A Portentous Change

Alberta’s 2021 municipal elections were a repudiation of the UCP

I spent much of summer 2021 outside Alberta. Expecting the worst here—an imminent fourth wave of COVID—I took some time in Ontario for my mental well-being. The first question from one of my pollster colleagues out east when we got together for coffee: “What the hell is going on in Alberta? Is the government trying to destroy the province?”

By mid-September, just a few weeks before Alberta’s municipal elections, the “best summer ever” had led to the (then-) most-ever active cases of COVID in the province, ICU capacity maxed out and over 15,000 surgeries cancelled. Our healthcare system was overwhelmed. It was all utterly predictable. Totally preventable. As the crisis swelled, however, our premier disappeared. Our health minister disappeared. Jason Kenney returned to Alberta belatedly to reinstate public health restrictions.

The UCP government’s mishandling of COVID, compounded with other unpopular decisions on health, education and the environment, had angered citizens. Though that fall’s candidates were running for municipal office or school boards and weren’t officially aligned with parties, voters fed up with our province’s poor leadership turned the 2021 municipal elections into a repudiation of the UCP—and an expression of a collective desire for better government. 

The 2021 election marked a seismic shift in council and school trustee composition across the province. The most obvious signals of discontent were Calgary’s and Edmonton’s rejection of conservative mayoral choices Jeromy Farkas and Mike Nickel with the election of Jyoti Gondek and Amarjeet Sohi. Voters clearly wanted to send a signal that Alberta is not a conservative monolith. The biggest surprise: It wasn’t even close. Voters coalesced around these two candidates in Alberta’s biggest cities. In Calgary, votes for the top two conservative mayoral candidates, even combined, didn’t add up to Gondek’s.

Surprises emerged across the province. This was a change election of a grand scale. The result was the most gender-balanced and ethnically diverse representation this province has ever elected. In Grande Prairie, Jackie Clayton became that city’s first female mayor. Similarly, Medicine Hatters also chose their first female mayor, with Linnsie Clark garnering two-thirds of the vote, and five of the city’s eight new councillors are women. Towns from Coalhurst to Innisfail also elected female mayors—Lyndsay Montana and Jean Barclay—and far more women councillors. Albertans in Fort McMurray and surrounding communities chose the Wood Buffalo municipality’s most diverse council ever: out of 11 councillors, four are Metis and two are originally from Pakistan and Nigeria.

Plebiscites and other ballot questions revealed the same trend. Calgarians delivered a resounding “yes” to the public-health benefit of adding fluoride to their water. Cold Lake’s questions related to access to healthcare saw almost 80 per cent of voters in that city indicate a desire for more family doctors. This was a clear message to Kenney and former Health Minister Tyler Shandro, whose battle with doctors began prior to the pandemic and has since prompted many local physicians to shut their practices.

While trustee races are rarely given as much attention as those for council and mayor, the UCP’s proposed K–6 curriculum had infuriated teachers and parents alike. In Calgary the four pro-UCP-curriculum candidates running as the Take Back the CBE slate were shut out. This pattern was similar with trustees across the province.

In a change year, Albertans were elected who rejected business as usual. The successful candidates worked in more socially concerned professions such as planning, public policy, teaching and community organizing. Importantly, they better reflect Alberta’s true demographics. While Kenney convenes a largely middle-aged, white, male, closed group of advisers and decision makers, voters took a turn towards more diverse and inclusive representation. This may be the greatest repudiation of the UCP.

The crux of the frustration was governance. Kenney remains a masterful campaigner in partisan politics. But his leadership inadequacies have been laid bare through mounting failures, including the Allan Inquiry (which served only to prove environmental groups did nothing wrong), the $1.3-billion spent on Keystone XL (which project was then cancelled, with nothing to show for it), his War Room (which has served only to discredit itself)—and his near-total abdication of leadership on Alberta’s COVID response.

Kenney and his confidantes control every aspect of the UCP. A narrow strain of conservatives provide the base, and Kenney “holds the pen.” His string of poor decisions seems rooted in fundamentally wrong assumptions about reality. Small pockets of Alberta—rural and urban—continue to hold on to the past. The UCP leader and his core supporters don’t reflect the Alberta of today.

Kenney became premier based on a simple premise: he seized on cultural conservatives’ desire to hold on to power, their belief that their tribe is the rightful owner of this province. Previous municipal elections, especially in Alberta’s biggest cities, had revealed a growing challenge to this tight circle. Naheed Nenshi and Don Iveson represented an existential threat to the status quo. Their tenures along with the provincial NDP’s election in 2015 demonstrated the walls of the Conservative castle could be breached. Alberta politics wasn’t so homogeneous anymore. Change to governance and leadership was possible.

