Sprawlcast: Calgarians rejected fearful populism. Now what?
A conversation with three new city councillors.
Sprawlcast is a collaboration between The Sprawl and CJSW 90.9 FM. It's a show for curious Calgarians who want more than the daily news grind. Subscribe on iTunes, Spotify or wherever you listen to podcasts. Thanks to our members, we also provide a written version of each episode for those who would rather read than listen.
On October 18, Calgarians elected nine new faces to Calgary city council, including Jasmine Mian, Courtney Walcott and Kourtney Penner.
In Ward 3—north central Calgary—Mian takes over from Mayor-Elect Jyoti Gondek. Mian is an Olympic wrestler who has master’s degrees in public policy and psychology.
Walcott will represent the inner-city Ward 8, taking over from Evan Woolley. Before being elected, Walcott was a teacher and basketball coach at Western Canada High School.
And immediately south of Ward 8, Kourtney Penner will represent Ward 11, taking over from Jeromy Farkas. She’s a past president of the Haysboro Community Association and worked in the local tech sector with Rainforest Alberta.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
JEREMY KLASZUS: I'm curious what each of you think the election results say about Calgary. This is a conversation people are having this week. This is a conversation we had in 2010, after Mayor Naheed Nenshi was elected. When you look at the gender make-up of council, when you look at the racial diversity of this council, and when you look at the political leanings of of this council—I'm curious what you think this election says about Calgary.
COURTNEY WALCOTT (WARD 8): I think the big myth is about how progressive or how conservative Alberta actually is. And part of that conversation that we often have is around this idea of how good our times are. Because to some degree, especially in municipal politics, there's a huge element of apathy that exists at this level of government. There's a lot of apathy that exists at every level of government, because when things are good—who cares?
I don't love the terms "progressive" versus "conservative," because I think they're too ideologically associated. But the concept of conservative thrives in times of a high quality of life, because people just want to see that maintenance, right? "It's okay, everything is good, so let's keep it good." That idea of conservatism thrives in those moments.
But what we're seeing right now is when decisions have to be made, and when we get our backs against the wall and have to start creating long-term solutions for crises—that's when the values of the population really show themselves. Because that's the moment where people vote for the solutions that are going to carry us forward. And in that moment, Alberta showed up. Calgary showed up. And you see that reflected in the makeup of council. The make-up of council is reflective of the values of the people that voted, and here we are. That's something that we should all be proud of together.
I think Calgarians, by and large, really rejected the negative narratives that were being told about us.
KOURTNEY PENNER (WARD 11): One thing I actually noticed was—I mean, I don't actually know how old everybody is, but we all look very young in our photos, right? There is a youthful element. Maybe youth isn't the right word. But we reflect really what Calgary should be looking like and who we want to attract to our city. And I think that is one of the most hopeful things when I look, generally, across who got elected. And the different backgrounds and different experiences as well—that, to me, is the real shining story.
I don't love the terms progressive and conservative. I think it labels and pigeonholes us into pre-supposing what kind of decisions we're going to make. I think what it comes down to is we bring a wealth of experiences and knowledge, and we're going to bring that information into our decision making.
Courtney Walcott brings a lot of information in working with youth, but also that historical perspective around governance that he has as a teacher. And Jasmine, she's got the policy side that she's going to school us all on. I imagine she's going to keep us on the straight and narrow, but also have that tenacity and drive and the vision of an athlete. And I bring my mom perspective and what I want for my kids, but also that community-based lens of being really rooted into neighbourhoods and working with community leaders. So those are the experiences that a lot of us are bringing, and that is less ideology, and more about how we're all going to use our strengths to create better environments for Calgarians.
JASMINE MIAN (WARD 3): Looking across the city, what I felt like made a successful campaign was how well you articulated your vision and told a story about what's going on for Calgary—and what you're going to do about it. And I think Calgarians, by and large, really rejected the negative narratives that were being told about us and rejected the politicians who were trying to get ahead by taking a short position on the city. And I think what's going to be very interesting about all the folks who are elected: how do we bring forward and start telling a story that is one that we've all co-created?
