Cheryl Oates learned that she needed to lace up a good pair of running shoes to keep up with Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley.

“When I think about her turning me into a runner, despite the fact that I didn't want to be runner, it’s an interesting parallel to her politics,” says Oates, who was head of communications when Notley was premier.

“Given the chance, she will either wear you down or convince you."

On Saturday afternoon, the party will be Notley’s crew no more. It's set to announce a new leader.

Oates, once a journalist hard-wired to be non-partisan and apolitical, says she changed when she started working for Notley. And others did too.

“Rachel taught me: what are we fighting for, and why are we fighting for it?"

After Notley’s NDP swept to power in 2015, no matter how busy the day, Oates says Notley would tell her, “Meet me at 6:45 a.m.”

The security team assigned to shadow the premier recruited runners who could keep Notley’s pace, Oates says.

Caucus members and office staff realized going on an hour-long early morning run was one of the best ways to bend the premier's ear.

“On the road, people would train up so that they could, when they were asked to, be ready to run 10 kilometres with her.”

Longtime NDP legislature member David Eggen ran against Notley for leadership of the party in 2014, when the four-member caucus was small enough to meet around a dinner table.

“Rachel just bumped it up to a whole new level — like playoff hockey,” Eggen says.

The NDP election win the following year, which ended the four-decade dynasty of the province's Progressive Conservatives, was pegged as accidental, aided by a vote split between the Tories and the right-wing  Wildrose.

But Eggen says Notley knew how to capitalize on the flagging popularity of the Tory government.

In forming the first NDP government in Alberta's history, Notley had to on-board 50 new MLAs and get eight of them in cabinet seats. Bringing the team together, she commanded respect, Eggen says.

“Like sports, she’s a really good coach."

In 2019, banished to the Opposition benches by Jason Kenney’s newly-formed United Conservative Party, Notley rallied her team and strategized how to win seats in the key battleground of Calgary for 2023.

Notley describes that time as a point of pride. No longer tasked with running the government, the NDP was determined to build a political movement.

“Everybody had decided we were down and out. And a small team of us said, 'Nope, that's not what's gonna happen’,” says Notley. 

The caucus currently boasts 38 members — the largest Opposition in the province’s history — and has the majority of seats in Calgary.

“What we see in Calgary now is the outcome of four years of very deliberate effort,” Notley says.

Notley announced in January she would step down to make room for a new leader. She says she stayed on months after losing the election partly due to her desire to help shepherd 19 new MLAs into their jobs.

Notley leaves the helm after 16 years in the legislature and her 60th birthday.

Born and raised in the Alberta NDP, Notley has watched its evolution her whole life. 

Her father, Grant Notley, led the party from 1968 until his death in 1984.

When she was growing up, she says, people in many parts of Alberta felt too constrained to talk about politics.

“It matters to me that we have a strong, progressive voice in Alberta and that we have a healthy political environment where people who disagree with those in power feel that they can engage effectively in that disagreement and not worry about repercussions or retribution,” she says.

As a preteen in the 1970s, Notley joined her mother in an antiwar march across Edmonton’s High Level Bridge. Her political passions later influenced her own children.

"Both my kids, by the time they were five, would literally make protest signs and utter the word ‘shame’ when advocating for themselves inside the family unit," Notley says.

While in government, the former labour lawyer raised the province’s minimum wage, cut child poverty, boosted labour standards and introduced more accessible child care options.

She introduced a consumer carbon tax, later replaced by a federal levy. She began phasing out coal-fired electricity, and this week the last coal-generating station transitioned to natural gas.

She appointed the country’s first gender-balanced cabinet.

There were also low points.

A bill ushering in new labour protections for farm workers prompted rural Albertans to march to the legislature with livestock and placards on pitchforks.

The price of oil cratered, devastating the province’s finances.

Amid all this, the NDP had been mapping their 2019 election campaign on Notley’s crusade for the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. But a Federal Court of appeal decision delayed the project, pushing approvals beyond the election.

“That was not a good day,” says Notley. The pipeline began shipping crude oil from Alberta to the west coast weeks ago.

Oates remembers Notley’s reaction to many of those blows, including the 2023 election loss.

“Rachel moves immediately to, ‘What do we do next? And is it possible to fix it?’”

Notley has ruled out a run in federal politics and is mum on her future plans.

Eggen describes Notley as intensely competitive and says the NDP she's leaving behind has now been built to last.

“She put that belief and that hope in people's minds that we can beat the conservatives.”

Oates says Notley, the runner, was only competitive with herself and always tracking her pace.

“She would never leave someone behind because they couldn’t keep up with her.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 20, 2024.