Clockwise from left: candidates Marilyn North Peigan, Leslyn Joseph, Anna Murphy, Courtney Walcott, Angela McIntyre.

The plight of progressive city council candidates in Calgary

Amid rising populist anger, nuance can be a tough sell.

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The term “progressive” isn’t always helpful when trying to place someone on the political spectrum, since it means so many things to so many people.

“Is there a more amorphous, loaded-but-useless, catch-all term than ‘progressive?’” political scientist David Moscrop asked recently on Twitter, observing that the term has been applied to everyone from more centrist conservatives to socialists. “It’s like calling someone a mammal with a head.”

But when it comes to Alberta municipal politics, where candidates have no official party affiliation, the label can illuminate more than it obscures.

It draws a distinction between candidates who are critical of policing, seek more diversity at all levels and support major public infrastructure investments—and those who are fixated on tax cutting and shrinking the size of government.

Brian Pincott, who belonged to the former category when he served on Calgary city council from 2007 to 2017, says a major challenge in getting more forward-thinking people elected to council is the simplicity of the right-wing narrative.

In the 2010 election, for example, Pincott had to justify to his Ward 11 constituents, who are now represented by right-wing stalwart and mayoral candidate Jeromy Farkas, why the $25-million Peace Bridge that Pincott supported would benefit them, which wasn’t immediately apparent based on proximity.

“A conservative could say, ‘Yeah, it’s a waste of money, I voted against it, vote for me,’” says Pincott.

“If you are a progressive, you actually have to do a lot more work telling the story, because the story is not nearly as simple as just saying no. It’s a much more nuanced and difficult story to tell.”

Progressives squaring off in Ward 8

Courtney Walcott is one of six candidates running to represent Ward 8, where incumbent Evan Woolley has announced he won’t seek re-election.

A high school teacher and basketball coach who started a petition for the Calgary Board of Education to establish an anti-racism task force, Walcott is also a spokesperson for the Defund2Fund coalition calling on the city to reallocate police resources towards supporting vulnerable communities.

He described his idea of progress as imagining a future for the city that is inclusive and “prepared to handle these shifting times,” which is a challenge to communicate in contrast to the right’s nostalgia for a time that never existed, as represented by slogans from “Take Back City Hall” to “Make America Great Again.”

“You’re holding on to the greatness of a particular time frame in life, whether it be the joys of the oil and gas in 2008, or the homogeneity of the 1970s,” said Walcott. “People are holding on to something, hoping to bring it back. For a lot of people, that’s something easy they can tangibly hold on to, whereas with progressives envisioning a future that isn’t here yet, it’s not as tangible. It’s a lot harder.”

He said he decided to run for council because he saw a void in leadership at the municipal level. “The ones I respect were leaving (and) the leadership that’s stepping up happen to come from a particular ilk of a politician that I don’t respect, and with that said, I was like, ‘Who’s going to step up?’”

With progressives envisioning a future that isn’t here yet, it’s not as tangible. It’s a lot harder.

Courtney Walcott,

Ward 8 council candidate

Walcott says he wants to bring together a diverse coalition of progressive groups, “sitting them down at a table and coming to a vision of whatever tomorrow’s going to look like.”

Anna Murphy, who declared her candidacy before Woolley confirmed he wasn’t running, says she generally identifies as progressive, but is cautious of the term’s divisiveness.

“Sometimes by using that label, it can be a hindrance,” said Murphy. “It shouldn’t necessarily be a hindrance, but it can help put a pin in the division and polarization of the current political conversation. I put value in engagement and sitting down, having conversations and meeting folks where they’re at. If that makes me a centrist, if that makes me middle-of-the-road, then so be it.”

Murphy—who has served as director of business development for Calgary Pride and if elected would be the first transgender Calgary city councillor— believes fears of splitting the vote with another progressive and having a conservative win shouldn’t inhibit people from running for council.

“The reality is that anyone who has a genuine intention and desire to serve their community, and is able to get those 100 signatures down on a piece of paper is able to run. I don’t think having more people in a political race is a hindrance. I think that’s good for democracy. That’s how we get robust conversations happening.”

While you can’t appeal to everyone all the time, the biggest issues facing us must be solved collectively, says Murphy.

“We were facing tremendous adversity and austerity prior to the pandemic, and now we have a pandemic that is really compounding that reality, so we really do need to come together and forge that path forward, one that sees us ensuring that we’re building for a sustainable future.”

Grassroots, rather than progressive

With Coun. Druh Farrell’s retirement after this term, there’s also a progressive void in Ward 7.