I don't want to see us be a council where we're only driving forward the agenda that we believe is important for our wards. We have to come together as a greater team and set some priorities as to what's best for the city. Those are the conversations I'm really looking forward to in the coming days.
In that moment, Alberta showed up. Calgary showed up. And you see that reflected in the makeup of council.
KLASZUS: All three of your campaigns, I would say, pitched quite an optimistic view of the future versus some of the more populist campaigns that were running against certain things at city hall or just kind of more negative in in approach. Does that go to what you were saying, Courtney Walcott, about where people are at right now in Calgary?
WALCOTT: I think so. An area that I often like to focus on is how we view problems and how we view ourselves in the situation that we find ourselves. And right now, obviously, there are problems left and right. You have an affordable housing crisis, you've got the opioid crisis—I'm going to use the word "crisis" a lot. We have an environmental climate crisis. We have the crisis of taxation.
The point being, when you find yourself in a position where kind of everybody's firing at you these major issues about how our world is being shaped, you have to realize that all of these problems are massive opportunities for a generational shift and amazing city building that is going to be able to bring in so many different stakeholders into creating something new from whatever we are right now. And that optimism can't be lost.
You cannot come into this with the negativity of yesterday when you're trying to actually build something for tomorrow. And so many of the campaigns that took that outlook were the ones that reached the most people. And I think there's some huge value in holding that perspective close as we move forward.
You cannot come into this with the negativity of yesterday when you’re trying to actually build something for tomorrow.
KLASZUS: One of the things that I'm curious about is that discontent that's out there still. A lot of folks are fearful about the future. And when I think about some of the conversations around inner-city densification, for example, and how we grow—and how the City of Calgary engages with people—there are a lot of people who do not feel heard. I'm curious, how do you think the city should navigate that? Because that's something I hear a lot: "community engagement is broken." And that's something that people on both sides of the political spectrum seem to agree on, to a point.
PENNER: I'll agree with that. That that's not that's not a spectrum issue. It comes down to trust. One of the words I used at the doors over and over was "honesty." People would ask a question, and I would respond, "Well, we need to be honest about what we are trying to accomplish." And we need to be honest about what the problems are. And, and so moving that forward into conversations about engagement—we need to encourage the teams that we're working with, whether it's our office teams, whether it's our administrative teams, to have the courage to be honest with Calgarians. And that honesty is what will rebuild the trust.
I think when we're honest, then we will be able to bring people along with helping us with the solutions. I don't think we—as in, council—need to be the solution or we—administration, the city—needs to be the solution. I think we need to work with communities and neighbourhoods and community organizations.
I don’t want to see us be a council where we’re only driving forward the agenda that we believe is important for our wards.
We also need to not figure everything out ourselves. We have examples from across the globe that we can look to and we can apply a Calgary context and lens to. We don't have to reinvent the wheel every single time. And I am hopeful that with the leadership that we have on council right now, we can have the conviction to be honest with people about, as Courtney mentioned, all the crises that we are facing—while also recognizing what we can celebrate.
Because Calgary still does have so many amazing things. I don't want our conversation to be only focused on our challenges. I want it to be focused as well on what are the things we can celebrate, such as our library system or our park system and pathway system. We've got amazing recreation opportunities. It's really about building from the strengths that we have to deal with those crises and challenges.
KLASZUS: Jasmine Mian, what do you think this council can do for for those people who feel alienated from city hall and from decisions that are made?
MIAN: Well, it sounds cliche, but it is listening. Courtney and Kourtney can attest to you, when you're going door to door and you're having conversations with people, you come across a lot of folks who are really upset about something in their neighbourhood or things that have been going on, especially related to the pandemic. And you can challenge them on how they feel about it, or you can sit there and listen—and behind a lot of that is fear, behind a lot of that is anger and hurt. "I don't have a job. I'm not sure how I'm going to pay my bills next month."
