The Legacy of Don Iveson

Mayor of an Edmonton still to be

By Tim Querengesser

They called it “Project Sixteen” because of the odds. When Don Iveson first entered city politics to run for council in 2007, he and his young team ignored an open race in a ward filled with university students and profs. Instead, the 28-year-old candidate went up against incumbent Mike Nickel, a 42-year-old councillor well known for populist votes against budgets—the sort of politician that columnist Scott McKeen at the Edmonton Journal noted most other councillors “would love to see humbled.” Iveson was Nickel’s polar opposite. He and his campaign team believed voters in Nickel’s ward hungered for a positive vision. Beating him as a rookie would make a statement. But research suggested incumbents won 84 per cent of races. That meant Iveson’s chances were just 16 per cent.

Six-foot-four, brainy, lanky, dapper—Iveson barged into that election as if visiting from a much savvier universe. He rode the bus to campaign events. He spoke in long, idea-rich sentences and blogged about it all. Yet what was most new was him. He was photogenic (“almost absurdly handsome,” one columnist swooned) but also highly capable. He was a technocrat who was engaging, a Trekkie who understood entrepreneurs, an urbanist and progressive who talked about filling potholes. But what Iveson was most was an idea. Edmonton was on the cusp of a generational shift not only in demographics but in attitude. The city wanted to attract people—and impress them. Iveson embodied an Edmonton to be.

Still, as the torchbearer for the future, Iveson was an outsider in Edmonton’s political establishment. To beat Nickel, Iveson and team would have to hustle. The Journal noted the campaign was slick (his fliers were designed to perch over the edge of a mailbox, making them unmissable) and had endorsements from former MLA Don Massey and then-current MLA Raj Pannu. The papers still weren’t convinced. A Sun columnist bet Iveson $100 Nickel would beat him, and no newspaper sent reporters to Iveson’s election-night party. As the results came in, though, the papers and broadcasters had to scramble. Iveson, with 16,848 votes, had beaten Nickel by more than 2,000 votes.

At his victory party at a bar on Whyte Avenue that night in 2007, someone filmed Iveson’s victory speech with a cellphone and posted it to YouTube. “Conventional wisdom said you can’t unseat incumbents, or that it happens so rarely you shouldn’t bother to try,” he says. “Well, we did.… Conventional wisdom is bad for the city.”

Iveson’s political story begins with his surprise council win, but Edmonton was ready for change. The city’s 2007 population was younger and growing faster than almost any other city in Canada. Unemployment stood at just 4 per cent. Housing prices had spiked. Alberta was building roughly $140-billion in capital infrastructure projects. “Conventional wisdom” in Edmonton had responded to booms with lazy, expensive sprawl. The sobriquet “Deadmonton” was the result. Toronto mayor Mel Lastman once called the city a “clapboard outhouse.” But Edmonton was confronting this latest boom by asking if the city could grow smarter. People under 40 were choosing Edmonton over other cities, wanting to build it into something better. Iveson represented this group. He’d lived in Toronto and had job offers there, but chose to come back.

The next political domino fell for Iveson, ironically, in Calgary. In 2010 that city elected 38-year-old Naheed Nenshi—another wonk, and a long-time friend of Iveson’s—in a “Purple Revolution” defined by youth and urbanist energy. Like Nenshi, Iveson articulated the structural challenges that Alberta’s cities faced during their breathless growth spurts, and he prescribed a similar fix—long-term planning focused on building public transit, slowing sprawl and increasing density.

By May 2013, Iveson had been a councillor for six years. Edmonton had added 100,000 new residents in that time alone. The incumbent mayor, Stephen Mandel, announced he wasn’t running again, setting up the election race as a conversation about infrastructure and growth: Iveson territory. “We can all feel it: This election can be the moment where Edmonton turns,” Iveson blogged. “This can be where we begin to show people they were wrong to underestimate Edmonton.”

His vison was to build, borrow to do so, spur infill development “without pitting new neighbourhoods against old,” tackle poverty and run a long-stalled LRT through mature neighbourhoods to incentivize redevelopment. His ideas were practical—repaving streets—but they were also wonkish, such as tackling infrastructure deficits, including sewer renewal. Iveson was an “intellectual who often sounds as though he’d rather deliver a university lecture than a stump speech,” wrote then Journal columnist Paula Simons. Nonetheless, Iveson’s platform resonated with a city that had nearly doubled in population in his 34 years of life.

