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Labour leader Gil McGowan joins four MLAs in Alberta NDP leadership contest

Long-time labour leader Gil McGowan has officially entered the race to replace Rachel Notley.

McGowan, who has been president of the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) for 19 years, is the fifth candidate vying for leadership of the Alberta NDP.

McGowan announced his leadership candidacy on social media earlier this week, adding that he has a poorly timed case of COVID-19 and has postponed campaign launch events and public appearances until he has recovered.

“It speaks volumes about the strength of the ANDP that so many highly-qualified candidates are vying for leadership,” McGowan wrote in a nod to his competitors.

McGowan said Saturday he was unable to do an interview due to illness.

In his comments online, McGowan said he will remain AFL president while campaigning for the NDP leadership.

“I was elected to serve the interests of Alberta workers from AFL-affiliated unions and I intend to continue doing that throughout this spring,” he wrote.

The leadership contest was prompted by Notley’s January announcement that she would step down once party members chose her successor.

McGowan joins three Edmonton-area NDP MLAs — Jodi Calahoo Stonehouse, Sarah Hoffman and Rakhi Pancholi — along with Calgary MLA Kathleen Ganley in a bid to replace Notley.

Former Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi has hinted he may also enter the race this week.

McGowan’s labour ties an asset and risk, strategists say

Political consultants say McGowan could be a polarizing figure as NDP leader, and that party members must decide if that’s what they want.

“Gil’s not afraid to speak his mind. Stand up for what he believes in,” said Deron Bilous, senior vice-president of Counsel Public Affairs in Western Canada, who was the NDP MLA for Edmonton-Beverly-Clareview from 2012 to 2023.

AFL, Gil McGowan
Gil McGowan was first elected president of the AFL in 2005. (Alberta Federation of Labour)

With his nearly 20 years at the helm of the AFL, McGowan is bound to appeal to NDP members involved with the labour movement, Bilous said.

He said more leadership candidates means additional membership sales for the party, and better engagement on policy, which should improve the health of the NDP.

However, McGowan’s lack of experience as an MLA could be a liability for a leadership candidate, Bilous said.

Tom Vernon, a consultant with Crestview Strategy, said in an interview that McGowan could re-engage past and current NDP members who feel the party has strayed too far from its organized labour roots.

“He’s going to be a strong candidate in this, and I think it’s going to spice it up a bit,” Vernon said.

However, he says McGowan’s commentary critical of corporate leaders could be off-putting to red tories and centre-left voters who have gravitated to the NDP as United Conservative Party policies lean further to the right.

“That may not sit too well with some of those voters that Rachel Notley has been trying to attract to the party — and that many of the other leadership contestants are trying to attract to the party, and build into the party to have that broader base when the next election comes along,” Vernon said.

McGowan is already a frequent target of political attacks by the UCP. That party might delight in using McGowan’s history as a punching bag in fundraising messages to donors, Vernon said.

The long-time labour activist previously ran for the federal NDP in 2015 in the Edmonton Centre riding. He placed third after winner and current Liberal MP Randy Boissonnault, and Conservative James Cumming.

Candidates wishing to run for NDP leader must register with the party by Friday. Candidates then have about five more weeks to sell memberships. Only people with memberships in good standing by April 22 will be eligible to vote for a new leader.

Voting begins May 22, and the party will announce its new leader on June 22. Members can vote by mail-in ballot, by telephone or online.

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