Former NDP leader Pam Barret dies

Pam Barrett the former Alberta NDP leader who described herself as “the social conscience of the legislature” died of cancer in Edmonton January 21 at the age of 54.

Barrett is remembered fondly by Alberta politicians. “Pam inspired all of us to keep in mind that policies are about people not just words on paper” says Premier Ed Stelmach. “She was incredibly tenacious but never mean-spirited.” Current NDP leader Brian Mason describes Barrett as a “voice for the voiceless.” “She was always standing up on behalf of the little person in Alberta the person who was passed by” says Mason. Liberal leader Kevin Taft says he “admired her feistiness and most especially her dedication to helping society’s most vulnerable citizens.”

Barrett who was often called the “Mighty Mouse” of the Alberta legislature because of her small physical stature and tenacity got her start in politics working for the NDP as a researcher in the early 1980s. She was first elected as an MLA in 1986 when she bumped Tory cabinet minister Dave King from his Edmonton seat. Even though she was a rookie MLA she became the NDP’s deputy house leader that year. However in 1993 she left politics for health reasons. She returned in 1996 to lead the NDP and became the first female party leader in Alberta’s history.

During that time Barrett delivered scathing critiques of Ralph Klein’s Conservatives — despite being personal friends with Klein himself. In 1998 she told Fast Forward that “half of [the Conservatives] are so arrogant it makes you want to puke.” The other half she said were “really nice people who just adhere to some policies because the government says they should.”

In 1998 she successfully fought the Klein government’s attempt to limit compensation for Albertans who had been sterilized — often unknowingly — beginning in the late 1920s. When Klein’s government tried to pass a law restricting victims’ legal rights Barrett stood up and called it “the most galling and arrogant bit of legislation” she’d ever seen in the legislature. “[This legislation] insults the people who were wrongfully institutionalized sexually sterilized and abused between 1927 and whatever year this bill says is the end of that horrible episode of Alberta history” she said. The next day the Conservatives canned the law. “She forced the government to back down and it was her finest hour” says Mason.

Barrett resigned from politics in 2000.