And so I think the biggest challenge in all of this is to always lead with empathy. Sometimes it's really hard to do that, because people will be coming at you with such anger, and they're doing everything in the moment that does not deserve your empathy. And they're hitting you with some real aggression. But how can you take that aggression and and turn it into something that is ultimately telling them: "I've heard you. I'm going to do what I can to address that hurt."
It's not easy. I think that at the end of the day, politics is all about people. And city building—as much as we talk about the technical skill set and the land use—so much of actually doing good city building is understanding people and the tensions that exist and trying to empathize with people. And in the times that you can't—"I'm sorry, we just can't get there on that"—being very transparent about why.
I think the other thing that I hope we do a better job of is celebrating all the great things that we do have at the city. And I think that's where your job as a councillor is oftentimes not to tell, but to show. And I've been thinking about that a lot and in how we're going to run my office. How are we going to make sure we're showing people the great work that we're doing, not just telling people? Because there's this perception—I've already gotten emails this morning from people being like, "Oh, did you just want this job for a paycheck?" "I'm not going to hear from you now." People are worried about that. You are very accessible in the campaign, and you have to remain as accessible once you're elected. And that's hard to do, because of all the demands and the fire hose that comes your way. But I think that we all have the best of intentions to really meet the needs of our residents.
So much of actually doing good city building is understanding people and the tensions that exist.
KLASZUS: You mentioned that fear, that aggression that that some people have. Underlying that—I think you put your finger on it—people are trying to connect. And if they feel like they can't connect, that kind of festers.
MIAN: Absolutely. And I think that's where politicians end up getting this rap for being elitist and out of touch. Because you have to sit with people. A huge part of your job is not actually just finding resolutions for people, it's sitting with people in the muck, in the "I hear you, this is a really unfortunate situation, I'm going to do everything I can to try to get a resolution for you." But sometimes you can't. And that's true in any high-stress leadership job. You look at physicians—how many times do they have to try and help people, and they know they can't save them? You look at anyone in any type of first responder role, you look at military—any high pressure job, and politics is no different. So much of it is actually that people skill set.
KLASZUS: I want to drill down into a few issues that are going to be facing the next council, some of which the three of you have campaigned on. The first one being the climate crisis. Mayor-Elect Jyoti Gondek has said Calgary needs to declare a climate emergency. This would be in keeping with what a bunch of municipalities have done. But I'm curious for each of you what that means beyond just making a statement on paper. What does that look like, in your mind?
WALCOTT: The immediate lens that I take on almost every issue is an attempt to create an intersectional understanding of it. So when we talk climate crisis, there are immediate demands that need to be met with regard to how we built our city. Especially in the inner city, a major concern is flood mitigation, knowing that we have a series of potential disasters that exist, having the river cut through the inner-city communities so much.
But I also know that when we talk about climate emergencies and climate crises, we often have—not short sighted goals, but immediate needs that must be addressed. Whereas the long-term solutions that often intersect with so many different aspects of our work—whether it be the way that we build our city, our planning, our infrastructure, our housing developments, our energy requirements, our transit—these are issues where you might not actually hear the words "climate crisis" in the policies that are being created. And it's going to be incumbent on everybody who's doing this work, who's leading this charge, to always have this "there's a climate emergency" in the back of our heads. This can help filter our decisions and remind us of a set of values that will drive the decisions that we'll make, even when, on paper, it doesn't say anything about climate.
We have to think about how we talk about the climate crisis and the story that we tell.
WALCOTT: One of the major issues that that come to mind immediately is downtown revitalization. It's a job that is going to create immense opportunity in our city if we build it sustainably. One major aspect of that sustainability is, of course, making sure that we're creating it as green as possible so that we can mitigate the challenges that might come from not doing so.
