Sandip Lalli, former president and CEO of the Calgary Chamber of Commerce. Photo: Calgary Chamber of Commerce

What Sandip Lalli’s departure says about Alberta

She gently criticized the UCP — and got replaced.

When Sandip Lalli was hired as the president and CEO of the Calgary Chamber of Commerce, her appointment was heralded as the Chamber’s progressive step into the future.

“She is well-positioned to tackle the challenges and seize the opportunities ahead for Calgary businesses,” announced Phil Roberts, the Chamber’s former chair, in a press release.

So when Lalli’s departure was announced in August, it was a shock. Lalli stepped into the role in March 2018, and she seemed like the ideal candidate for the city’s business community.

Lalli was small-business- and Alberta-focused enough to appease the boys in Edmonton. And as a woman of colour in an industry dominated by white men, she wielded the potential to bring a fresh and inclusive perspective to the Chamber.

It appeared as though everyone was satisfied—until they weren’t.

A victim of 'repositioning'

Throughout her tenure, she began to extend soft criticism of the UCP government. Notably, Lalli was unyielding in her opinion that the fight against climate change could be reconciled with Alberta’s energy industry.

In February, the Chamber’s official Twitter account posted a statement in response to the withdrawal of the Frontier oilsands mining project.

Brad Tennant, the executive director of the UCP, was quick to retaliate.

“Another example of the Calgary Chamber putting themselves on a pedestal no one else believes they’re on,” he responded in a now-deleted tweet.

“It’s a genuine shame the Chamber is focused on nothing but stroking their own vanity with downtown elites.”

Lalli didn’t stay quiet. Following Tennant’s tweet, she wrote an op-ed in the Calgary Herald.

“Oil and gas will continue to play a key role in supplying that global demand,” she wrote. “Simultaneously, so is the demand for real action to solve climate change.”

A few months later, she was replaced.

The official story, announced by the Chamber, is that Calgary's economic situation and COVID-19 called for a "repositioning of the Chamber" and a new leader. The unofficial story is that Lalli was pushed out for having an opinion and making it known.

The end of her time as president and CEO was unexpected. But it wasn’t unmethodical.

“To me, it is without question—that’s clearly what happened,” said Lindsay Tedds, an associate professor at the University of Calgary’s department of economics and a scientific director of fiscal and economic policy at the School of Public Policy.

“It felt random, but it isn’t. Nothing is random.”

[It] says to me, it’s just more of the same in this town, and that’s really disappointing.

Lindsay Tedds,

Associate professor at U of C

Tedds is a member of the Chamber’s Municipal Platform Development Task Force, an initiative that Lalli headed. It aims to develop recommendations, based on inclusive economic growth, before the 2021 municipal elections.

The group met once. Shortly after, Lalli was “repositioned” (as the Chamber’s press release put it) out of a job.

“There was no heads-up from the Calgary Chamber to the task force that this was happening,” Tedds recalled.

The task force is currently on hold.

“[It] says to me, it’s just more of the same in this town, and that’s really disappointing,” she added.

Lalli is also on the board of Bumble Bees Venture Capital, a firm she started with Karen Stewart, the current CEO.

“Her job is to speak up on behalf of the businesses,” Stewart said. “She has a strong value system and she will often do things and make decisions that are in the best interest of the people she's working for... even at her own expense.”

If what people think happened, did happen, we have a much bigger problem.

Druh Farrell,

Ward 7 Councillor

Geraldine Anderson, the Chamber’s director of policy and communications, says Lalli’s exit was a mutual decision. But the fact that a more sinister—albeit hushed—reason seems to be common knowledge among the politically informed paints a different picture.

“I think it shows that we all really know what’s going on behind the scenes,” Ward 7 Councillor Druh Farrell said. “It shows a culture of fear.”

“If what people think happened, did happen, we have a much bigger problem.”

The business of silence

Obviously, people are hesitant to go on the record. The UCP government has made it clear that criticism of its policies can bring harsh consequences.

“We’re in an environment right now where jobs are hard to come by,” said Emma May, a local lawyer and the co-founder of Sophie Grace Designs.

“Lots of families are hanging by a thread. We’re in an environment right now where if someone’s job becomes in jeopardy, there are massive consequences to that.”

If you’re in sectors that are dependent on government… people will be very careful as to what they say.

Emma May,

Calgary-based lawyer and entrepreneur

The optics alone can be enough to scare any critics into submission. If you believe that your political leaders might weaponize job security or public funding against you, maybe you’re less likely to disagree with them publicly.

“If you’re in sectors that are dependent on government, and you see the government taking a position that ‘You’re with us or against us,’ people will be very careful as to what they say,” May said.

The thing is, Lalli was in no way anti-UCP—at least, not publicly. So how did she find her way into the “against us” group?

“That was the most disappointing part,” Farrell said. “If even the most moderate criticism is met with outrage and revenge, then we’re sunk.”

“If there are fears of punishment—being blacklisted or receiving funding—and that’s what’s happening in Alberta right now, then we all lose,” she added.

Protecting the status quo

When Lalli was selected as the president and CEO after an extensive search, many saw it as a step in the right direction.

Lalli’s interim replacement, Murray Sigler, embodies quintessential conservative Calgary. In 2009, he was the managing director of the Alberta Progressive Conservative government’s U.K. office. He was also the Chamber’s president and CEO in 2002.

It’s absolutely essential that we can have debate and disagreement without fear of reprisal.

Druh Farrell,

Ward 7 Councillor

“There aren’t very many women in senior leadership positions in the city,” May said. “Those of us who look to those women as leaders, you feel a bit of a gut punch when you see them replaced in that manner.”

May and Tedds witnessed the impact of the Chamber’s shift in leadership first-hand. They’re two of the women behind The Order of Women Who Give no Fucks, a Twitter account that focuses on intersectionality and government accountability. They describe themselves as “a group of women free to use our voices for those who can’t.”

“I’m a tenured professor. I can say whatever I want,” Tedds said.

And as a business owner, May says she only answers to herself and her clients.

The account blossomed into a space for women to anonymously share their opinions. Or to express their concerns without the threat of being reprimanded.

After Lalli’s departure made its way into the media, unease and anxiety flooded the account’s direct messages.

“There was a collective of a realization of, ‘Oh my God, they got another one of us,’” Tedds recounted.

Since then, The Order of Women has seen considerable growth. This makes one thing clear—without the threat of political retaliation, people start talking.

“It’s absolutely essential that we can have debate and disagreement without fear of reprisal,” Farrell said.

“The last thing we need is a bunch of sycophants agreeing if deep down we don’t agree. What does that make us?”

The Sprawl reached out to Lalli for comment but did not receive a response by press time.

Hadeel Abdel-Nabi is The Sprawl’s staff writer intern.

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