Alberta’s two largest cities will be led by first-generation Canadians who campaigned on rebuilding and reinventing local economies battered by the COVID-19 pandemic and the oil-sector downturn that preceded it.
Calgary’s Jyoti Gondek, a city councillor, and Edmonton’s Amarjeet Sohi, a former Liberal federal cabinet minister, will be sworn in later this month after winning their respective mayoral elections this week. Ms. Gondek is the first woman ever elected mayor of Calgary, while Mr. Sohi will be the first person of colour to be mayor in Edmonton.
They won decisive victories against their nearest competitors, who were in both cases conservatives who campaigned on cutting taxes, constraining public spending and rejecting the progressive policies set by the cities’ outgoing mayors, Naheed Nenshi of Calgary and Don Iveson of Edmonton. In contrast, Ms. Gondek and Mr. Sohi appear more closely aligned with their predecessors.
They inherit cities struggling to find ways out of a province-wide economic decline that was set off by a recession more than half a decade ago and made worse by COVID-19.
The fourth wave of the pandemic has led to a resurgence in public health restrictions as Alberta, again, deals with some of the country’s highest infection, hospital admission and death rates. Premier Jason Kenney’s handling of COVID-19 has left the provincial government’s relationships with Mr. Nenshi and Mr. Iveson in tatters.
In Calgary, where the effects of the downturn in the oil sector have been most acute, Ms. Gondek will also need to confront record-high downtown office vacancy rates, which have hollowed out the city’s core and disrupted municipal finances.
Ms. Gondek, who singled out the downtown vacancy issue in her victory speech, said it is one of the city’s most significant challenges. But she cast it as an opportunity for transformation as the city comes to grips with the reality that the oil industry is no longer enough to sustain it.
“It’s not going to be like it was in the past. It’s not going to be massive head offices for oil and gas,” she said in an interview Tuesday. “So what do we need to do to repurpose those spaces to keep people interested in our city?”
Ms. Gondek said the city must find new uses for vacant office space while turning downtown Calgary into a vibrant place to live and work. She is an enthusiastic supporter of Calgary’s Greater Downtown Plan, which aims to transform the city centre into a mixed-use neighbourhood.
In some cases, that will involve converting office towers to rental housing, which has become a favourite solution in the city and has already been tried a handful of times. But Ms. Gondek said that alone won’t be enough to significantly address the vacancy problem. She wants to work with tech firms, post-secondary institutions, non-profits and real estate experts to come up with entirely new ways of using office buildings.
In some cases, she said, some of those underused buildings might need to come down.
“These are all ideas that we need to be open to, because if we are actually going to get the mix of uses right, if we’re going to be able to create a vibrant downtown and some of our existing buildings don’t work, we’ve got to look at what we’re doing with them,” she said.
The vacancy rates have created a financial crisis. Property values downtown fell by $16-billion, or about 63 per cent, in just a few years, setting off a chain reaction that increased property taxes elsewhere in the city and forced the local government to come up with millions of dollars a year in relief.
On COVID-19, Ms. Gondek defended city council’s decision to implement its own mask mandate and vaccine passport rules that are stricter than those set by the provincial government. She said Alberta’s mismanagement of the pandemic has hurt the province’s brand.
Ms. Gondek was born in the U.K. and moved to Canada with her parents, who were originally from India. She was the director of the Westman Centre for Real Estate Studies at the University of Calgary’s business school before she was elected to Calgary’s city council in 2017.
In Edmonton, Mr. Sohi believes he can help repair the relationship between the city and the provincial government, despite his political differences with the ruling United Conservative Party. He bills himself as a collaborator who, in his previous political positions, worked with a string of Alberta premiers, including Mr. Kenney.
Mr. Sohi was first elected to Edmonton’s city council in 2007. He served eight years before leaving municipal politics to run as a Liberal candidate in the 2015 federal election. He won that race and served as a cabinet minister under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
“All through my public life, I have always been very cognizant and aware of the fact that when we engage with our partners, we continue to engage with respect and openness, and never get involved in personality and a personal attack,” he said in an interview Tuesday.
As an example of his ability to work with Alberta’s government, Mr. Sohi pointed to his efforts in federal cabinet to get the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion built. He was federal minister of infrastructure when Ottawa bought the pipeline to save the project.
“The Premier knows about my work on the Trans Mountain pipeline,” he said. “The Premier knows about my work on the orphan oil wells proposal – that I worked hard to make sure the federal government is investing in Alberta. My work on Enbridge Line 3.”
Mr. Sohi’s mayoral priorities are sweeping. They include expanding Edmonton’s economy, stamping out discrimination and racism and addressing climate change. He believes all the items on his to-do list are interconnected.
“These issues need a systemic, holistic approach to leadership,” he said. “I believe in a collaborative approach to tackling issues.”
Mr. Sohi was born in India, in a Punjabi village. His family is Sikh, and he immigrated to Canada as a teenager. In 1988, before he became a Canadian citizen, he returned to India as a social activist. He was arrested there and accused of being a terrorist. Mr Sohi has said he was tortured and spent most of his jail time in solitary confinement. He was held without trial for 21 months. Canadian authorities worked to clear his name and, in 1990, a prosecutor in India asked that the courts drop the case, citing a lack of evidence. A judge agreed.
After visiting his family home in Punjab, Mr. Sohi returned to Edmonton. There, he worked as a taxi driver, a bus driver, a union activist and eventually a local politician. His personal history, he said, informs his approach to governing.
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Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly said the candidates will be sworn in next month. In fact, they will be sworn in this month.