The New Democratic Party of Alberta's History

Here you will find a detailed history of the NDP's history in Alberta, including their origins, significant moments, and significant figures. It is important to note that while this is a fairly comprehensive history, it is not the entirety of the story, nor is it necessarily perfect. If flaws are found, they will corrected as soon as possible. These histories are the best presentation of the facts as APAH could find, but will be updated and improved as time goes on and more resources become available.

 

          The Alberta New Democratic Party, also referred to as the NDP, formed the government in 2015 and were the fifth government to take power. Unlike other provincial parties who may share names with federal parties, all provincial NDP parties and the federal NDP party are “integrated” meaning they operate with shared membership and structure. Other parties, such as the Alberta Liberal Party, may share a name with the Liberal Party of Canada or the Liberal Party of British Columbia, but they are separate organizations with separate memberships and potentially very different philosophies. Due to this increased integration, the NDP has a somewhat more consistent structure, but their histories are still distinct.

          In Alberta, the origins of the NDP are connected to two separate parties: the United Farmers of Alberta (UFA),  and more directly, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), of which it was a direct descendant. The UFA is likely the most familiar name for Albertans out of these original parties, because it still exists to this day - only we now know it as an agriculture-based retail chain with a collection of fuel stations across the province. It began following its current path as a commercial business in 1935, but between 1919 and 1935, the UFA was a powerful political party in Alberta with a hand in federal elections as well. After winning a by-election in 1919, the UFA won a surprise majority government in 1921 in the first-ever change of government in the history of Alberta, defeating the Liberals. Among several reforms enacted by the UFA during their time in office, they crucially wrestled control of Alberta’s natural resources away from the federal government in 1929, paving the way for the province to benefit massively from oil and gas development in the following century.

          Despite their successes, the UFA was absolutely destroyed in the 1935 election by the newly created right-wing Social Credit Party, going from winning the previous election with 39 out of 63 seats to losing every single held seat. After a loss like that, there wasn’t much room for recovery, and the UFA officially dissolved its political party in 1939. The left-wing members of the party would go on to join the CCF, while the rest joined the “Independent Movement”, an organization that attempted to bring down the Socreds by banding together the Conservative and Liberal parties, as well as any remaining UFA members.

          From here, the origins of the NDP follow the CCF, who were founded in Calgary in 1932. The full name of the party - the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (Farmer-Labour-Socialist) - should make it clear who this party was for. The primary goal of the party was to regulate the economy for the purposes of supplying human needs above making profit. With the Great Depression in full swing during this period, it’s not hard to see why this is where many left-wing UFA members would turn after their 1935 defeat. The CCF was affiliated with the Socialist International, a global association of social-democratic parties that they would maintain an affiliation with even as they evolved into the modern NDP - an affiliation that only ended in 2018, when the NDP chose to remove themselves.

          The party was heavily socialist, contending that a CCF government would not rest until it had eradicated capitalism, and in 1933 created the Regina Manifesto that would lay out their platform. This included the socialization of finance, the social ownership of a wide variety of industries, the removal of the Senate, freedom of speech and assembly, amendments to prevent “inhuman” deportation policies, equal treatment under the law regardless of race, religion, nationality, or political beliefs, and an emergency program designed to stop the bleeding of the unemployment crisis. The CCF would maintain this hardline socialist manifesto as the base of their political platform until 1956, when anti-communist sentiments from the Cold War led them to replace it with the Winnipeg Declaration.

          This is getting ahead of the timeline, however. In 1940, the CCF would run in its first election, led by Chester Ronning, a former UFA MLA with ties to the CCF who had held office from 1932 to 1935. The party won 11% of the vote across its 36 candidates, but ultimately, no seats. In 1942, the Conservative leader died and Elmer Roper, running as the CCF nominee for the seat, won the by-election. Ronning handed off the leadership to Roper and the party finally had an official seat under the CCF banner. In the next election, the CCF would field 57 candidates, only three short of one in every riding and only matched by the Socreds. Despite this, the CCF would only gain one more seat in 1944. From here the CCF would maintain a steady two-seat position in the Legislature until 1959, when the party failed to win a single seat.

          This would ultimately be one more nail in the coffin of the CCF, a party that had failed to win anything close to a federal government and had only ever found success in Saskatchewan under Tommy Douglas (although its success there was significant). In 1958, the CCF and the Canadian Labour Congress, or CLC (the national labour body of English Canada) formed a twenty-person committee to create a “New Party”, with each group represented by ten members. In 1961, after three years of development and a five-day Founding Convention, the New Democratic Party would officially be born and Tommy Douglas, the leader of the Saskatchewan CCF who had won them their only government, would become the federal party leader. The NDP has claimed that the CCF is a direct predecessor to their party. This puts them in the interesting position of having their roots in Alberta but never holding government in the province until their 2015 victory, despite having already held won governments in every other Western province as well as Ontario, Nova Scotia, and the Yukon.

          In 1962, the Alberta NDP would officially be born with Neil Reimer (the Canadian director of the Oil Workers International Union) at the helm, and in 1963, the NDP ran in their first election, with 56 candidates for the 63 available seats. When the votes were tallied, they would win no seats - but to be fair, the Socreds swept 60 of those seats themselves and only barely lost out on the other three to two Liberals and a Liberal-Conservative Coalition member. In 1966, Garth Turcott would win a by-election to become the first Alberta NDP MLA, only to lose his seat less than a year later in the 1967 election.

