Calgary·Analysis

Shannon Phillips targeted climate and parks action. Then she got targeted. The NDPer is now leaving office

After years of fight for justice after Lethbridge police surveillance scandal, departing MLA admits "it grinds on me."

Dogged by Lethbridge police surveillance scandal and its long shadow

a woman in red jacket smiles at a microphone
Former Alberta environment minister Shannon Phillips will leave her Lethbridge seat barely one year being elected to a third straight term. (Mike Symington/CBC)

The Rachel Notley government's consumer carbon tax wound up becoming a weapon the UCP wielded to drum the Alberta NDP out of office. But that levy-and-repayment program, and the wide-ranging "climate leadership plan" around it, also stood as the NDP's boldest, provincial-reputation-altering move in their single-term tenure.

And as the party reignites its bid to return to government this summer with a new leader, New Democrats will do so without the veteran MLA who led the party's push to make the world take Alberta more seriously on climate action.

Shannon Phillips, the party's former environment minister, has decided to leave office July 1.

Her departure comes barely one year after she was elected to a third term as MLA for Lethbridge-West. It will also pose a serious test for her party and its next leader, in a byelection later this year to defend the NDP's only seat outside of the Calgary and Edmonton regions.

Phillips insisted in an interview that her departure has nothing to do with the June 22 leadership vote to replace Notley, the only leader Phillips has served alongside.

It's personal reasons — a sense that she's accomplished enough in politics, some unnamed opportunities in the private sector and a desire to spend more time with her two teenage sons.

But she also has a less typical personal reason to resign: the long shadow of the improper surveillance that Lethbridge police officers conducted on her while she was minister — photographing her, following her and looking her up on police databases.

What's followed that 2017 snooping has been discipline for two officers, her own bids for more police accountability, a $400,000 lawsuit she filed in 2022, and recent word that Alberta's police watchdog recommended charges against the police members, though the Crown declined to prosecute.

The saga has taken its personal toll on her.

"It is an absolutely deplorable situation, and there's no question that it grinds on me," Phillips told CBC News.

"I don't feel solid at all in my own community, and it's been years now."

Phillips said she considered not running again in 2023, but a longtime friend and adviser told her: "Don't let these f--kers win," she recalled.

 a woman stands in a jacket on a city street.
Phillips on the street where Lethbridge police officers took surreptitious photos of her and followed her brunch guests. (Dave Rae/CBC)

She was also motivated to run again with the hopes her NDP could win again, beating then-rookie Premier Danielle Smith. The disappointment of the party's defeat, and four more years on the Opposition benches, led both Notley and Phillips to both decide to step down (though Notley has no plans yet to resign her seat).

Phillips has endorsed former justice minister Kathleen Ganley in this month's leadership vote, although former Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi is widely perceived to be the front-runner. "I am perfectly comfortable with any leadership outcome," Phillips said.

"No one, I think, would ever accuse me of being an opportunist on any side of the outcomes in this party. I was a New Democrat before it was cool. I intend to remain one now that it is pretty cool."

Her time with the party stretches to 2000, when she was a University of Alberta political science grad interning in the office of Brian Mason, then one of only two New Democrat MLAs. 

She was part of a group of local activists — protesting in the tear-gas clouds outside 2001's Summit of the Americas in Quebec City — but became the one who preferred to agitate for change inside the government system.

After several years as an aide in the NDP's small Opposition caucus office, she left to work in progressive media and with the Alberta Federation of Labour, returning to run for the provincial party in Lethbridge in 2012. She lost that one, before winning the next three contests.

She became known as one of the Notley government's toughest operators, in question period and behind the scenes. To let off steam, she participated in Lethbridge roller derby — her nickname was Gnome Stompsky (a nod to social critic and academic Noam Chomsky) and her number (4746) was a nod to her vote total in her first election.

a woman waves behind a lectern. Other people stand around her.
Phillips, at front right, joined then-premier Rachel Notley as the Alberta NDP government announced a wide-ranging climate action plan in 2015. (Amber Bracken/Canadian Press)

She served as Notley's environment and parks minister throughout their years in government, 2015 to 2019. She's proud of the climate measures, but holds a bigger place in her heart for her accomplishments on parks files, including protections for the northern Wood Buffalo area and the Castle parks region in southwest Alberta, closer to her Lethbridge base.

Some of those Lethbridge officers in the surveillance scandal were offroading enthusiasts who opposed the NDP's plans for Castle parks, Phillips would later discover through the police investigation processes.

Her lawsuit against the officers will follow her into life after provincial politics. While she has no plans for a next job nailed down yet, she hopes to do some teaching and writing alongside it, Phillips said.

With Phillips's departure, the NDP loses one of its most prominent, recognizable voices, said Lisa Young, a University of Calgary political science professor. "But it also means that there's that much more distance from the Notley legacy," she added.

It's "terrible" to see another woman feeling like she needs to leave politics because of toxic treatment, Young said.

"For every time that we say to girls and young women you can do anything, there's evidence that suggests they may very well be subjected to the kind of harassment and intimidation that we've seen in this instance," she said.

"It drives good people out of political life. It debases the conversation."

A byelection must be called within six months of a seat's vacancy. Phillips's Lethbridge-West is the lone dot of orange in a provincial map the UCP dominates outside of Alberta's two largest cities. But while the UCP will surely covet victory there, Phillips said she's helped turn Lethbridge into a hotbed of NDP support.

"If the UCP wants to run at it, they're welcome to waste their money," she said with a flash of her confidence and determination. "I know what people here are made of."

A vacancy in Lethbridge could be tempting for Nenshi if he wins and wishes to have a legislature seat. However, it could be high-risk for someone so closely associated with Calgary to vie for a seat a two-hour drive away, Young said.

Alberta NDP candidates make their final bids for leadership

19 days ago
Duration 2:16
The Alberta NDP held their final leadership debate on June 2 in Edmonton. Candidates Jodi Calahoo Stonehouse, Kathleen Ganley, Sarah Hoffman and Naheed Nenshi delivered their closing arguments to party faithful before 85,000 members will begin voting. CBC's Natasha Riebe breaks down the key issues for the candidates and party members.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jason Markusoff

Producer and writer

Jason Markusoff analyzes what's happening — and what isn't happening, but probably should be — in Calgary, Alberta and sometimes farther afield. He's written in Alberta for more than two decades, previously reporting for Maclean's magazine, Calgary Herald and Edmonton Journal. He appears regularly on Power and Politics' Power Panel and various other CBC current affairs shows. Reach him at jason.markusoff@cbc.ca