Rachel Notley, in a navy blue blazer, white T-shirt and jeans, heads down the stairs in an industrial stairwell with exposed brick walls behind her(Photo: Dave DeGagné)

Rachel Notley Wants A Second Chance

After four years as leader of the Official Opposition, the NDP heavyweight wants Alberta’s top job—again. But to win the premiership, she will also have to defy the odds.

Rachel Notley recognizes that the odds are not in her favour.

This month, she is running to return to her old job as Alberta’s premier, a post she held from 2015 to 2019. It won’t be an easy ride: Notley is a left-leaning politician in a province where conservative governments have ruled for 48 of the last 52 years. She’s up against an unpredictable incumbent, Danielle Smith, who is riding on an oil price so high that Government of Alberta press releases throughout 2023 read like Oprah impersonations: you and you and you are getting something. And she’s a woman in Canadian politics, and no woman in this country has ever been elected and served as provincial premier for two full terms.

Adding to the challenge, it’s rare for a Canadian premier to lose an election, serve a term in opposition and then be re-elected as premier. It’s so rare that it’s happened exactly once since Confederation: Maurice Duplessis in Quebec, who was premier in 1936 to 1939 and again 1944 to 1959. (There are other past premiers who’ve been re-elected, but never after winning one election and then serving in opposition.)

“Oh great, Duplessis,” says Notley, in a busy café in downtown Calgary one morning in early spring. She laughs at the idea of following in the footsteps of the pro-church, staunchly conservative premier. “Suffice to say that my path to victory does not involve the Duplessis path.”

Notley has always excelled at defying the odds. She took the Alberta NDP from four seats to government in 2015 and then hung on to Official Opposition status four years later, virtually erasing the Liberals and Alberta Party as key players in the process. Alberta is now a two-party province, and Notley is the longest-serving MLA in the Alberta legislature with 5,481 days in the assembly—more than 15 years.

Over that time, she has remained consistent in her priorities: better access to health and education; gender parity among candidates; improved workplace health and safety; LGBTQ2S+ rights; and environmental stewardship. Much of the playbook from her first run in 2008 remains the same.

The 59-year-old argues that her experience as a former premier is more of an asset than liability: “People know what they’re getting.” Polling, Notley points out, indicates that the longer she’s been out of power, the more favourably people remember her. A 2022 poll showed that a majority of Albertans now approve of her performance as premier.

The former premier has carved out a political space uniquely hers. Even though her party has lagged behind the United Conservative Party (UCP) in polls throughout 2023, Notley bests Smith in popularity, as she once did against former premier Jason Kenney. Smith likes to lambast her opponent with the taunt that Justin Trudeau is Notley’s boss. In contrast, Notley calls her approach more pragmatic than that of her successors; she argues that she’s focused on collaboration while Smith and Kenney direct their efforts to stoking anger at the federal government. Notley has also settled to the right of the federal NDP, in a way that sometimes puts her at loggerheads with leader Jagmeet Singh but aligns more closely with sentiment at home. There is no other NDP politician in the country who would start a sentence with: “I’m going to put on my conservative economic hat for a moment,” and then go on to say that the shortage in skilled employees could be solved by reducing barriers that keep women from reaching their full potential in the workforce.

Notley is known as being argumentative, hyper-wonkish, energetic and fiercely protective of her privacy outside of politics. The one place she’s often spotted outside of work is on her morning run, a ritual she started years ago to break a smoking habit. And she swears constantly.

She may be swearing a lot lately. Albertans will vote for a new government on May 29 and, right now, everything is too close to call. Smith may have the advantage: the current premier is likely to take all of rural Alberta. Notley will hold Edmonton. Calgary, the key battleground, is too close to call.


For someone intensely private, Notley has spent most of her life in the political spotlight. Her father, Grant, tried to win a seat in the Alberta legislature and lost multiple times over nearly a decade before becoming the first NDP MLA elected in the province in 1971. He became leader of the Official Opposition in 1982 with a caucus of two. He met his wife—and Notley’s mom—Sandra, an American-born activist, through an NDP political campaign. Rachel and her two younger brothers, Paul and Stephen, went to campaign events and stayed up late watching results come in.

They grew up on a farm in northern Alberta. As a kid, Notley owned a horse called—for real—Jason. Notley has always stressed that her mother played a bigger role in shaping her ideas about the world than her father, who was on the road a lot. “My mother had a deeply, deeply developed sense of social injustice and it infused everything she talked to me and my brothers about,” Notley says. Her mother explained to her that her father’s job was being like Robin Hood. As an adult, she saw her father as “an inspiration of what it looked like to stand up for the underdog against a wall of opposition.” (In an odd quirk of small-town Alberta history, Notley grew up in the same area as that Jordan Peterson, who, in 2016, told the National Post that Sandra Notley had been a major intellectual influence on him, he’d volunteered for Grant Notley for four years, and that he’d been on double dates with Rachel. Notley’s office did not respond to a request for comment on Peterson.)