As the province’s economy reeled under the weight of persistently low oil prices, however, Kenney found a receptive audience on the campaign trail for his message of restoring a traditional power structure. But his actual leadership style, as we’ve found out, evokes distrust and loathing across the political spectrum. Then COVID arrived, and citizens rediscovered the necessity of an active role for government. Not only did Kenney mismanage the pandemic response, some of his ministers broke their own government’s public COVID restrictions. Most revealing was their shock when the public was near-universal in its outrage. Kenney has now sustained the lowest polling numbers in Canada for most of his tenure.

My main takeaway from the 2021 municipal elections is that Albertans are open to a new generation of leadership. They rejected prospective leaders that come from the same school as Kenney’s UCP. Whatever small economic successes or vital COVID relief we’ve seen over the last two years are largely a result of outside forces—for example, the global price of oil or federal leaders’ efforts such as CERB.

Calgary’s new council, notably, began its tenure by doing three things that directly challenged Kenney and the UCP. First, they declared a climate emergency. This was an affront to Kenney, who has not only doubled down on fossil fuels but also ended a host of Notley-era programs designed to accelerate an energy transition. (Edmonton declared a climate emergency in 2019.) Second, mayor Gondek said she’d sign a deal with the federal Liberals to bring universal subsidized daycare to Calgary. Kenney had long said he wouldn’t sign on to the federal program (although weeks later indeed he did). Third, council protested the election of Sean Chu and called for his resignation when it was belatedly revealed that he had been found guilty of discreditable conduct.

Councillor Chu is a conservative of like mind to Kenney, and a test of governance for the UCP. Chu’s case raised the question of who should be eligible to hold office. The UCP did nothing to deal with this national embarrassment. Citizens across the province expressed frustration about Kenney’s lack of leadership, since the Municipal Act is the purview of the province—and Kenney himself had long promised “accountability” through recall legislation.

The lack of action is not too surprising. Just weeks after Chu took office we learned that Kenney’s UCP fired a female chief of staff, Ariella Kimmel, who had filed a statement of claim alleging widespread alcohol consumption and sexual harassment in a minister’s office.

The 2021 municipal elections were many things. They were a step toward respecting diversity and inclusion in this province. They reflected an understanding that climate action is vital, and that the oil and gas industry cannot dominate our economy as in the past. But mainly they were an expression that we want better government.

Brian Singh is a behavioural economist and data scientist and the founder and operator of Calgary-based research firm Zinc Tank.

The new mayor of Edmonton is a former federal Liberal cabinet minister (natural resources and infrastructure) and before that an Edmonton city councillor. He is the first person from a visible minority community to serve as mayor of Edmonton. Photograph by Jesse Cole.

Amarjeet Sohi’s Mayoral Victory

If ever there were a symbol of Canadian values, it’s Amarjeet Sohi. The ascendance of an Edmonton taxi driver—who immigrated from Punjab at 18 with nothing but the support of an older brother, who never attended college, who was once wrongfully imprisoned on terrorism charges in India—to the city’s mayor embodies national principles of fairness, inclusion and equity.

And yet Sohi himself knows these values aren’t guaranteed to all Canadians all the time. He hinted at this in 2016, when I interviewed Sohi, then Canada’s infrastructure minister, for this magazine, and again in September 2020, when we met for coffee a year after he lost his parliamentary seat. On both occasions he expressed disappointment with the state of civic discourse—the nasty divisiveness and outrage that have come to define our political zeitgeist.

Five years ago Sohi seemed more optimistic that integrity would triumph with the end of the Harper government. He appeared less certain in fall of 2020. Though Sohi remained motivated to help Canadians find and uphold our common values, he wasn’t confident that public office was the best approach anymore, hesitant to declare a mayoral run despite widespread support.

I got the impression Sohi was burned out. His wife of 27 years, Sarbjeet, had been diagnosed with kidney cancer just before his parliamentary defeat, and his brother Jagdev, a father-figure who housed and helped raise Sohi as a teenager, was gravely ill. When Jagdev died, a month after our coffee meetup, Sohi announced he would not seek the mayorship. He couldn’t imagine being reenergized to campaign and wanted instead to harness his introspection to write his memoir.

But Sohi’s story wasn’t ready to be written. Six months later, he entered the mayoral race as a sympathetic optimist prepared to tackle emergencies worsened by the pandemic, such as homelessness, opioid addiction and hate crimes targeting racialized women. His main opponent embodied the toxicity that Sohi stood against and worried could prevail. But it did not. Decency carried the day, and so did those core Canadian values that Mayor Sohi personifies.

Omar Mouallem is the author of Praying to the West.

Jyoti Gondek is Calgary’s first female mayor—and a woman of colour. From 2017 to 2021 she was the councillor for Ward 3.

