New Alberta mayors set sights on fixing battered economies

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Alberta’s two largest cities will be led by first-generation Canadians who campaigned on rebuilding and reinvesting local economies hit by the COVID-19 pandemic and the oil-sector recession that preceded it.

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Calgary’s Jyoti Gondek, a city councillor, and Edmonton’s Amarjit Sohi, a former Liberal federal cabinet minister, will be sworn in at the end of next month after winning their respective mayoral elections this week. Ms. Gondek has been elected Calgary’s first female mayor, while Mr. Sohi will be the first person of color to become mayor in Edmonton.

He won a decisive victory against his closest competitors, both of whom were conservatives who sought to cut taxes, stifle public spending, and reject progressive policies set by the cities’ outgoing mayors, Naheed Nenshi of Calgary and Don Iveson of Edmonton. campaigned. In contrast, Ms. Gondek and Mr. Sohi appear to be more closely associated with their predecessors.


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They inherit cities struggling to get out of a province-wide economic fallout that was triggered by a recession more than half a decade ago and made worse by COVID-19.

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The fourth wave of the pandemic has sparked a resurgence in public health restrictions, as Alberta, again, deals with Some of the country’s highest infection, hospitalization and death rates. The provincial government’s relationship with Mr Nenshi and Mr Iveson has deteriorated due to Premier Jason Kenny’s handling of COVID-19.

In Calgary, where the effects of the oil sector downturn have been most acute, Ms Gondeck will also need to cope with record-high downtown office vacancy rates, which have hollowed out the city’s core and disrupted municipal finances.

Ms Gondek, who raised the issue of downtown vacancy in her winning speech, said it is one of the city’s most pressing challenges. But he took it as an opportunity for change as the city came under the grip of the reality that the oil industry was no longer good enough to sustain it.

“It’s not going to be the same as before. It’s not going to be a massive head office for oil and gas,” she said in an interview on Tuesday. “So we need those places to keep people interested in our city. What do I need to do to rebuild it?”

Councilor Jyoti Gondek wins Mayor’s race in Calgary; Former Liberal cabinet minister Amarjit Sohi wins Edmonton

As I leave my job as Mayor of Calgary, I’m on the cusp of the crisis we’re facing

Ms Gondek said the city must find new uses for vacant office space, while transforming the City of Calgary into a vibrant place to live and work. She is an ardent supporter of Calgary’s Greater Downtown plan, which aims to transform the city center into a mixed-use neighborhood.

In some cases, this will involve converting office towers into rental housing, which has become a preferred solution in the city and has already been tried several times. But Ms Gondek said that alone would not 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 to use office buildings.

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In In some cases, she said, some of those unused buildings may need to come down.

“These are all ideas that we need to be open to, because if we’re really going to get the right mix of uses, if we’re going to be able to build a livable city and some of our existing buildings don’t work We have to see what we are doing with them,” she said.

Vacancy rates have created a financial crisis. Property values ​​in the city fell by $16 billion, or about 63 percent, within a few short years, setting off a chain reaction that raised property taxes elsewhere. in city and forced the local government to provide millions of dollars in relief every year.

On COVID-19, Ms Gondek defended the city council’s decision to impose 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 had damaged the province’s brand.

Ms. Gondek was born in the UK and moved to Canada with her parents, who were originally from India. She was director of the Westman Center for Real Estate Studies at the University of Calgary’s Business School before being elected to Calgary’s city council in 2017.

In Edmonton, Mr Sohi believes that despite his political differences with the ruling United Conservative Party, he can help improve relations between the city and the provincial government. He introduces himself as an aide who, in his previous political positions, worked with a string of Alberta premiers, including Mr.

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Mr Sohi was first elected to Edmonton’s city council in 2007. He served for 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.

“Throughout my public life, I have always been very aware of and aware of the fact that when we engage with our partners, we engage with respect and openness, and never engage in individualistic and personal attack. are,” he said. An interview Tuesday.

As an example of his ability to work with Alberta’s government, Mr. Sohi pointed to his efforts in the federal cabinet to build the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion. He was federal infrastructure minister when Ottawa bought the pipeline to save the project.

“Premier is aware of my work on the Trans Mountain pipeline,” he said. “Premier is aware of my work on the orphan oil well proposal – that I’ve worked hard to make sure the federal government is investing in Alberta. My work on Enbridge Line 3.”

Mr. Sohi’s mayor’s priorities are broad. These include expanding Edmonton’s economy, eliminating discrimination and racism. and addressing climate change. He believes that all the items on his to-do list are intertwined.

“These issues require a systematic, holistic approach to leadership,” he said. “I believe in a collaborative approach to dealing with issues.”

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Mr. Sohi was born in a Punjabi village in India. His family is Sikh, and he immigrated to Canada as a teenager. In 1988, he returned to India as a social worker, before becoming a Canadian citizen. He was arrested there and charged with being a terrorist. Mr Sohi has said that he was harassed and spent most of his time 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 the courts to drop the case, citing a lack of evidence. A judge agreed.

After moving to his family home in Punjab, Mr. Sohi returned to Edmonton. There, he worked as A taxi driver, a bus driver, a union worker and eventually a local politician. His personal history, he said, informs his approach to governance.

We have a weekly Western Canada newsletter written by our BC and Alberta bureau chiefs, providing you with a comprehensive package of the news you need to know about the region and its place in the issues facing Canada. .


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