MIAN: I think in order to address the climate crisis, we have to think about how we talk about the climate crisis and the story that we tell about it. Because I think whether you like it or not, not everyone will be moved by the equity arguments around climate change. And there are many good ones about how if we don't address climate change, the most marginalized in our society will feel that first. That's true across the world. But I think the personalization, as much as you can of this, is important. So if you look at Alberta, seven of the 10 worst natural disasters in Canada have been in Alberta. I don't think the average person knows that. And then you start to say, "Think about the hailstorms, think about the wildfire smoke."
I had a really eye opening moment this past summer when I was up on Nose Hill. It was one of those very smoky days. And I saw somebody wearing a gas mask riding his bike on Nose Hill. And I thought to myself, "Is this our future? Is this is this what is going to be like for my children to go out and play in the future?" I think that really putting forward those tangible ways that that climate change is affecting people's lives is really important. And then when that doesn't work, because we're human, and a lot of times humans won't make the best decisions, I think we do appeal in the short term ways that makes sense.
So for example, we need electric car infrastructure. Walk into a car dealership today. Everyone is electrifying their fleets. You look at all the major manufacturers, and we don't want to be left behind. And so you can sometimes talk about climate change from this more economic perspective. Or you can frame it from an equity perspective. And the truth is, it's important from both.
But as a successful politician, I think you'll have to figure out: What's the currency that people trade in? And how can you adjust your framing to make sure that it resonates.
I’m going to turn it around and say: What are the opportunities that we have from changing our behaviour?
PENNER: Great points from Courtney and Jasmine. A couple things come to mind, especially around addressing climate. The previous council had a real climate action champion in Druh Farrell. And it had a few co-sponsors, but it really felt kind of like a one person led initiative. This is a moment for there to be a team. And it's a moment to acknowledge—first, the ongoing work that's been done by the city, getting a real understanding of the initiatives that are coming down. But then also initiatives that are inspiring.
So one that I talk about often is the biodiversity strategy. And I talk about it often, having three major regional parks in my ward, and two rivers and the reservoir. Biodiversity is ginormous in terms of what we can do. And I think Jasmine made some really great points around the personalization and the storytelling and just acknowledging that there is more than one story to be told around the climate crisis.
Yes, we need to talk about the negative implications. But again, I'm going to turn it around and say: what are the opportunities that we have from changing our behaviour? What are the opportunities that it presents for the city, from us taking a leadership stance? What are we afforded if we can lead and grow our green behaviour? Who will that attract? And what kind of investment will that attract?
Again, having those different stories to tell about how we all can benefit from it. And again, meeting people where they're at, and understanding, as Jasmine said, what is their currency. How does it benefit them? And that is human. We want to know that we're benefiting, and that is okay. Because I do think that is part of the equity story as well—there are benefits to be had for all people.
KLASZUS: Yeah, rather than a story of hopelessness. I think we've seen that hopelessness is not necessarily the biggest motivator.
I'm curious, too, about growth. That was a big issue for the last council. It will be a big issue for your council. It'll always be an issue in Calgary, I think. Jasmine Mian, your ward is one of the outer wards in Calgary. I'm curious how you think this council should balance outward growth with inner city redevelopment and densification. It seems like one of those intractable problems. On paper, the city has said, here's our long term growth plan. The city has acknowledged that we are not going to meet our targets for that growth plan. And it just seems to be this circular argument and conflict that is very difficult to negotiate. So I'm curious how you see this council navigating that.
MIAN: The most important thing that this council will do in the next week or two weeks is sit down and agree to some strategic priorities. Because if we can't set some rules of engagement—or these are the things that we are going to pursue as as a group of 15—there's no way to hold each other accountable when people go off. And people will move from different outcomes for all different types of reasons, and this is where I think leadership comes in. This is where goal-setting is very important. And I think that was a challenge for the last council. I think they had the best of intentions on an individual level. But to what extent did they come together as a team and decide: what are what are we doing here? And what are we going to hold ourselves accountable to? That's what I'm hopeful we can do in this case.
