Virnetta Anderson (left), Calgary's first Black city councillor. Photo: City of Calgary Archives

How many racialized people have been on Calgary city council?

You can count them on two hands, according to Heritage Calgary.

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On October 18, Calgarians will take to the polls to elect a new mayor and city councillors.

What is now known thanks to a recent CBC article is that more men named John have sat on Calgary’s city council than women have. What is less commonly known is that more men named Arthur have sat on city council than racialized people have.

One might think that the name Arthur is niche enough that you wouldn’t find that many of them on city council throughout Calgary’s history, and one would be right. There have been only 12 men named Arthur on Calgary’s city council—which still surpasses the number of racialized people.

Since Calgary became a city in 1884, there have been nine people elected to city council that could be identified as racialized, according to Heritage Calgary.

Among those nine, there have been zero First Nations folks, and just two people who identify as Métis (including current councillor Ward Sutherland).

I wasn’t expecting a high number. But I didn’t think it was going to be as low as nine.

Josh Traptow, Heritage Calgary

The first racialized person to be elected to city council was George Ho Lem, first elected in 1959. A decade and a half later, Calgary would elect its second racialized (and first Black) city councillor in 1974, Virnetta Anderson.

Before 1959, Calgary had never elected a mayor or city councillor that wasn’t white, so arguably, electing a racialized person wasn’t even an option to conceptualize before that.

However, since 1959 Calgary has had 26 elections (until 1969, municipal elections in Calgary happened annually).

Across 26 elections, Calgary has had 313 city council seats to fill—and racialized people have gotten nine of those.

Josh Traptow, executive director of Heritage Calgary, found the data surprising. His team dug through old newspaper articles, photographs and names of the earliest councillors to come up with the list of nine.

“I wasn't expecting a high number,” said Traptow. “But I didn't think it was going to be as low as nine.”

One of the most diverse cities in Canada

These statistics are especially disquieting for a city as racially diverse as Calgary, one of the most diverse major cities in the country. In 2016, Calgary had the third largest "visible minority" population among Canada’s 10 biggest cities.

With a third of Calgary’s population being visible minorities, Calgary beat out major cities like Montreal, Edmonton, and Ottawa for its diversity.

While the historic picture of Calgary’s city council is stark, the recent picture is a little less so.

Of the nine racialized people identified by Heritage Calgary, five sat on the current council: Mayor Naheed Nenshi, Jyoti Gondek (who's running for mayor), Ward Sutherland, Sean Chu, and George Chahal (MP-elect for Calgary Skyview).

Black and Indigenous representation on city council is still abysmal. However, in the last decade, Calgary has made noteworthy strides towards a city council that reflects the diversity of the city.

Will this trajectory continue?

Sonia Aujla-Bhullar, co-chair of Calgary’s Anti-Racism Action Committee is “cautiously optimistic.”

“It’s going to come down to what Calgarians value,” says Aujla-Bhullar. “We don't want the issue of racism or representation to be a partisan issue. It needs to be valued by all, because it comes down to human dignity for all.”

Building a different future

In terms of a new city council, Aujla-Bhullar hopes to see Calgarians elect candidates who are willing and able to navigate the complexities of addressing colonialism and pursuing anti-racism.

“Coming into this municipal election, I want to see more nuanced conversations and more willingness to learn about these issues,” she says. “There are a pool of candidates that understand the issues, but also hold them with care and attention.”

There are numerous racialized candidates running to be city councillors, and Aujla-Bhullar believes that this lived experience can help the city tackle issues of systemic oppression with nuance.

“I'm hopeful for the candidates that have come out and are speaking to these issues, not as a performative measure necessarily, but the ones who have put in the work and the time to speak with communities.”

I want to see more nuanced conversations and more willingness to learn about these issues.

Sonia Aujla-Bhullar, co-chair, Calgary Anti-Racism Action Committee

Marilyn North Peigan, Courtney Walcott and Leslyn Joseph are some examples of candidates who have been active in their communities before they ran for city council.

In Ward 7, Marilyn North Peigan—a Piikani First Nation member who's been on the city's police commission since 2017—is seeking to be Calgary's first First Nations councillor. “I’m a grassroots person,” North Peigan told The Sprawl earlier this year. “I listen to community members.... That’s where my heart is and that’s where I come from.”

In Ward 10, Leslyn Joseph is the founding member of Black Lives Matter YYC, and announced her candidacy at the city’s public hearing on systemic racism last summer. Joseph believes city council has failed to include marginalized voices in public dialogue. She wants to see that change.

“We're really left out of the conversation. When I say ‘we're,’ I mean people that are racialized and LGBTQ,” said Joseph. “Decisions get made without us.”

In Ward 8, Courtney Walcott—a community organizer, educator and ​​anti-racism advocate—is hoping to see anti-racism work prioritized at city council.

“I decided to run for council so that there is a representative at the table to keep this work going,” said Walcott. “I was kind of tired of yelling across the aisle at someone to do the work for me.”

These are just a few of the racialized candidates that are running, giving hope that the future of Calgary’s leadership will look nothing like its past.

While representation does not equal systemic change, proper representation does mean we have a fighting chance to move towards the institutional changes necessary for an equitable city.

Tomi Ajele is editor-in-chief of Afros In Tha City.

Support independent Calgary journalism.

Sign me up!

The Sprawl doesn't have paywalls, and we don't have ads. Instead, we make our stories available to all—and then invite you to be a part of it by supporting our work. If you value local journalism with depth and context, become a Sprawl member today!