When Notley graduated from high school, she spent a year in Paris working as an au pair and then moved to Grande Prairie, Alta., for college. There, she met Carsten Jensen, now a Calgary lawyer who remains a close friend. They settled in Edmonton around the same time to study at the University of Alberta. Over Christmas break of their first year, Jensen’s roommates found out he was gay. They kicked him out of their apartment and dumped his belongings on Notley’s porch. “It was pretty traumatic,” he recalls.

Jensen lived with Notley and her roommates for the rest of the year. “I'll never forget what she did for me and how kind she was to me,” Jensen says. They spent a lot of time together, eating “large quantities of bright fluorescent orange snack foods,” and having political debates; he was a Liberal and she firmly NDP. He figured that she was headed for a job in human rights or labour law; he says he never expected her to pursue politics. That was her dad’s thing, not hers. For her part, Notley says that she met Jensen and other friends who were coming out around the same time and watched them struggle with the responses of family and community. The harsh treatment surprised her. At the time, she did not see herself as an advocate for the LGBTQ2S+ community. “I was just trying to be kind to my friends,” she says.

“I realized, we have an opportunity here to do something that’s really big,” Notley recalls. “And why have we not done this before?”

When Notley was 20, her life changed overnight: her father, who’d caught the last seat on a small plane out of Edmonton to return home for the weekend, was killed when the plane crashed. His executive assistant got Notley on the phone at 4 a.m., after she had come home from a party, and told her that there had been an accident and that she needed to return home. In the morning, it was Notley who told her mother that her father had died.

“If he had lived, it's very possible that I would never have gone [into] because he would have gone on to do it,” she says. Not long after his death, she started getting requests to take on a role in the party. She resisted, and moved to Toronto in 1987 where she earned her law degree at York University’s Osgoode Hall, focusing on labour law.

Notley spent several years working as a lawyer in Edmonton, helping with workers’ compensation cases. In 1994, she moved to British Columbia, where she assisted then-attorney general Ujjal Dosanjh in crafting the first laws in Canada to extend family benefits to same-sex couples. “I realized, oh, my gosh, we have an opportunity here to do something that’s really big,” she recalls. “And why have we not done this before?”

Notley met Lou Arab, who worked in communications and research, at an NDP convention, in 1992. The pair hit it off. When they decided to marry, Notley refused to have the ceremony in the Anglican Church because of the church’s anti-queer policies. This decision was hard on her mother, who’d raised her kids in the church and remained devoted to its teachings. Notley and Arab instead got married in the United Church by Tim Stevenson, the first openly gay minister ordained in Canada and a cabinet minister in B.C.’s NDP government. Later, when the couple had children, they gave one Notley’s last name, and the other Arab’s. “I said the first one gets my last name. And if you want one with your last name, we have to have a second one. That's how this is going to go,” says Notley. “When we play cards or family games, we can do girls against the guys, we can do old versus young, we can do Arabs versus Notleys.”

Notley and Arab have worked closely together for most of their professional lives. He has worked in communications for Canadian Union of Public Employees for nearly two decades, and has also been NDP’s political campaign manager for 13 years and counting: “We’re NDP dweebs,” she told the Edmonton Journal in 2007. Notley was first asked to run for the party in the early 2000s and turned it down because she had toddlers at home. But in 2006, when her kids were in elementary school, she threw her hat into the ring for a safe NDP seat in Edmonton Strathcona. She was elected in 2008 and 2012 and, two years later, took over leadership of the party. Notley and Arab remain close partners in the NDP; he is widely considered her most trusted advisor. On the night she was elected premier, Notley thanked him and the crowd at her headquarters erupted in chants of “Lou!”, much to the confusion of viewers at home who thought her supporters were booing her in her first minutes as premier elect.

Notley and her husband, Lou Arab, celebrating her victory in the 2015 Alberta election.Notley and her husband, Lou Arab, celebrating her victory in the 2015 Alberta election. (Photo: The Canadian Press/Mike Ridewood)

Jason Kenney used to refer to Notley’s victory in 2015 as “accidental”—a suggestion that Alberta voters didn’t actually intend to vote Notley’s party into government. The language was a way of trying to diminish her and the NDP, as well as the voters who supported her, says Melanee Thomas, associate professor of political science at the University of Calgary. But Notley ran an organized campaign, kicked off with an announcement that she was running to be premier and nothing less. It seemed a lofty goal given that conservatives had held power in Alberta for 44 consecutive years at that point. But polls put her in the lead in the weeks before the election. During the leaders’ debate, she jumped in to correct her rival, Jim Prentice, on a figure about her corporate tax proposal. He responded with, “I know math is difficult, but,” and accidentally launched a storm of tweets accusing him of sexism and mansplaining. Arab was watching the debate in the green room and noticed that Prentice centered his attacks on Notley more than anyone else on stage. “He did it so deliberately, that instantly I started jumping up and down and saying, ‘Oh, my God, oh, my God, she's going to win.’”