The immediate lens that I take on almost every issue is an attempt to create an intersectional understanding of it.
KLASZUS: Courtney Walcott, how does how does that sit with you? In your campaign, you were unapologetic about advocating for the inner city and inner city investment. And so I'm curious how you see council navigating that tension between outward growth and inner city redevelopment. And how you see Jasmine's idea of council doing it as a whole.
WALCOTT: You're 100% correct. I am unapologetic in that sense of what it means to actually invest in the parts of the city that, to some degree, have been neglected. But regarding this degree of collaboration that Jasmine mentioned—I think we need to understand the mechanisms in place that have created our current situation and scenario. I think this huge conflict that we've found ourselves in, with regards to the targets that we were trying to set where growth was happening, were almost complete conflict with what we saw as our local community priorities.
For example, if you're trying to build a community centre, unless you can all of a sudden get a majority of councillors to agree that X million dollars needs to come your way to build your community centre then the alternative is actually through things like offsite levies, which are directly tied to development. So the many mechanisms that we use to build the things that we talk about—the 15 minute community, the walkable community, the amenities that are necessary—have been tied to growth. That has been Calgary's pitch for a very long time: that if we are going to build these amenities to complete these communities, growth is the necessary mechanism that will help us pay for them.
So now that we've recognized that—we've seen that that is the circumstance has created the world that we're in right now—how do we solve the problem of surburban communities that exist with certain amenities, and not others? That have a ton of bike paths, a beautiful park space, but then don't have a school or rec center.
We recognize the gaps that exist within suburban communities the same way that we look at the inner city. In the inner city, we have access, we have transit, but we're seeing closure of our rec centers as well. We are seeing infrastructure that is outdated and really running low to actually support the density that we're seeing in the inner city with the amount of people that are here and the redevelopment that is happening here.
Each of us has problems. So what are the mechanisms that we can leverage to actually create mutual solutions? And I think that's where a lot of the conflict with the 14 new communities came from. You say no on principle, but you actually create a different problem for these communities that you're saying no to. How do you solve the problem of communities that are not complete by completing them without additional growth? That is going to be a question that we're going to be faced with in like three weeks. What mechanisms can we put in place where we can curb sprawl and complete communities? We will have some work to do together, but I'm looking forward to it.
KLASZUS: Kourtney Penner, your ward isn't inner city or on the periphery. You're in that so-called donut of decline, right?
PENNER: Yeah, lots of amenities that need life cycling and need repairs. Everything from community association buildings to infrastructure like pools and arenas. And I want to acknowledge this is not just a Calgary problem. This is a North America, this is a Canada problem. So again, before when I talked about looking to other cities for solutions, I think there's there's room for that conversation here.
There's work already being done from the city around established areas—growth and change—and some of the some of the development and redevelopment challenges that we are facing.
I think we’ve got good examples of redevelopment that have happened in Calgary.
And again, it comes to life cycling, it's the things we don't see. It is our utilities. It is pipes in the ground. And the city, I think, is actually going to have to ask themselves a hard question: are they going to lead infrastructure fixes to prime redevelopment? That's costly. But it may be it may be a trigger that we need to explore. I think we've got good examples of redevelopment that have happened in Calgary. I look at Quarry Park, which is in Ward 11. I look at Garrison. Those are some unique opportunities of using our existing land. And there are proposals on the table like Midtown and the Anderson LRT.
It seems like a lot because we have a downtown that also needs revitalization. And so we have to ask ourselves, what can we do? How much can we do? And how much does the city lead? And how much do we wait for the market? We're not going to be able to do it all at once. Quarry Park isn't finished. And they're very much waiting on the Green Line for that.
To both Courtney's and Jasmine's point, we have to lay the groundwork for the next four years. But I think we also need to think strategically and lay plans for the next eight years and 12 years and 20 years and put all of these proposals on on paper and talk about the costs and think long-term budgeting.
Jeremy Klaszus is editor-in-chief of The Sprawl.
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