Professor’s book gets a new life with a new party in Alberta

By Dale Johnson Posted: January 7, 2016 6:00 a.m.

Howard Leeson has re-released his book about former Alberta NDP leader Grant Notley.
Howard Leeson has re-released his book about former Alberta NDP leader Grant Notley. Photo: U of R Photography

Dr. Howard Leeson, adjunct professor and professor emeritus of Political Science at the Univeristy of Regina, has re-released his book about Grant Notley – the father of NDP Premier Rachel Notley, who came to power in May 2015.

“A major theme of the second edition is that the election of the NDP in 2015 was not, as some say, a political accident. It proposes that the NDP, and its left-wing predecessors, have been a legitimate and ongoing political force in the province since 1905,” Leeson says.

Leeson was Grant Notley's first executive assistant after he was elected to the Alberta Legislature in 1971. In that election the Progressive Conservatives came to power under Peter Lougheed, winning 69 of the 75 seats. The Social Credit party won four seats, and Notley was the only NDP member in the legislature. He would remain the only NDP MLA for 11 years.

Leeson later moved to Regina, where he taught Politcal Science at the University of Regina and served as an advisor to NDP Premier Roy Romanow.

Notley died in a plane accident in 1984, and Leeson wrote his biography – which now has been re-released.

The book first came out in 1992, eight years after Notley died.

“It's being re-issued now because there was a feeling that people would like to know more about the history of the New Democratic Party and the Notley family since Rachel Notley is now the premier of the province,” Leeson explains.

“There are several new parts to the book. There is a new introduction, a new preface, and a foreword done by Premier Notley. It's still relevant today because it chronicles the place of the New Democratic Party in the political history of the province.”

Leeson traces Notley’s struggles in getting a university education, and his involvement in the creation of the New Democratic Party, after the CCF, in the 1960s.

“What becomes quite clear in the book is his dedication to both political principle and political success. First, it's a very good history of politics in Alberta during the 1960s through to the 1980s. I think that readers will find a lot of detail not only about Grant Notley, but about Peter Lougheed, the various political parties, and some of the people who were more than a little interesting during this period of time. Second, I believe that the analytical framework of the book, which attempts to place a New Democratic Party in the history of political life in the province, is also valuable.”

Leeson vivdly remembers the last time he saw Grant Notley.

“When I left Alberta in 1977, after teaching at the University of Alberta, I came to Saskatchewan, but kept in touch with him. My family still lived in Edmonton, and I was back there for a visit in October 1984. By sheer coincidence I met Grant at the airport. We had a long talk about politics in both provinces, caught up on family affairs, and then at the very last second he ran out to get on the plane. I found out the next day that the plane had crashed and that he was killed. It was a terrible tragedy, and personally wrenching for all of us who knew him.”

So how does Leeson compare Grant Notley with his daughter Rachel?

“They are, of course, different people. She is very much a product of her times, as was he. I say in the book that she is a good mixture of her father and her mother. Grant was quite reclusive when he was young, very shy, and unable to do much public speaking. He stuttered when he spoke publicly and had to overcome that problem. He did this through much practice and in the end was a very good orator. His wife Sandy Notley was actually very mercurial, outgoing, and outspoken. Rachel Notley seems to be the optimal mix of the two people, and is very charismatic.”
Even though Alberta and Saskatchewan are often thought of as having very different political cultures and backgrounds, Leeson says there are actually lots of similarities.

“They were both Prairie Populist parties, dominated by the agricultural sector, economically radical in many ways, and having a largely Christian base in developing their concepts of political culture. Let us not forget, when Tommy Douglas first ran for office in the mid-1930s, he was nominated by both the CCF and the Social Credit Party in Saskatchewan.”

Grant Notley, The Social Conscience of Alberta – with a forward by Premier Rachel Notley – is available at the University of Regina bookstore.