EDMONTON — Premier Rachel Notley says her childhood in the semi-isolated town of Fairview in northern Alberta taught her to adapt and improvise — even if means sticking your spouse on the hood of the car.
It happened a year ago when she and her family found themselves trapped at the foot of a steep, snow-choked hill and needing some traction for their front wheel-drive vehicle.
“I told my husband to throw himself across the hood, and I drove the car uphill, mostly perpendicular most of the way,” Notley recounted to teachers in a recent speech.
“We did get a slow clap from the kids.”
Notley has been using quick wits to, in the words of her staff, “build the plane in the air,” ever since the NDP toppled the four-decades-old Progressive Conservative dynasty in 2015.
The New Democrats suddenly found themselves steering Alberta’s economy just as a global drop in oil prices took the air out from under them.
Notley, 54, is the daughter of the late Grant Notley, who led the NDP from 1968 to 1984 when he died in a plane crash. The oldest of three kids, she was born in Edmonton, but the family moved to Fairview where she grew up.
Her parents’ values are hers: social justice and making lives better by stepping off the sidelines and into the fray.
Her earliest political memory is as a pre-teen in the 1970s going with mother Sandy on an anti-war protest march across Edmonton’s High Level Bridge.
Grant Notley was around home as much as possible, but the hours at work were long. He helped found the Alberta NDP and for years was the lone New Democrat member of the legislature after first winning a seat in 1971. He gained a popular following for his keen intellect and, at times, a quixotic quest for social justice.
His daughter was 20 when Grant Notley died in a plane crash on his way home from Edmonton in October 1984.
She went on to earn a political science degree from the University of Alberta, then a law degree at Osgoode Hall in Toronto.
She worked as a labour lawyer, helping injured workers with compensation claims, then moved to B.C. and assisted the NDP government with legislation to improve occupational health and safety rules and to extend benefits for same-sex couples.
When she came back to Alberta with her husband and two toddlers, she entered politics. She won the Edmonton Strathcona seat in 2008 and 2012 before winning it all in 2015.
Notley suddenly had the power to do what she had always talked about and took to it immediately.
The one-time farm girl brought in employment and safety standards for farms and made farm workers eligible for workers’ compensation.
The NDP increased the minimum wage to $15 an hour — the highest in Canada.
Alberta now has protections for LGBTQ students and more resources for legal aid, for seniors and for the disabled. Tuitions are frozen. Health and education funding has kept pace with population growth, even at the expense of multibillion-dollar budget deficits and rising debt.
Notley became a national face of the oil crisis as she stumped the country to fight for the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline. She reminded everyone that Alberta is the economic engine of Canada and if the province fails, everyone loses.
Notley is now bigger than the party she leads. She is the focus of a campaign that started with a website named after her and complete with videos of her riding horses.
At home, she recharges her batteries with her family, their three-legged dog, wine, wine parties, friends and lots of running — she competes in marathons when time allows.
Asked why she wants to run again, she points to a $25-a-day child care pilot project the NDP has brought in.
“It brings more people into the workforce and it’s a night-and-day difference in terms of the outcomes of those kids,” she said in a recent interview.
“When we go to the polls, I want the opportunity to finish that job.”
Asked how the premiership changed her, Notley exchanges glances with her communications chief Cheryl Oates and laughs.
“I will be an exceptionally calm person (post politics) that doesn’t react to things, because I’ve now had to deal with so much more stress, and so many crises … in the last three years,” she said.
“In the real world, I will be one of the most chill humans ever.”
Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press