The 2013 campaign for mayor pitted Iveson against the established former MLA and city councillor Karen Leibovici and former Sun columnist turned politician (and now MP) Kerry Diotte. No matter: Iveson won 273 of 279 polls outright, and took more than 50 per cent in 246 of them. This wasn’t just a slice of the population voting for city-building, it was almost everyone. “It’s the first time somebody is mayor without having the establishment on his side,” wrote Vitor Marciano, a Wildrose Party adviser, in the Journal in 2013.

Iveson articulated the structural challenges facing Edmonton, and prescribed long-term planning focused on building public transit, slowing sprawl and increasing density.

And Iveson was right—you really could feel it (I arrived from Toronto that spring and was swept up into the city-building energy). At the core was Iveson, his wife, Sarah Chan, and their two young children playing avatars for an underdog, mid-size city on the rise. They appeared at hip events, modelled shoes and tweeted all of it. “They projected an image of Edmonton that we found appealing, not just being socially progressive but of looking cool,” says the now-Senator Simons. “We found that image flattering and exciting, and one we wanted to live up to.”

Donald Lawrence Iveson was born in Edmonton to Margaret and Robert Iveson in May 1979. Margaret was a high school (and later university) English teacher; Robert, or Bob, was an award-winning sculptor who read encyclopedias with Don. The family lived in Edmonton’s affluent Parkallen neighbourhood. Margaret remembers Don, an only child, as smart and curious. “Bob would say to Don, ‘You can think anything you want, you can have any opinion you want, but you have to have evidence,” she says. “If your dad asks you for your evidence when you’re, whatever, 6, I think it’s a good start to building evidence into things.”

After graduating from Strathcona High School, Iveson enrolled at the University of Alberta, where he became managing editor of the Gateway, the student newspaper, and where his love of evidence spilled into editorials. There he met Chan, as well as the people who remain his closest friends and who have mobilized to help him win elections. The Gateway was a “weird, intense club,” says close friend Adam Rozenhart. Iveson was a get-it-right rather than a get-it-done sort of guy. “Everything needed to be so perfect, like, down to the word.” 

Iveson then left to complete his degree in political science at the University of Toronto. There he became president of the Canadian University Press. He later returned to the U of A to work again at the Gateway, as business manager, and then as an advocacy director with the Students’ Union. Then, at 27, he ran for city council.

Once at city hall, Iveson—a workaholic who was known to download information from city reports until the wee hours (“I feel a little guilty pleasure when I tell him something he doesn’t know,” fellow councillor Bryan Anderson told Avenue magazine that year)—struggled with the human side. “He had pretty strong opinions and felt they were based in logic and reason, and therefore everybody else should agree with him,” Simons says. “When people didn’t agree, it took him a while to understand that he had to be a little more human, that not everybody was going to be interested in his analysis.”

In 2013 as he stared down council under his first watch as mayor, Iveson offered a warning to councillors, borrowing from Theodore Roosevelt: “The next four years are not going to be easy. Nothing great is easy.”

Edmonton councillor Aaron Paquette says he was partly inspired to run in the 2017 election—which mayoral race Iveson won with more than 70 per cent of the vote—by Iveson’s first term and vision. But once on council, Paquette says he felt lukewarm with Iveson’s pace on certain issues and frustrated by his insistence on listening to people who don’t have evidence on their side. “On policy, there are definite disagreements [between us],” Paquette says. Transit, a central focus for Paquette, has improved markedly under Iveson’s leadership; the city has its first ever data-driven redesign of its network and 13 kilometres of new LRT track, with construction of another 14 km underway. But it “doesn’t go far enough” Paquette says. (Notably, Iveson doesn’t support free transit; Paquette does.) Transit reform in Edmonton is “too conservative and moving too slowly,” he says.

Iveson’s city-building has also come under fire for its cost. Property taxes have risen (though were recently frozen during the pandemic). The Edmonton Chamber of Commerce has routinely pushed back, framing increases as threats to businesses. The clearest sign of frustration within Iveson’s council was when Michael Oshry, a young, ambitious entrepreneur who did it all in Edmonton—Iveson’s sort of guy—decided not to run again in 2017 after just one term. (He is now running for mayor this October.) Oshry recently told the Journal of his one term with Iveson that “it just wasn’t an atmosphere where the talents of the whole team were being used.” Oshry declined an interview for this story.