The Gondek Coalition Tells a New Story About Calgary

Political coalitions—the bringing together of divergent groups of people for myriad reasons—are the key to political success. This is especially true in Alberta’s municipal politics, where centrists are often criticized for not picking a lane, pure progressives are, well, too progressive, and ardent conservatives don’t get the warm reception they often feel they’re owed.

Which brings us to the political coalition of Mayor Jyoti Gondek. Gondek’s victory in Calgary’s 2021 election was not guaranteed. Far from it. Questions swirled in political circles from the beginning of her candidacy: “Isn’t she a conservative?” “No way she picks up the Nenshi vote, right?” “Can’t someone outflank her from the left?”

On Election Day, however, Gondek and her team hit the perfect note: collapse and absorb the vote of her secondary competitors and overwhelm her principal opponent (conservative and UCP-aligned councillor Jeromy Farkas), becoming, in a resounding win, Calgary’s first female mayor—and a woman of colour rightfully telling a new story about Calgary,

What lies ahead for Gondek remains a blank canvas. She is many things to many people. A progressive climate activist, a centrist/sensible fiscal hawk, a suburban developer’s dream, a densification enthusiast. And for some on Election Day, it was simply enough that she wasn’t Farkas.

A mayor favoured by so many disparate groups inherits strategic challenges. Who does Gondek play to, and more existentially, who is she? Her early priorities indicate a path of leftward lion (ardent advocacy against Quebec’s Bill 21, the declaration of a climate emergency, championing the federal childcare deal), perhaps to the dismay of some in her coalition. Whatever direction she goes, Gondek has much licence to act boldly—so long as she keeps her coalition intact for as long as possible.

Zain Velji is a partner at Northweather, a marketing agency, and was Naheed Nenshi’s 2017 campaign manager.

New CBE trustees Laura Hack, Charlene May, Marilyn Dennis, Dana Downey, Patricia Bolger, Nancy Close, Susan Vukadinovic. Photo courtesy of Calgary Board of Education.

Calgary Voters Embrace Public Education

The 2021 election became a referendum on public education in Calgary. For two and a half years the UCP government had been undermining public schools by cutting funding, permitting more charter schools, allowing unsupervised home-schooling, drafting weak curriculum and doing little to protect students from COVID-19. But the government’s ideological agenda—its emphasis on individualism, choice and parental rights—didn’t go over well with voters in October 2021. Parents, teachers, community organizations and everyday citizens became ignited and engaged. And their votes showed it.

Calgarians voted overwhelmingly in support of public education. Voter turnout in public school trustee races increased by almost 10 per cent overall over 2017—in one race by almost 20 per cent. Equally important was who was voted in. The four candidates running as the pro-UCP “Take Back the CBE” slate lost. Winning candidates expressed a need to strengthen and protect public education. Dana Downey, the new CBE trustee for Wards 1 and 2, stated in a campaign video: “I don’t support any movements that aim to weaken our public education system.” Newly elected CBE chair and trustee for Wards 3 and 4, Laura Hack, said she would “elevate public schools on the list of public priorities.”

A long-time CBE trustee, I’d been overwhelmed with emails and phone calls about the UCP’s proposed curriculum and its unwillingness to protect students and teachers from COVID. School boards took on an even bigger leadership role because this government was unable to see what was actually important to Calgarians. Neither the Calgary Public nor the Calgary Catholic school board, for example, agreed to trial even one subject from the UCP’s draft curriculum.

I didn’t stand for re-election in 2021. During the campaign, however, I was contacted by constituents and citizens across the city, asking: “If I want to take a stand for public education, who should I vote for?” This wasn’t my experience in the previous two elections. This engagement in the democratic process gives me hope for my children and all of our children.

Julie Hrdlicka was the Calgary Board of Education trustee for Wards 11 and 13 from 2015 to 2021.

New Edmonton councillors, top left to right: Karen Principe, Sarah Hamilton, Jo-Anne Wright, Anne Stevenson. Bottom left to right: Erin Rutherford, Jennifer Rice, Keren Tang, Ashley Salvador.

A Record Eight Women Elected to Edmonton City Council

The headlines following Edmonton’s 2021 municipal election tell a consistent story of an historic victory for the 25 women who ran for 12 council seats—eight won, the highest number ever, and two are the first women of colour on council. In five wards women came in second. Celebratory comments—“a glass ceiling has been shattered”; “we’ve come a long way”—are accurate, especially in contrast with Edmonton’s previous two elections. The council elected in 2017 had two women. In 2013, an election that lives in gender infamy, a sole woman, Bev Esslinger, won a council seat. This year she was one of three incumbents defeated—by a woman, Erin Rutherford.

