Jeff Bezos once said that your brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room.
For decades now, Alberta has suffered a reputation for being an oil-embracing, climate-denying bastion of rednecks – the Texas of the North. It didn’t seem to matter what the province did to defy the stereotype. Its cowboy culture mystique seemed to be ingrained in the national psyche.
We often talk about how ignorant Americans are about Canada, yet we seldom talk about how ill-informed many of us are about our own country. When it comes to Alberta, the views held by some of us about the place are literally decades out of date, if they were ever relevant at all.
So anyone surprised that Calgary elected Jyoti Gondek, a liberal-minded woman of South Asian heritage as mayor, and that Edmonton chose Amarjeet Sohi, a former federal Liberal cabinet minister – also of South Asian heritage – to lead that city, hasn’t been paying attention. They are, by the way, the only non-white mayors of any major Canadian city in the country.
This isn’t to invite applause. Rather, it’s to draw attention to the fact that the two mayors are merely a reflection of the rich cultural diversity that already exists in the two cities. It’s also a manifestation of a young, liberal-minded population that is oblivious to the lazy stereotypes that exist about their cities and province.
Ms. Gondek, who holds a PhD in urban sociology, will also lead a Calgary council where six of 15 members are racialized. The majority of those elected to the same council were endorsed by the union-backed political action group, Calgary’s Future.
These developments are not unprecedented. The city of Calgary has been electing mayors who could easily be described as liberal for decades, going right back to Ralph Klein, who was a centrist magistrate before redefining himself as a populist conservative premier. Ms. Gondek’s predecessor, Naheed Nenshi, was the first Muslim to be elected mayor of a major Canadian city ever. He held the post for 11 years. But all the rest of the country sees is the Calgary Stampede; all it hears is yee-haw and yahoo. Edmonton, in the meantime, has been an NDP stronghold provincially seemingly forever.
But how can an electorate seem so progressively inclined when electing politicians to lead their cities but so conservative when electing governments provincially and federally? Unquestionably, these are trends that feed the perception of Alberta as the most right-wing province in the country.
I see the paradox, but understand it too.
It’s rooted in Alberta being a province that has long felt the sting of Liberal governments in Ottawa, run by central Canadian elites catering to the interests in Ontario and Quebec while ignoring other parts of the country. Albertans have watched those same governments try and grab their oil riches for their own benefit. And they have watched Alberta premiers of a conservative persuasion – going back to the much beloved Peter Lougheed – fight back against these federal intrusions.
Resentments build up over time. Distrust sets in. And once it does, it’s difficult to let go. And, of course, conservative premier after conservative premier in the province has used this cynicism as a cudgel and wedge against Liberal governments in Ottawa for decades. They have not always been responsible about it either. They have, at times, unnecessarily stoked anger and division all in a bid to get elected. We’re looking at you, Premier Jason Kenney.
But this is how you can have people in Calgary voting 58 per cent in favour of Mr. Kenney’s equalization question on the civic ballot Monday, while at the same time choosing by a wide margin to have Ms. Gondek be their mayor, a small-l liberal who mostly seemed indifferent to the entire equalization gambit.
People in Alberta – regardless of race, age, gender – have been conditioned from birth to believe that liberal Ottawa is out to screw them. And so they see things one way when voting provincially and federally, and entirely another when voting civically. To me, it makes perfect sense.
Luckily, most Albertans stopped caring what the rest of the country thinks of them a long time ago. But it doesn’t mean they still can’t hear what others are saying about them behind their back.
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