The establishment side of Edmonton has questioned, consistently, why the City now operates in realms it didn’t before. For example, the City is the developer of Blatchford, a 536-acre community on the old downtown airport lands, where it has built geothermal infrastructure and invested almost $100-million. The result so far is a few dozen townhouses more than 10 years into the 30-year project. There is also Edmonton’s continued push to defeat homelessness. In August 2020, as Edmonton dismantled a large homeless camp downtown, Iveson raised eyebrows by proposing a 10-weekplan to end homelessness (it included requests to acquire hotel rooms and apartments using federal grants, working around the uninterested province). The timeline was not met.

There is also Iveson’s intellect. He doesn’t argue. He listens, debates, offers evidence. It’s always about policy, not personalities. To a person, Iveson is described as “fair,” but evidently, after he peppers people with facts and counterarguments, he leaves some feeling like their ideas were ignored. “People could find him condescending—that he was lecturing them rather than explaining to them,” Simons says.

These sentiments come through, if diplomatically, from his peers. “Don Iveson has pointed the city in completely the right direction in terms of the city we want to build and the issues we want to be concerned about,” says councillor Michael Walters, who has been at city hall since 2013. “I just think he could have gotten way more out of his council and his community.”

Still, the stubborn insistence in following his vision has been vital. Iveson’s focus on Indigenous reconciliation, which he makes clear in most public speeches, has changed the conversation; Edmonton even renamed its wards to reflect the region’s Indigenous roots. And when the second phase of the Valley Line LRT was threatened after the arrival of the UCP in 2019 and that government’s first budget, in which they gave themselves a 90-day withdrawal clause on funding commitments for the project’s second phase into west Edmonton, the pressure on Iveson to back off was immense. “He didn’t blink,” Walters says.

This laser vision has made change beyond Edmonton. Sturgeon County mayor Alanna Hnatiw, who sat on the Edmonton Metropolitan Regional Board with Iveson for years, credits the board’s growth plan (Iveson is one of its architects) with density targets that address urban sprawl regionally rather than just within Edmonton’s limits. The relationship, though, hasn’t been easy. “He’s Mr. Point of Order,” Hnatiw says, chuckling. But she says Iveson is always fair. The two are now friends.

Today, eight years after Iveson’s mayoral win and nearly 14 after his arrival on the municipal political scene, his city-building agenda feels flat. Oil prices have stayed persistently low. The pandemic has magnified all problems. Office vacancies hover at 20 per cent. Unemployment is at 10.5 per cent, the worst of all big cities in Canada. The political winds now blow against big ideas and infrastructure investment. The coalition of progressives and centrists Iveson built is increasingly fragmented. Homelessness in Edmonton is growing, and tension between Iveson and Premier Jason Kenney has come out into the open (with the mayor earlier this year calling the UCP government’s “failure to work with Edmonton on supportive housing… truly frustrating [and] confounding”).

Meanwhile, Iveson’s angriest detractors in Edmonton still can’t spell his name right—he’s “Mayor Iverson” in the comments sections. An October 2020 poll by Leger found his approval rating at just 38 per cent. The following month, he announced he would not seek re-election.  

“It just seems like a different city from the hopeful 2013 campaign he ran,” says Rozenhart. “This most recent term, I think he’s accomplished some great things, like bike lanes and the LRT and the work he’s done on the Edmonton region with other municipalities. But I think it’s just gotten harder because the general sentiment and the attitude in the city is somehow different, maybe a little darker.”

On his blog, Iveson offered this about his decision: “I had only ever hoped to serve two terms as your mayor….”

Iveson’s magnum opus is Edmonton’s City Plan (passed in December 2020), a combined Municipal Development Plan and Transportation Master Plan. It’s a vision for Edmonton at two million people by 2040, but more or less within the same boundaries as today. This means—if the private sector buys in (the lingering question)—that half of all new housing will be infill, up from the current target of 25 per cent, which Edmonton has hit for several years. Half of all trips will be taken by transit, cycling or walking rather than car. The plan, like so many other policies Iveson has helped craft, puts Edmonton far ahead of where it was. Kalen Anderson, who was director of urban analysis with the City of Edmonton, says, “This integrated body of work will be a lasting legacy for his leadership and will shape Edmonton’s future.”

