NDP leadership meet and greet in Edmonton recap: Members playing wait and see

Alberta NDP leadership candidates largely stuck to their scripts at an April 9 Edmonton meet-and-greet with no candidate having a clear advantage in support and a lot of members who still haven’t made up their minds. 

Each candidate was given four minutes to speak to the audience of around 100 at the Ukrainian Centre before the evening’s mingling began. 

Calgary-Mountain View MLA Kathleen Ganley, who served as the NDP minister of justice from 2015 to 2019, acknowledged the party “didn’t get everything right when we were in government,” but was able to protect education and health care, raise the minimum wage from $10.20 to $15, and "cut child poverty in half.”

In order to win in 2027, Ganely said, the NDP needs “to talk a little more about the economy, because the UCP’s ideas on the economy — their ideas that giving more to the wealthy makes the economy better — are wrong.”

She cited a few of her campaign policies, such as abolishing the Canadian Energy Centre, establishing a school nutrition program and reforming the notoriously industry-friendly Alberta Energy Regulator. 

Former three-term Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi wasn’t able to attend due to a death in his family, but he addressed the crowd in a pre-recorded video. 

“A month ago, I never would have thought that I'd be back in politics again,” Nenshi said, adding that he was so “deeply troubled, not just about the direction of this government, but by the direction of the province right now pivotal time in human history,” that he decided to return. 

He emphasized the word for in his slogan, “an Alberta for all of us.”

“For too long, we have been conditioned to be against Ottawa, against the Liberals, against oil and gas, against activists, against environmentalists, against people who worship differently — in short, against one another,” said Nenshi. 

“What I'm hearing across the province is … here's a chance for us to be for [something] because you're not allowed to have small dreams when you live under a sky this big.”

Long-time Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan touted himself as “a leader who has successfully run a multimillion dollar organization for 19 years.”

“I am a participant, not a bystander. I am a doer, not a talker. I am a proud progressive with a proven track record. And most importantly, for 38 years and continuing today,” he said in an apparent jab at Nenshi, “I am a New Democrat.”

“We win by winning back workers from the conservatives and we do that by … showing Albertans how the UCP will destroy our oil and gas industry, and how we as New Democrats can save it while at the same time dramatically reducing emissions,” McGowan added.

Rookie MLA Jodi Calahoo Stonehouse, who is the first First Nations woman elected to the Legislature, spoke about the elevated rates of certain cancers discovered in Fort Chipewyan in 2010, a town mostly inhabited by First Nations people downstream from the oilsands. 

“We have done nothing. We have not collected data on the water. We have not done anything with record [industry] profits to clean up record spills,” Calahoo Stonehouse said, referring to repeated tailings leaks in recent years.

Citing the severe drought conditions anticipated for the summer, she said her “very first policy” as premier would concern water allocation. 

“We cannot fix any of the broken systems if we don't fix how we manage our water,” Calahoo Stonehouse said.

Jodi Calahoo Stonehouse, ANDP leadership candidate, speaks at the NDP leadership meet and greet on April 9 in Edmonton as Kathleen Ganley, Gil McGowan, and Sarah Hoffman look on. Image by Jeremy Appel.

Sarah Hoffman, who served as deputy premier and health minister under Rachel Notley’s premiership, recalled getting into NDP politics as an education student at the University of Alberta by meeting New Democrats at protests against tuition increases and the Iraq War.

“That's when I knew that we could be activists, and we could own power. We can be influencers, we can actually govern,” she said. 

Hoffman was twice elected as an Edmonton Public School Board (EPSB) trustee, serving as board chair from 2012 until 2015, when she was elected as an MLA.

“I've won five times in a row by being true to my values, working my tail off and building my team,” she said. “We are having so much fun in this campaign.”

Elected New Democrats Line Up Behind Their Candidate of Choice

MLAs Amanda Chapman, David Shepherd, Peggy Wright, Sharif Haji, Shannon Phillips, Janis Irwin, Rakhi Pancholi and Nathan Ip were in attendance, as was Edmonton-Centre federal NDP candidate and EPSB trustee Trisha Estabrooks. 

They each have all endorsed a candidate—save for Irwin, the unofficial standard-bearer for the party's left wing, whose endorsement remains highly coveted. 

Pancholi, the MLA for Edmonton-Whitemud, was initially a leadership contestant, releasing a stream of detailed policies before abruptly dropping out of the race on March 28 and endorsing Nenshi, citing his membership sales figures. 

Nenshi has yet to release any major policy proposals. Pancholi, who is now his campaign’s executive chair, told The Progress Report that those are coming, but wouldn’t comment on how many of her campaign’s policies she expects him to adopt. 

“There were no sort of deals or commitments made about what that would mean for his campaign,” said Pancholi. “It was simply me understanding that there was a movement that was happening, that he was gaining a lot of support with a lot of Albertans and encouraging more people to join our party, and that's what I wanted to contribute to.”

Shepherd, who had initially registered to run as a leadership contestant but dropped out early due to health concerns, is also backing Nenshi.

Phillips, the MLA for Lethbridge-West, is co-chairing Ganley’s campaign. She told The Report her support for Ganley is based on the campaign being “focused and disciplined on two things” — building “an economy that works for people” and electability outside Edmonton and Calgary. 