On May 5, 2015, Notley’s party won more seats for women than any other government in Canadian history. She made it a priority to have gender parity in cabinet and appointments. Six months later, newly elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau followed her lead and formed the first gender-balanced federal cabinet with the justification “because it’s 2015.” Three cabinet ministers gave birth in the first three years of Notley’s government—including two who were pregnant at their swearing-in.

“It was important to me personally, and it was important to women across the province that Rachel was saying with that appointment that women at all stages of life have an important role in society,” says Stephanie McLean, the first Minister of Status of Women and Minister of Service Alberta. After McLean had her baby, the Sergeant-at-Arms, who heads security in the assembly, had to change the rules in the Alberta legislature so that infants could join their mothers in the front benches and their partners could be nearby. Later, Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley was the first attorney general in Canada to give birth while in office. Notley was and is unflinching about the need to have women at the table where decisions are being made. “I do think that the absence of women has a very negative impact,” she says.

On May 5, 2015, Notley’s party won more seats for women than any other government in Canadian history.

Midway through her premiership, CBC reported that Notley had received more threats than any premier in Alberta history. It’s a subject that she and many around her like to sidestep, concerned that this becomes the story about Notley—or any other woman in politics—rather than stories about her policies and goals. After the 2015 election, energy prices continued to slide downwards, sending the economy into recession, and Notley chalks the threats up to people going through a difficult time. “That doesn't make it right. But I don’t perceive it as having been a function of me. I perceive it as being a function of the challenges that folks in the province were experiencing, and then some folks on the very edge with some health issues took it too far,” she says. “I honestly think that probably Jason Kenney—certainly my understanding is—it wasn't very great for him either.” (Jason Kenney declined Chatelaine’s request for an interview.)

Notley and Arab kept an eye on her security and carried on. But the calls and emails alarmed people around her. While she was premier, Notley and Michele Jackson, who was director of public agency appointments in the premier’s office, flew to Vancouver to watch their daughters in a dance tournament. Notley planned to wake up early to run. Jackson protested that she wasn’t comfortable with Notley going alone; Notley insisted she’d be fine. Jackson, who is not a runner, announced she would join for protection. “I got up with her early and I ran. I nearly died,” Jackson says. “We were just two mums hanging out with our kids at a dance competition, but I still had that eye on her security.”

“She didn’t get the best run of her life,” she adds.

Notley says she worries more about the hatred directed to people in the community, especially women and visible minorities, than she does about threatening emails sent to a premier with a security team. “We need to focus on giving people a little bit more of that sense of security and stability, and we need to stop weaponizing the division that we see in our communities because that drives more insecurity.”

But there is evidence that women from politics—or journalism or other roles in public life—face disproportionate abuse designed to deter them from seeking office. I ask Notley how women can be enticed into running, given this pattern. She says she takes heart in the people who tell her that she’s making a difference. “Politics is privilege,” she says. “With every privilege, there’s a cost. I’m not saying it’s not hard, but I do think that there are a lot of advantages to it. Day to day, face to face, most people are good people.”


There is always a risk that gender becomes the story about a woman in politics. It’s happening here, in this story. Doing so belittles the accomplishments and aims of female politicians, but also colours criticism of their policies.

Notley points out all the time that it was her government that got a new pipeline to tidewater, or at least put it in process. In 2018, while Notley was premier, the federal government bought the Trans Mountain pipeline and its expansion from Kinder Morgan, who was stepping away from the project. Costs have soared, up to an estimated $30.9 billion, and it will not move oil until at least next year.

For her role in this, Notley’s been called an “accidental”—there’s that word again—pipeline advocate. Her support for the oil and gas industry was not as evident back in 2008. Today, Notley argues that a growing oil and gas industry is not irreconcilable with sound environmental stewardship. She sees it as two sides of the same coin. The idea can be a tough sell to people who aren’t convinced Alberta is doing enough to reduce emissions, but it’s an equally tough sell to Albertans who worry that the province’s economic future is at risk from a heavy-handed environmental movement. It’s a tricky balance: for everyone to get something, everyone must be a little unhappy. That’s an uncomfortable spot for any politician.

