On Monday, Albertans went to the polls to vote in their municipal elections, which this time around were combined with elections to choose Alberta’s Senators, and with several referendums including on the province’s stance on equalization.
While the results of the Senate elections and referendums will still take about a week to tabulate and confirm, the province’s municipal elections have yielded prompt results, charting a new direction for some of Alberta’s biggest cities. In the provincial capital, former Liberal MP and cabinet minister, Amarjeet Sohi was the city’s top choice by a margin of about 20%, while in Calgary, Jyoti Gondek, who has sat as a city councillor since 2017, beat out councillor and former Manning Foundation fellow, Jeromy Farkas by just over 15%.
Gondek, the first woman elected to Calgary’s top job, and Sohi, the first person of colour to lead Edmonton’s city council, are both first-generation Canadians and have experienced firsthand the plight of many of the hardworking immigrants that choose to make Canada and Alberta their home.
As both major cities and the province at large grapple with balancing economic and environmental interests, the Mayors-elect have both emphasized the importance of charting a way forward that is considerate of changing environmental necessities but little has been said regarding the need to retain jobs and improve the productivity of the province’s omnipresent oil and gas sector. Despite his affiliation with the federal Liberals, Mr. Sohi’s advocacy for Alberta’s oil and gas sector has been steadfast, having advocated for the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion as well as other natural resource projects during his time as federal minister of infrastructure. In contrast, days after being elected, Gondek declared that her first business as mayor would be to declare in Calgary a “climate emergency”, signalling that the city needs to “move past” oil and gas. This, only a few years after stating, “I support Canada’s oil and gas sector. Why? Because Canada’s oil and gas firms have repeatedly demonstrated leadership on a global stage, whether through innovations in technology that minimize impact to the environment or unmatched standards in health and safety practices.”
Ever since the federal government’s increasing withdrawal from Alberta’s oil and gas sector beginning in 2015, Canada’s most important source of income has been at risk. Additionally, the volatility of energy markets and capital flow within Alberta are both factors contributing to investors’ cold feet on getting back into the game. As such, the city of Calgary, once the bustling hub home to just about all major oil and gas companies’ corporate headquarters, has been facing down record-high downtown office vacancy rates, burning a gaping hole in municipal finances.
While Calgary’s new mayor may want to evict oil and gas from her city, its still unclear to what degree Calgarians and corporate leaders will cooperate with her outlandish vision. Nonetheless, corporate leaders in oil and gas may well decide to agree with Gondek that a strained working relationship between council and industry would pose too many barriers for economic growth and employment, opting to move corporate headquarters elsewhere in the province.
Throughout her campaign and in its aftermath, Ms. Gondek has touted the great opportunities offered by the city’s arts community and creative industries, as well as those in the real estate sector to reconstruct the fundamental ways in which Calgary’s downtown operates. While one may anticipate low morale and an unprecedented financial vacuum to motivate a mayor and council to support local financial drivers, Gondek’s willingness to turn her back on much of Calgary’s labour force and financial leaders will inevitably intensify the city’s struggles.
As for what’s on Edmonton’s horizon, Amarjeet Sohi is touted as a more pragmatic and balanced leader, especially on the local level. That said, during his time as industry minister, Sohi’s complacency shone through in his lack of assertiveness on behalf of Albertans. He made very little effort to support pipeline expansions, relief of overreaching environmental regulations, or even to transport Alberta oil off the coast of British Columbia. While he may talk the talk in public, Mr. Sohi has shown that when given the opportunity, he does not walk the walk in support of Alberta’s most important industry.
Nevertheless, Alberta’s biggest cities have historically tended to elect progressive mayors and municipal councils, contrasting their centre-right preferences at the provincial and federal levels. This time is no different, and while Edmonton and Calgary grapple with crushing economic crises, their new mayors will be turning their attention to further burdening local industry while prioritizing a reform of the cities’ cultural identities, whatever that may mean. In any case, Mr. Sohi and Ms. Gondek will still have to work with the United Conservative provincial government if they are to get much done for their cities, and perhaps this will still preserve some hope among Alberta’s hardworking labour force that someone is still looking out for them.