Review: The What Might Have Been

They say cemeteries are full of indispensable people, but some deaths are more far-reaching than others.

On October 19, 1984 a Piper Navajo commuter plane operated by Wapiti Airlines Ltd. crashed in a freezing rainstorm near Lesser Slave Lake, Alta. An inquiry would cite human error. The pilot, 24, suffered from “cumulative fatigue” and had 11 hours’ sleep in the past two days. Six perished in the crash including New Democrat MLA Grant Notley, Alberta’s Opposition Leader, flying home for the weekend.

He died in anticipation of an election “in which he sensed the party would finally make the breakthrough,” a reporter wrote at the time. For years afterward the words were heard at the Alberta legislature: “If only Notley had lived….” If.

A grinding recession drove then-Premier Peter Lougheed into retirement months later. A subsequent 1986 election saw Conservatives lose 14 seats yet still win the legislature – or more properly steal it. Ridings were so crudely gerrymandered that rural voters controlled the balance of power in the assembly, though two-thirds of Albertans lived in Edmonton and Calgary. The average Edmonton riding had 23,000 electors; one country seat called Little Bow had barely 6,000.

If only Notley had lived…

The University of Alberta Press has printed a second edition of this 1992 biography now more arresting given recent events. Author Howard Leeson, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Regina, recalls the man who might have smashed a Prairie political machine a generation before his daughter did.

Notley was a 4-H farmboy whose grandparents had been prairie sodbusters, and worked all his life to elect New Democrats in Alberta. Curiously Leeson does not dwell on Notley’s spectacular death; it is relegated to a single paragraph on the 311th page. Instead he recounts the struggles of a populist whose singular achievement was to keep the hard-luck NDP alive.

“The NDP was a socialist party in a province where the people had continually rejected the socialist alternative,” writes Leeson, former executive assistant to Notley. Every marginal success was matched with failure.

The party elected its first MLA in 1966, then fell into bankruptcy in 1967. Leeson recalls the arrival at NDP headquarters of a new party secretary, Hart Horn, in 1970: “The office had been closed for months. Everything was, as he recalled, musty and dusty. There was no list of current or past members. Indeed, there was no list at all, only some old addressograph plates piled in a corner. It was a mystery to Hart that the organization functioned at all.”

New Democrats for years were caricatured as Marxists – Premier Ernest Manning once called them “the greatest threat facing this nation today” – though party policies fell short of hysteria. The 1963 platform proposed “open government”, free long-distance calls within Alberta, and state auto insurance. It was not too communistic in a province where conservatives maintained a state-run telephone company, state-run bank, state-run railway and state-run airline, Pacific Western.

Grant Notley is an affectionate tribute to a quiet, decent workaholic who might have become Alberta’s premier in 1986, and altered the whole course of his province and the Prairies. Instead he became another indispensable man in the Fairview, Alta. cemetery.

By Holly Doan

Grant Notley: The Social Conscience of Alberta, by Howard Leeson; University of Alberta Press; 392 pages; ISBN 9781-77212-12544; $29.95

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