be proud.
“There’s no question – he’d be quite overwhelmed and quite excited about it, for sure,” Notley says.
MOMENT OF VICTORY
While Notley has taken the Alberta NDP to heights of which her father could have only dreamed, she still doubted the party would actually win until about eight or nine days before the vote. That’s when, in her hotel room late at night after a day of campaigning in Calgary, she read a new poll that showed the NDP leading the race down the homestretch.
“I first got on the phone with my husband, because I was freaking out. And he said, ‘You need to talk to your campaign manager,'” Notley recalls with a laugh. “So I called my campaign manager and yelled at him about how there would be no more gratuitous outreach events after 9 p.m., because we needed to start transition planning. It was eight days beforehand, and we hadn’t set up a transition team. I kind of melted down on them and said, ‘I want a transition team – tomorrow! And after dinner, that’s what we’re doing – every day!’ That was about it. And then I proceeded to not sleep for the remainder of the night.”‘
That transition has still had a few rough patches, though, including a provincial budget that was delayed until late October, nearly six months after the election win. Once released, it forecast a $6.1-billion deficit, with no surpluses planned until 2019-2020. But it did fulfill NDP promises to reverse planned cuts to health care and education, and called for nearly $19 billion in infrastructure spending.
Despite the added campaign stress, voters never saw Notley break. Pundits lauded the NDP for running a very positive election campaign, demonstrated most visibly by the bright orange “Ntley Cre” T-shirts worn by supporters. While Notley says that was partly a reflection of her own personality and the way she wanted to run things, there were other factors at play.
“Negative campaigning does sometimes work; sometimes you have to do it. But that wasn’t the position we were in in this particular campaign. … We understood there were people who were looking for something different. We didn’t have to create that group of people; they already existed. So our job was simply to give them that alternative. And with that being our overarching campaign plan, the positivity just came from that.
“But it certainly helped that I felt very good about [the platform] we were running on. I felt very comfortable; we had done a lot more preparation and research, in some respects, than we had ever done before around the particulars of our platform. I felt very comfortable with what we were running on, and I was able to deliver it all with sincerity, because I really thought it was right.”
Those good vibes didn’t spill over to the federal NDP, though. In October, the NDP retained Linda Duncan’s seat in Edmonton-Strathcona, but that was it. Even though the NDP blew away the Conservatives at the provincial level, Alberta remained true and blue when it came to the federal vote.
THE NEW BLOOD
While there were some seasoned politicians among the 53 provincial NDP candidates elected, many were political rookies with zero experience in public office. But, looking forward, Notley is optimistic that those caucus members have the qualities and the experience outside the Legislative Assembly that will allow them to blossom into good MLAs and representatives for their constituents.
One of those rookie MLAs, Marie Renaud, says Notley has been great to work with during the transition period, as she has shared her experiences from when she was first elected and has shown caucus members the ropes in the legislature.
“I haven’t met a lot of people in my life that have inspired me as much as she has,” says the representative for St. Albert and former executive director of the Lo-Se-Ca Foundation. “It has been my pleasure, actually, to call her ‘boss.'”
Since taking office, Notley has been in contact with a number of former “bosses” – prominent provincial and federal politicians, including former prime minister Jean Chrtien, who offered her some valuable advice: “He said, ‘Never be forced into making a decision you’re not ready to make. And get people to leave the room – don’t talk through the decision with anybody but your most trusted advisors.'”
When she’s not busy running the province, you can often find Notley just running. She’s an avid runner – though she says she still grumbles about it every time she heads out – and has participated in the Banff Jasper Relay in previous years, although this year’s race conflicted with the Edmonton Pride Festival.
“I’m still pretty militant about keeping my Sunday morning runs with a group of friends that I’ve been running with for at least 10 years,” she says. “But trying to find time during the week for other [runs] is really hard.”
The Edmonton Folk Music Festival has been a summer “staycation” ritual for her family for years, though, and she says people didn’t really bother her there this year. However, despite being premier, she still had to make the tarp run to get a good spot one day during the festival. “But that’s more family politics,” she laughs.
Should she find herself with an evening free, Notley jokes that her first priority is doing laundry. If that’s out of the way, she prefers to have friends over for a relaxed evening at home. But, if she feels the urge to get out of the house, she might end up at an Ethiopian restaurant like Langano Skies, which she raves about even though she says she’s “not an adventurous person when it comes to food.”
“I’m always in search of a patio and sun,” she adds. “During the campaign, even when we were in the little van, the minute something came free in the day’s itinerary, it was like, ‘We have an hour and a half and the sun is out. People, you know what we’re doing!’ And off we were. Everyone was on their phones trying to find the quickest route to an outdoor patio.”
Those nights out on the patio have been fewer and further between since May, though. As drastic as the changes in Notley’s life have been, the Alberta economic landscape has also changed drastically since she was sworn in – as evidenced by the sour deficit numbers predicted by the October budget.
As the premier looks ahead to the next three and a half years of her term, she is all business. She sees not only challenges, but opportunities to diversify the provincial economy and make big strides in areas like education and the environment.
“We want to be responsible stewards of the province’s finances, but at the same time, we have to balance that against the need to ameliorate the economic fallout of the drop in the price of oil by ensuring the basic services that people need are still there and ensuring stability in the rest of our economy. Dramatic pullbacks in government services will only make the problem worse, not better,” she says.
As the premier talks about the future, the photographer and his assistant are busy setting up the next shot at a meeting table across the office, anxious to get a couple more portraits in before the hour-long time slot is up.
“We have a big list of things that matter to us,” Notley adds before she stands up to join them, “and we’re going to work our way through it one by one.”