Marilyn North Peigan, a member of the Piikani First Nation who’s sat on the Calgary Police Commission since 2017, is one of the candidates looking to be Farrell’s successor.

Peigan says her goal is to be a conduit for the citizens of Ward 7, preferring to call herself “grassroots” rather than “progressive.”

Progressives actually have a much better story to tell.

Brian Pincott,

Former Calgary city councillor

“All of these other political parties out there, as an Aboriginal person, none of them have directed anything towards me,” said Peigan. “I’m a grassroots person. I listen to community members. I listen to voices. That’s where my heart is and that’s where I come from.”

She says she wants to move forward with the Green Line and ensure it’s accessible for all Calgarians, regardless of income or ability. “In order to connect the city, we need to have that,” Peigan said, adding that there needs to be better communication between the city and province in order to make the Green Line happen.

“We need to have that communication open, but that communication has to be effective. It can’t make people defensive.”

She says she admires Farrell’s work as a councillor, particularly the revitalization of the East Village, and is hoping to meet with her to discuss the longtime councillor’s vision for the ward’s future, but notes that Farrell’s voice is just one of many.

Peigan, who previously worked as a medic with the Canadian military and helped write the city’s 2016 White Goose Flying report on reconciliation, says her Piikani heritage helps inform her approach to politics, whether it’s as a member of the police commission or candidate for Ward 7.

“For me, it’s not about anti-racism, it’s about reconciliation,” she said. “I have that cultural lens and that cultural lens actually includes all walks of life… We are all treaty people. If you call this river valley your home, it doesn’t matter what colour you are, you’re treaty too.”

In order to connect the city, we need to have [the Green Line].

Marilyn North Peigan,

Ward 7 council candidate

Leslyn Joseph, an organizer with Defund2Fund and Black Lives Matter Calgary, is running in Ward 10, where former councillor Ray Jones stepped down due to health issues in October 2020 after serving 27 years.

She says her activism spurred her to run for office and Jones’s early retirement gave her an opening to do so.

Joseph says she considers herself more radical than progressive, but accepts the progressive label to distinguish herself from right-wing candidates.

“Is it really progressive to want to ask for things that you think are necessary and should be equal for everybody?” she said. “I don’t think so, but if that’s where I’m placed then that’s where I’m placed.”

Some progressive candidates will tailor their platform to appeal more to cost-cutting conservatives. For Joseph, that’s not an option. “I may change some of the language, but at the same time the message is still there,” she said.

Although there’s technically no incumbent for Ward 10, opponent Andre Chabot represented that ward on council form 2005 to 2017, which puts him at an inherent advantage, Joseph acknowledged.

Taking on the conservative political machine

Angela McIntyre is running into the eye of the storm, challenging arch-conservative incumbent Sean Chu in Ward 4.

Like the other candidates, she acknowledges that progressivism is to some extent subjective—one person’s progressive is another person’s centrist, which is another person’s leftist, depending on who you’re running against.

“It’s not about me, it’s about all of us,” said McIntyre, echoing a slogan for the presidential campaign of U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders. “I don’t believe that the old argument of either/or applies anymore. I don’t think it’s the economy versus the environment, or policing versus mental health. It’s the economy and the environment, policing and mental health.”

McIntyre admits she was reluctant to run against Chu’s well-oiled political machine, but says she sensed through speaking to other constituents that Chu wasn’t responding adequately to their needs if they fell outside the scope of his “pet projects.”

Let’s pause the growth machine, take a deep breath, take a look around and take stock.

Angela McIntyre,

Ward 4 council candidate

“I know how much money they have,” she said of Chu’s campaign. “(But) let’s go person-to-person, ward-to-ward. Let’s strengthen our community and ensure we’re building our city by design, not because the developers want it. How do we make this city great for everyone?”

She said she wants to take a more “holistic” approach to politics than her opponent.

“Let’s pause the growth machine, take a deep breath, take a look around and take stock.”

How can these candidates win elections in conservative Calgary while remaining true to their diverse array of principles and perspectives?

Former councillor Pincott says that, ultimately, progressives need to forge their own narrative, rather than getting bogged down responding to every conservative line of attack.

“You can’t outspend them, so you have to work harder than they do,” said Pincott. “Progressives actually have a much better story to tell and the things we’re talking about is how we look to the future to make all of us better.”

“Get out and tell it.”

Jeremy Appel is the municipal politics reporter for The Sprawl.

Support in-depth Calgary journalism.

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We connect Calgarians with their city through in-depth, curiosity-driven journalism—but we need your help! We rely on our readers and listeners to fund our work by pitching in a few dollars a month. Join us by becoming a Sprawl member today!