A bit more than a month has passed since the first NDP majority in Alberta’s history assumed office on May 24. Since then, Premier Rachel Notley has announced policies that drastically break from those of the Progressive Conservative government the NDP replaced. Notley has proposed a higher carbon tax, for example, and launched a review of oil royalties.
But catching fewer headlines are the more mundane tasks that fill an administration’s first weeks in office, such as filling positions in the province’s civil service.
As Notley’s government takes shape, a close look reveals a list of names with strong ties to British Columbia. Some Vancouver environmentalists say this is a cause for cautious optimism. But others warn that a troupe of B.C. New Democrats working for Alberta could backfire on B.C. and leave provincial relations worse than ever.
In a telephone interview, Tanker Free B.C. executive director Ben West said it won’t hurt to have a few more potential allies in Edmonton. “I don’t think this is the be-all and end-all and that the Alberta government is going to shut down all fossil-fuel development tomorrow,” he said. “But I do think it is more likely we are going to have a more reasoned and realistic conversation about what projects should go forward and why.”
Sierra Club B.C. campaigns director Caitlyn Vernon said the same. “Having B.C. faces in Alberta can certainly provide Premier Notley with an understanding of why British Columbians oppose pipelines and tankers,” she told the Straight. “If there are people who understand the climate science and encourage her government to take real climate leadership…that would be a disincentive for pipelines.”
The Notley administration’s connections to British Columbia begin with the premier herself. Before moving to Edmonton in 2002, Notley spent a decade in B.C., including years in the office of the attorney general, where she worked as an executive assistant. Also during this time, Notley’s husband, Lou Arab, worked in government communications for the B.C. NDP.
Five of Notley’s 12 ministry chiefs of staff have ties to British Columbia.
The best known of these is the Alberta premier’s own chief of staff, Brian Topp. He headed the B.C. NDP’s 2013 election campaign for Adrian Dix. Robin Steudel, now with Alberta’s minister of infrastructure and transportation, and Steve Stringfellow, who answers to the minister of innovation and advanced education, also both held high positions in Dix’s failed campaign for B.C. premier.
Jessica Bowering, chief of staff to the minister of justice and solicitor general, previously worked for the B.C. Nurses’ Union. And according to disclosure forms, Graham Mitchell, chief of staff to the minister of energy, worked as a lobbyist convincing B.C. MPs to “stop the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline”.
There’s also Parm Kahlon, an executive assistant to Notley who previously worked for B.C. NDP MLAs Spencer Chandra Herbert and, earlier, Sue Hammell.
At the deputy-minister level, Janet Davidson, David Morhart, and John Heaney all list past positions in B.C. on their LinkedIn profiles. Heaney’s states he is still a chief of staff for the B.C. NDP and only on leave from that position.
Gerry Scott, a veteran organizer for the B.C. NDP, has not joined the Notley government but remains largely credited with crafting the campaign that led the so-called orange wave to victory. Alongside Scott were a number of B.C. New Democrats who relocated to Alberta for the May election, including Lena Shillington, who has since taken the position of director of administration for the B.C. NDP.
The Alberta premier’s office did not make a representative available for an interview. The B.C. Intergovernmental Relations Secretariat said it would not comment on another jurisdiction’s hiring decisions.
In a telephone interview, B.C. NDP leader John Horgan said he’s guided by what’s best for B.C. and Notley will do what’s best for Alberta.
“But she has said, for example, that spending more time on the Enbridge Northern Gateway [pipeline] is time wasted,” Horgan added. “And I think that is good news, certainly for northern British Columbia.”
Right-wing commentator Ezra Levant told the Straight that Notley’s B.C. appointments will affect interprovincial relations but not in any way that environmentalists hope. He called attention to which British Columbians Notley has recruited and emphasized that they are no friends of the B.C. Liberals. Levant noted that several of them held key positions in the B.C. NDP’s unsuccessful 2013 bid to make Adrian Dix premier.
“If you have the entire campaign team that fought against Christy Clark so vigorously—including defeating her in her own local riding—now transplanted to Alberta and running the Alberta government, what do you think B.C.–Alberta relations are going to be like?” Levant asked.
He predicted British Columbians who have joined Notley in Alberta won’t stay long.
“You think these folks are selling their [Vancouver] homes and buying in Edmonton?” Levant said. “They are all waiting to go back to B.C. to take a run at Christy Clark.”
Notley got her start in politics working as an adviser to the B.C. attorney general, at that time Ujjal Dosanjh. In a telephone interview, he said any British Columbians in the Notley administration are still working for Alberta, and that’s where their priorities will reside.
“It’s always good to have people that you know rather than people that you don’t know, but I don’t think it will make any difference,” he said. “The premier will be looking out, first and foremost, for the interests of Albertans. At the end of the day, she has to get reelected."
Horgan said it is “reasonable” for B.C. environmentalists to feel a little optimism. He recounted a recent telephone call from Notley, and he joked that he was never on the call list of former Progressive Conservative premier Jim Prentice.
“I have known her for some time,” Horgan said of Notley. “And I’m very excited about the change in Alberta. It gives me hope for change federally and hope for change in B.C.”