          In 1971, NDP leader Grant Notley (father of future Alberta NDP leader and Premier Rachel Notley) won the party’s first seat in a provincial election. In an interesting coincidence, Grant Notley’s first election win came in the same year that Peter Lougheed’s Progressive Conservative (PC) Party removed the Socreds from power in the third-ever government change in Albertan history. Forty-four years later, Notley’s daughter would lead the NDP in removing the PCs from office in the fourth-ever government change in Albertan history.

          From 1971 to 1982, Notley was the only representative of the NDP in the Legislature. During this time, the NDP was in a prime position - support for the party was growing slowly but surely under Notley’s leadership, and while the PCs managed to maintain a strong position in government, the other opposition parties were suffering. The Alberta Liberals couldn’t shake their association to Pierre Trudeau’s federal Liberals, whose NEP caused massive economic issues for the province and led to the party being widely disliked. The Socreds dragged out their death for those eleven years before eventually succumbing in 1982, when they lost their last seat. In that same year, the NDP would become the official opposition to the PCs despite only having two seats in the Legislature to the PCs’ seventy-five. Notley was joined by Ray Martin in the Legislature and was perceived to be on the cusp of a major breakthrough for the party before his death in a 1984 plane crash.

          Upon Notley’s death, Martin assumed the leadership and in 1986 led the party to their biggest win (until 2015), taking just shy of 30% of the vote and capturing sixteen seats as the official opposition. This was the first time since 1971 that the opposition had held more than four seats, and the first time a left-wing political party had taken a double-digit seat count in the province since the Liberals in 1955. This success in 1986 was seen as yet another indicator that Alberta’s politics are, to put it generously, unpredictable. As party membership quadrupled, it was believed that the NDP were gaining the necessary momentum to challenge the PCs.

          However, this would soon prove to have been an optimistic (but unrealized) prediction. In 1989, the NDP maintained their 16 seats, but went down to just 26% of the popular vote. This meant that the Liberals, despite only winning eight seats, had actually beaten them in the popular vote with 28% - their best popular vote outcome since 1955. While not a defeat on paper, it still signaled the end of any momentum they may have gained. In 1993 the NDP would lose all sixteen seats and fall into the background.

          The party was still present, though - Pam Barrett would lead the party to reclaiming two seats in 1996, only to resign the leadership and her seat in 2000 after what she referred to as a near-death experience at the dentist. She would be succeeded by Raj Pannu who maintained their two seats in 2001, and Pannu would himself be succeeded by Brian Mason in 2004. In the same year, the NDP would double their seats in an election that showed the PCs at their most vulnerable, after the death of PC leader Ralph Klein’s mother early in the campaign left Klein either unable or unwilling to campaign much at all for his party. In 2008, the NDP would drop down to two seats - the seats of then-leader Brian Mason and future-leader Rachel Notley, both in Edmonton - only to jump back up to four in 2012.

          It was in 2012 that Alberta’s political unpredictability reared its head again. While the NDP gained relatively little in this election, the unexpectedly strong win of Alison Redford’s PCs despite opinion polls showing favour for Danielle Smith’s Wildrose Party again changed Alberta’s political landscape and opened a window for the NDP to make some headway. This was exacerbated when in December of 2014, nine of the remaining fourteen Wildrose MLAs - including leader Danielle Smith - crossed the floor and joined the PCs, a move that confused and angered many Albertans. In the same year, Mason stepped down and Notley was overwhelmingly elected as leader of the Alberta NDP.

          In 2014, the PC government celebrated becoming the longest-lasting government in Canadian history at forty-three years, and two days later, nominated Jim Prentice as leader. In 2015, Prentice was seeking a new mandate to pass his budget and so asked the Lieutenant Governor to dissolve the legislature on April 7th, and call an election on May 5th. This would ultimately prove fatal for the PCs - a combination of factors (such as the downturn in the oilfield shortly after the election was called, and a strong showing by Notley at the leaders' debate) contributed to a surprise defeat for the PCs, who lost the election after forty-four years of maintaining a majority government. With the NDP winning the election, it was the first time a left-wing government had been in power in Alberta since 1935, way back when the UFA lost their election to the Socreds. 2015 also marked only the fourth change of government in Alberta, making the NDP only the fifth party to govern Alberta - following the Liberals, the UFA, the Socreds, and then the PCs.

          In 2019, the NDP contested the 2019 election with Notley again at the helm - in this election, she was the only leader of a party holding seats to have been leading their party for more than two years (Fildebrandt and Mandel became leaders in 2018, and Kenney and Khan became leaders in 2017). In fact, only one leader of a registered party in Alberta had led their party's leadership for longer than Notley had - Communist Party leader Naomi Rankin, who became party leader in 1992.

          After losing the election in 2019, the NDP became the first party in Alberta history to only hold government for one term. The 30th Legislative Assembly is also the first time the NDP has been part of a truly two-party Legislature - in 1982, the NDP and PCs were the only parties to win seats, but two Independents were elected alongside them. Coincidentally, that was also the last time Alberta elected an Independent to the Legislature. They will hold the Official Opposition once again in 2019. 

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