Kathleen Ganley, Gil McGowan and Sarah Hoffman at the NDP leadership meet and greet on April 9 in Edmonton. Image by Jeremy Appel. 

One of Ganley’s first economic proposals was to increase the income threshold for the Basic Personal Tax Exemption — under which Albertans don’t have to pay provincial income taxes — to $26,000 from $21,885

Phillips described the policy as one practical way to save Albertans money during the affordability crisis, alongside other policies that are in more traditional NDP territory.

“It's a language people understand,” Phillips said. “Why should you, if you make [less than $26,000] a year, be paying the Alberta taxman?” 

Chapman and Haji have also endorsed Ganley. 

Time for a Rebrand?

One major discussion on the Alberta NDP campaign trail thus far has been whether the Alberta NDP should disassociate itself from the federal party to broaden its appeal, with Ganley and Nenshi gesturing in that direction. 

Meanwhile, Hoffman and McGowan have made the NDP brand central to their campaigns, which is one reason Estabrooks, who’s challenging Liberal MP Randy Boissonnault in Edmonton-Centre, is backing Hoffman. 

Estabrooks called the debate over the NDP brand “a lot of noise.” 

“I'm getting really frustrated at it, quite frankly. There are so many other important issues that New Democrats should be talking about,” she said. 

“So let's picture it, the new leader is finally put in place at the end of June. Is this really what we want to be talking about as a party? Absolutely not.” 

But some party members in attendance don’t support the federal NDP. 

Sheldon Zern, a human resources student at the University of Alberta, is a federal Liberal voter. As a result, he’s looking for a “moderate” candidate. 

He hasn’t decided who his first choice for Alberta NDP leader will be, but said his top three are Ganley, Nenshi and Calahoo Stonehouse.

“I’m looking for somebody who will fund universities, who will support the energy sector and support diversifying the economy, and somebody who will just raise the minimum wage and support workers,” said Zern. 

David Ondieki was previously a card-carrying Liberal, but recently took out an NDP membership to vote in the leadership race. 

In his view, the Liberals and NDP aren’t so far apart politically, but the NDP is the only party capable of defeating the UCP in 2027. 

He’s still undecided in the leadership race, but has a “soft spot” for Ganley and McGowan. 

Attendees Identify Their Priorities

A Kenyan immigrant and nurse, Ondieki said he spoke to the leadership candidates about how they will help immigrants who have settled in Alberta. 

“Immigrants are a population which has been left behind, in terms of jobs, in terms of recognition, and so many other things,” he said. “So if there is a leader who is going to take immigrants and see how their potential can be harnessed, I think I'll fight for that leader.”

Tuesday’s meet-and-greet was Ondieki’s first NDP event, although he’s previously donated to David Shepherd, whom he describes as a “good friend.”  

Laura Penner, the secretary for the Shepherd’s Edmonton-City Centre constituency association, is backing Hoffman, but identified Ganley and Calahoo Stonehouse as her likely second and third choices. 

She cited a rent cap, a “minimum wage that’s more in line with a living wage,” increased corporate taxes and free post-secondary education as her “top priorities,” although she conceded the latter is “a pipe dream at this point.”

For Owen Cary, the most important quality for the next NDP leader is being able to “give a better fight” against Danielle Smith and the UCP than Rachel Notley did in 2023. 

“We need somebody who's got maybe similar ideas to Notley, but can get some of that rural vote,” Cary said.

Cary’s leaning towards supporting Nenshi, whose name recognition he suspects will be an asset towards the party outside its traditional bases of support in Edmonton and parts of Calgary. 

Increasing Alberta’s minimum wage is a major priority for Cary, who earns $15 an hour at McDonald’s. The only province with a lower minimum wage than Alberta is Saskatchewan. 

So far, only Ganley has explicitly called for a minimum wage increase. 

“All of the candidates would raise the minimum wage,” Cary said. “I can tell you, that won’t happen under the UCP.” 

Marilyn Gaa, a retired teacher and a member of the Raging Grannies, is also Nenshi-leaning. While she’d also like to see more from Nenshi on the policy front, Gaa said she senses from his public remarks that the former Calgary mayor has “good humanitarian values.”

Gaa wants to see a rewritten social studies curriculum “that reflects the truth of our history, and shows respect for all of the different ethnicities and First Nations people.”

The next NDP leader will need to work to “repair the damage that's been done to the health care system,” she added.

Friends of Medicare executive director Chris Gallaway, who was at the meet-and-greet, noted how the words “health care” have been uttered repeatedly throughout the early days of the NDP leadership race, but it’s mainly taken the form of “platitudes and slogans.”

Pancholi, the only candidate to have presented a plan to address health-care staffing shortages, is no longer in the race. Ganley has a commitment to invest solely in public long-term care, but has yet to address the rest of the health-care system.

Hoffman said her health-care platform is coming soon. 

“We would love to see more in terms of what [the candidates] actually would do in health care — the moment we're in — to fix the problems,” said Gallaway. “They've all identified it as an issue, but what are they going to do about it?” 

This story has been updated from an earlier version which noted erroneously that Peggy Wright had not yet made an endorsement.