Councillor Paquette believes the city plan and all the behind-the-scenes effort to reshape Edmonton’s administration, everything from revising how committees are run to changing zoning bylaws and parking requirements, will be next to impossible to reverse, preserving Iveson’s legacy. “The iceberg was the past: the deficit on infrastructure,” he says. “We were digging ourselves a city-sized pothole. It sounds like I’m pumping up the mayor in spite of myself. I am.”

 In the summer of 2019, Dan Lazin rented a Fiat 124 Spider convertible and spent four days driving around Virginia looking at historic sites with his buddy Don Iveson. Lazin had met Iveson in Grade 10 math class and ultimately helped him run for council. Now he lives in New York City, where he works for Google. Time with Iveson is rare.

Lazin says Iveson took 20 minutes or so to drop his public voice and speak as a friend. But once that happened the two enjoyed themselves. At one point, as it rained, they even found the right speed to drive to keep the top down but the water out. But Iveson was, as ever, still Iveson. “The conversations we had in the car, the most memorable of them, were essentially planning-out schemes for infrastructure, talking about high-speed rail possibilities between Edmonton and Calgary, or the air shipment stuff between Asia and Edmonton,” Lazin says.

The two have always been like this, Lazin adds—big-project guys. “There’s always the sense of we’re both trying to achieve something. I mean achieve something in the world, like build the next thing.”

Iveson is now 41 and showing grey in his pandemic beard. Of late he’s taken to being less of a diplomat. In May 2021, when three people died of an apparent overdose in a downtown park, Iveson blamed Kenney’s government and mocked his “‘yahoo’ moment of the Stampede,” referencing the premier’s timeframe for reopening businesses and declaring the pandemic over. But when we catch up by phone (thanks, pandemic), he’s still Iveson—always that public voice, always that slightly “TedTalk meets technocrat” worldview.

I ask where Edmonton is at as he leaves office, and he says the city is still like Austin is to Texas—an island of people “who want to get to the future that should be better rather than go back to some past that ain’t going to happen again.” The city is “as poised as it can be” to reach that future, he believes.

Still, I ask about the bittersweetness of the moment. The southeast leg of the Valley Line LRT that Iveson championed won’t open before he leaves office, thanks to delays, including the discovery of a “car-sized” slab of concrete in the river valley that got in the way and led to endless jokes. The Metro Line LRT, which ran at half-speed for years after it opened in 2015, thanks to Edmonton’s troubles with procurement and vendors, took a toll on Iveson’s reputation. Time did too. Progressives feel he hasn’t gone far enough; conservatives can’t wait for him to go.

“I have a sense of many people’s disappointments, because we hear about those a lot,” Iveson says. “But it wasn’t until I announced I wasn’t going to run again that [I heard] more generous feedback—even a sense of loss from people who have appreciated my leadership and my approach.”

The problems with LRT in particular made “easy theatre for headlines,” Iveson says, but led to hard changes in how the City did things. “It’s not a particularly sexy political message, and so it doesn’t make a good story when we fix these things. All that folks remember are the parts that went wrong. I’m satisfied that we learned from each mistake and got better each time.”

I ask about his reputation as a “Mr. Spock” who struggles with the human side. “I think I tend to be more in my head than in my heart when trying to solve public policy challenges,” Iveson says. “But I’ve also been told my most effective leadership has come when my heart is engaged.” Iveson concedes he was naïve when he showed up at council in 2007, but he feels he’s grown over the years. “I thought that if you had the most facts and the best argument, you could win. But you’ve got to motivate people emotionally too, and I had to learn the confidence to do that.”

So, what’s he going to do now? “I really don’t know, honestly,” Iveson says. “I know it will be civically engaged. I was wired that way. I think it’s baked in by nature at this point. But that can take many different forms.”

Lazin says Iveson would be the first to admit he didn’t get done all he wanted to or others wanted him to. “I do think he’ll probably be back in politics at some point, but my guess is there will probably be a good long gap,” he says. “I really do believe the signs he’s sending out—‘Nah, not right now, because I need a break’—because it is a punishing job.”

Tim Querengesser is a writer in Edmonton who has, on occasion, advocated for city council and Mayor Don Iveson to build things in his city, including a bike-share system.

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