Indeed, and Layton reminded me of two Alberta politicians who played similar roles on the provincial stage: the late Grant Notley, who also was a New Democrat, and the late Sheldon Chumir, who was a Liberal.
Notley, a former national secretary for the federal NDP, became the leader of the faltering Alberta NDs in 1968 when it was a party torn apart by ideological differences and – with no seats in the legislature – on the brink of political extinction. Some suggested he should run for a party that actually had a chance of electing members, but Notley wanted to be a New Democrat because the party represented “the most civilized approach to blending the two instincts that we all have – our desire to be individuals and our need to be part of the community.”
Chumir, a lawyer and civil liberties advocate, never sought the leadership of his provincial party because, as he said, he “didn’t have the fire in the belly for the position.” But as Liberal critic for all the important government portfolios – shadowing the provincial treasurer, energy minister, attorney general and solicitor general – Chumir garnered more headlines than the ministers whose policies he found fault with.
Both men defied the odds to win seats in a province where right-wing governments – starting with the Social Crediters and continuing with the Progressive Conservatives – had ruled supreme since the mid-1930s. Notley ran unsuccessfully three times before establishing a legislative beachhead for the NDs in the 1971 election that brought Peter Lougheed’s Tories to power. Chumir broke the Tory blockade of southern Alberta in 1986 to become the first provincial Liberal elected in Calgary in 20 years.
If ideology shaped their political beliefs, it rarely surfaced as a credo that defined them as legislators. Notley never came across as a “real” socialist because he had an uneasy relationship with the trade union movement – the traditional support system for the New Democrats. Chumir never came across as a standard-bearer for liberalism because he was more interested in dealing with the practical day-to-day concerns of his constituents – worker compensation claims, landlord-tenant disputes and so on – than in getting speeches into Hansard about the global economy.
Both men – like Layton – were taken from us far too soon. A plane crash ended Notley’s life at age 45, two years before Alberta voters sent an unprecedented number of New Democrats – 16 – to the provincial legislature. Chumir died of lymphoma at age 51, three years into his second term as MLA. Some said the two men could have made their names as cabinet ministers if they had run for the ruling Tories. But Notley and Chumir didn’t go into politics for the prestige. They went into politics because – like Layton – they cared. They will continue to be missed for a long time.
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Copyright 2011 Brian Brennan - Writer