But the historical significance of the new eight-to-four majority of women on Edmonton City Council may be less dramatic than reactions indicate. In 1989 voters elected six women as “aldermen” (a term Edmonton changed in 1995) plus Jan Reimer as the city’s first (and still only) female mayor. For almost 25 years Edmonton often had four or five women on council. Not incidentally, a pioneer of Edmonton’s gay community, councillor Michael Phair, served five terms beginning in 1992. 

Esslinger commented after her 2021 loss, “If more women run, more women will ultimately be elected.” That observation has some evident truth, but it also runs up against the data. More women are indeed running. Women comprised 34 per cent of this year’s council candidates, besting Edmonton’s previous record of 31 per cent in 2017. But this cannot explain the difference between eight and two women elected. What is likely is that in an election with only eight council incumbents, and with wards having been significantly redrawn and reidentified with Indigenous names, a host of factors led women to victory.

Individuals’ campaign strategies always matter. It is noteworthy that none of the eight women now on council took gender- or diversity-centred approaches to taxes, economic development, housing, safety or climate change, whereas some winning male candidates did. BIPOC candidates, who were likelier to foreground equity and inclusion, faced race or gender harassment, and their success rate was low. Ultimately, name recognition, fundraising, use of campaign media, vote-splitting, and endorsements, such as from outgoing mayor Don Iveson and provincial politicians, surely upended the electoral context.

The gender realignment on Edmonton’s city council is a welcome fact, but it is not a predictor of future election outcomes.

Judith A. Garber is professor emeritus of political science at the University of Alberta.

Medicine Hat Women Work to Regain Voters’ Trust in Government

The face of Medicine Hat changed considerably with the 2021 municipal election, when political newbie Linnsie Clark defeated two-term incumbent mayor Ted Clugston with nearly three times the vote (66 per cent to 23 per cent). The 40-year-old Clark became the city’s first female mayor and now leads the city’s first-ever majority-female council.

What does this transformation mean for southeastern Alberta’s largest urban centre? “I get that question all the time, so I’d love to know the answer,” Clark laughs.

Clark grew up in Medicine Hat, is a lawyer and worked in the city solicitor’s office. She focused her campaign on engaging with as many citizens as possible. “[We] connected with people and their values,” she said. “I felt like the city was drifting away from the values I hold very dear.” She called, for example, for better cost analysis of city and private-sector projects, and found many other Hatters had similar concerns. “Having someone you can trust who’s going to make decisions is really important,” she said.

Clark found the public eager to engage. Indeed, Medicine Hat saw a record-breaking 32 municipal candidates and a huge increase in voter turnout—up 20 per cent from 2017. Only two of four incumbent councillors were returned. She attributes Hatters’ desire for change to a desire for more transparency, but also to the pandemic, because people had grown restless after “an extended period of time in their neighbourhood and their homes.”

A few months into her new role, Clark is working to fulfill her campaign promises by setting long-term social, economic and environmental development goals. Helping her efforts to regain citizens’ trust are six new councillors, five of whom are women: Karen Ramona Robins, Allison Knodel, Alison Van Dyke, Cassi Hider and Shila Sharps. 

Kendall King is a reporter with the Medicine Hat News.

Innisfail Defies the Rural Stereotype

This small town has garnered attention beyond its own boundaries of late. Along the way, the community of some 7,800 people south of Red Deer on Highway 2 has defied the rural Alberta stereotype.

The first time Innisfail made headlines was during the Black Lives Matter movement that sprawled across North America and much of the world after George Floyd died at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer in an unsettling scene captured on video. To many people’s surprise, anti-racism demonstrators also rallied in Innisfail in June 2020. They were confronted by vastly outnumbered counter-protesters, who attempted to provoke an altercation. The groups exchanged heated words, but the scene remained peaceful.

This situation unfolded during heightened tensions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, which not unlike the BLM movement itself elicited opposing perspectives and passions. By late 2020 Glenn Carritt, an Innisfail councillor, was being openly defiant of public health protocols, supporting barbershop Bladez 2 Fadez’s refusal to comply with provincial health regulations and hosting a 400-person Easter party himself at his oilfield service business. In January 2021 Carritt resigned his position to run for mayor.

But Innisfail’s electorate, which turned out in record numbers last October, decided to vote for Jean Barclay, a progressive moderate who’d just served her first term on council. She received 2,025 votes to Carritt’s 626. Barclay had taken a strong stand that winter against local business owners’ defiance, posting to Innisfailians on Facebook: “Thank you for being responsible citizens and doing all you are doing for the collective good.”

Alberta’s 2021 municipal elections included a referendum on daylight saving time as well as one on equalization. But there was a third, unwritten referendum on masks, public health mandates and progressive values. And Innisfail’s outcome was a microcosm of what unfolded across the province. It also showed that despite rural Alberta’s reputation, clearly many people here are willing to put society’s well-being ahead of their own.

Simon Ducatel is a Sundre-based editor and reporter with Mountain View Today.


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