Jyoti Gondek, a self-proclaimed centrist city councilor, will be Calgary’s next mayor, while former federal Liberal minister Amarjeet Sohi will return to civic politics as Edmonton’s new mayor.
Ms Gondek will be Calgary’s first female mayor and Mr Sohi will be the first person of color to hold the post in Edmonton after each winning their respective elections on Monday.
In addition to voting in municipal elections, Albertans voted in two referendums: one on the abolition of the equalization of the Constitution and another on the transition to permanent summer time. The official results of the referendum votes will not be released until next week.
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Ms. Gondek and Mr. Sohi will replace senior progressive mayors of Alberta’s two largest cities as the province continues to grapple with the combined effects of a multi-year oil slump and the pandemic of COVID-19. Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi and Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson are both preparing to step down after deciding not to stand for re-election.
In Calgary, Ms. Gondek will take over leadership in a city where heavy job losses in the oil industry have resulted in a vacancy rate of about 30 percent in the downtown office market, wreaking havoc on the city’s finances. The vacancies wiped out billions of dollars worth of downtown skyscrapers in just a few years, leading to cuts and other measures to mitigate the impact on businesses elsewhere in the city.
Ms Gondek told a small group of employees and media in Calgary that city council needs to keep its focus on rebuilding the economy.
“I will ensure that we remain focused on a recovery rooted in economic, social and environmental resilience,” she said.
Jeromy Farkas, a single tenure city councilor who ran on a platform focused on low taxes, public safety and attacking Mr. Nenshi’s 11-year tenure, came in second in the election of the mayor of Calgary. Councilor Jeff Davison placed third.
Ms Gondek was born in the UK and moved to Canada with her parents, who are from India. She was first elected to Calgary City Council in 2017.
She was previously Director of the Westman Center for Real Estate Studies at the University of Calgary Business School. Prior to that, she worked in marketing at Greyhound Canada and two Alberta credit unions.
Ms. Gondek campaigned to rebuild the economy by making Calgary a center of “energy transition” and fostering innovation. She also said she would improve amenities and services such as public transport, to make the city an attractive place to live and to help local businesses recruit talent.
The rapid decline in property assessments for downtown office towers shifted the tax burden several years ago to business owners elsewhere in the city, who had to deal with steep increases in property taxes. The municipal government responded by spending more than $ 200 million over several years to provide relief to businesses, including $ 13 million this year alone.
Ms. Gondek pledged to continue work on the downtown Calgary plan, which she supported as a consultant. The plan aims to transform the city center into a mixed-use neighborhood, in part by converting some office towers into rental apartments to reduce the amount of vacant office space.
She is also calling on the provincial government to use a portion of its share of property taxes to help the city cope with falling downtown property assessments.
In her victory speech, Ms Gondek identified the issue of vacancies as a top priority as she prepares to take office.
“In collaboration with the business community and our creative sector, your municipal council will realize the vision of a revitalized downtown that creates welcoming and lively spaces and places,” she said.
“We will work with our economic development partners and real estate experts to ensure that our vacant homes become a thing of the past, as we will have upgraded our buildings to active hubs at all times of the day.
Ms Gondek has supported COVID-19 policies such as mandatory masks and vaccine passports. She criticized the handling of the pandemic by Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, describing his decision to lift almost all public health measures over the summer as an “abdication of responsibility.”
Ms. Gondek will succeed Mr. Nenshi, who himself made history in 2010 when he became the first Muslim mayor of a major North American city.
Mr. Nenshi led Calgary through a devastating flood in 2013 and later by the downturn in the oil sector. He also oversaw a bid for the 2026 Winter Olympics, which was dropped after being rejected in a plebiscite. More recently, he has often criticized Mr. Kenney’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In Edmonton, Mr. Sohi returns to City Hall. He served as a city councilor for eight years until his federal election in 2015. Under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, he was first Minister of Infrastructure and then Minister of Natural Resources. He lost his seat in 2019.
He acknowledged the economic challenges ahead as he addressed his supporters Monday night.
“If you are a young person who is anxious for your future, if you are worried about the health and well-being of your loved ones, I see you and I hear you,” he said.
“I am honored to have the privilege of leading us to a new chapter with better days to come. “
He said he would strengthen public services, work for Indigenous reconciliation, fight racism, build climate resilience and respond to the overdose crisis.
Mr. Sohi was born in India and moved to Edmonton with his family at the age of 18. He then worked as a bus driver for the Edmonton transit service.
He beat Mike Nickel, a Tory city councilor who came in second after campaigning to cut property taxes, end photo radar and hire more police.
Mr. Sohi’s platform includes an innovation fund and a new office to help small and medium-sized businesses navigate permitting, licensing and other regulatory requirements. He wants to increase affordable housing and mental health resources. And he said he would seek an urban national park designation for the Edmonton River Valley.
He replaces Mr. Iveson, who was first elected mayor in 2013 after serving as a city councilor for two terms. Mr. Iveson has championed policies to end homelessness and fight drug addiction. He also supported cutting the police budget to redirect money to frontline services to prevent vulnerable people from ending up in the criminal justice system.
Mr. Iveson served for years as chair of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities ‘Big City Mayors’ Caucus.
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