“Politics is privilege,” Notley says. “With every privilege, there’s a cost.”

When Notley was premier, the Trudeau government—whose cabinet had rejected one major pipeline project by November 2016—introduced Bill C-69. The move triggered alarm bells in Alberta. Now called the Impact Assessment Act, the law gives the federal government the power to assess the environmental, economic, social and health ramifications of new resource projects. Notley advocated for substantive changes to the act, and she says that she was making headway when she lost the 2019 election to Kenney, who’d nicknamed the bill the “No More Pipelines” Act. Like Kenney, Notley sees the act as an example of federal overreach, but says the UCP did not work hard enough to get a better deal for Alberta before turning to the courts. The Kenney government launched a constitutional challenge to the act, and the case is now before the Supreme Court. Notley feels the significance of this case is about more than provincial-versus-federal jurisdiction—it’s also about how governments engage in a meaningful way with Indigenous communities.

“Their rights are the rights that are, frankly, evolving in a much faster way than anything that's embedded in Bill C-69. And the complexities around these big projects, frankly, live more in that area,” she says. “So when it comes to seeing a dramatic change in our ability to move forward with big projects, it’s the area of how we work productively and respectfully, and in a meaningful way, with Indigenous people that’s really going to define our capacity on that front—way more than C-69.”

Early on, Notley fumbled with a major piece of legislation, which extended workplace safety provisions to cover people working on farms. It was clumsy in wording and delivery, and will haunt her in the election. Farmers drove agricultural vehicles down the province’s major highway in protest, saying the bill would kill family farms. In response, the NDP amended the bill. The next year, compensation claims from farmworkers doubled—an indication of the bill’s value. But Notley has yet to recover her reputation in rural Alberta.

Unemployment in Alberta skyrocketed during Notley’s time in office, rising above the national average in 2015 and staying there for the remainder of her time in office. Her campaign promise to balance the books by 2018 fell apart with declining tax revenue and resource royalties but increased spending on health and education. Her signature policy act, the Climate Leadership Plan, with its consumer-based carbon tax and cap on oil sands emissions, became a rallying call for Alberta’s conservatives, who’d joined forces under the UCP tent.

When Notley lost in 2019, many, even in her inner circle, wondered if she’d step down. She had spent years in the public eye. Even her deputy chief of staff half-expected her to walk away: “I thought that it was too big an ask,” says Anne McGrath, who has since returned to her role as national director of the NDP. “I thought she should probably take care of herself and all those kinds of things.” Notley says she never seriously considered leaving. She remains the keystone of the Alberta NDP. “There's almost a cult of personality there,” says McLean, who resigned as an MLA three years after her election (she says her decision reflected, in part, a “uniquely toxic” political environment in Alberta and not a breakdown of her relationship with the NDP or Rachel Notley). “She brought the NDP to power in Alberta for the first time in history. She’ll always be remembered and adored for that.”

Whether gender matters in this election depends on how one views the status of women in the province, and what should and could be done for women.

There will be a line batted about in the forthcoming election that gender does not matter. Unless something entirely unpredictable happens, the province’s next premier will be a woman. Alberta has already had more women premiers than any other province—three—and now, for the second time in its history, has two women in the running for the top job.

They have wholly different approaches to gender and politics: Notley had the first cabinet in Canada with gender parity and set up Status of Women as an associate ministry; Smith, whose cabinet has 27 positions, has five women at the table—Smith included—and downgraded Status of Women to a role for parliamentary secretary. They clash on approaches to education, health, funding for birth control, childcare and more.

Whether gender matters in this election depends on how one views the status of women in the province, and what should and could be done for women. Alberta has the highest wages in the country, but it is also home to one of the greatest gender wage gaps. Three of its last six premiers have been women, but it is also the province that made international headlines in 2022 when its associate minister in charge of women’s issues awarded a writing prize to an essayist who said that women are “not exactly equal” to men. (The UCP government later pulled the essay from its website and said it should not have been chosen.)

Notley worries that Alberta is slipping back in women’s rights, as are many places. She points to the wage gap, the representation gap and changes in laws around abortion in the United States. “These are real threats that are still in front of us. I think many women across the political spectrum can agree that we need more women in politics and more women in positions of power.”

History suggests that former premiers are more likely to return to office in times of tumult. Robert Bourassa was premier of Quebec from 1970 to 1976 and, again, from 1985 to 1994, having spent the years in between out of politics rather than in opposition. Saskatchewan’s James Garfield Gardner returned as premier in 1934-1935 during the depression, after his government lost office in an election five years prior. Alberta is in a turbulent state now, on its sixth premier in a decade. Only one defied the pattern and served their full term. It was Rachel Notley.