The election of mayors of colour in Alberta’s two major cities is a historic event, heralding a hat-trick in political kingdom. For persons of colour. A total of three mayors of colour have so far been elected in Calgary and Edmonton, a precedent set by Calgary’s former mayor Naheed Nenshi, who had the distinction of being the first Muslim mayor of a major city.
In this year’s municipal election, Calgary elected its first female mayor Jyoti Gondek while Edmonton chose former cabinet minister in the Trudeau government, Amarjeet Sohi. Both these individuals have served their respective communities well as former councillors and have a record of distinction in public service. Alberta’s two main cities now will have progressive mayors changing the face and style of municipal government.
These mayoralty victories represent not only the city’s diversity but also Canada’s tolerant, multicultural makeup. It displays that the electorate is mature enough to elect the best candidates running. To members of minority communities, it shows that a person of colour can aspire to high political office and is warmly accepted by the wider society.
It was a tough election by any stretch of imagination as there were 27 candidates seeking the mayor’s chair in Calgary while Edmonton had 11 candidates. Some of the candidates were former councillors while others had solid background in business and other areas.
Gondek made history by becoming the first ever woman mayor in the city’s 146-year history. The former councillor who first got elected in 2017 will oversee a new slate of councillors with only three incumbents. The new-look council will have six women councillors in Calgary and eight in Edmonton.
When Mayor Nenshi first declared his candidacy in 2010, he was asked if Calgary was ready for a Muslim mayor. I was so enraged by the question that I wrote a column in newspapers defending Nenshi’s right to run. I wrote at the time,” I thought when voters go to cast their ballots during an election, they look at the credentials and qualifications of a candidate, not his religion which is not even mentioned on the ballot. What voters would look for is the candidate’s ability for the job and then cast their ballot for the best candidate. Hence, the question as to what is wrong being a Muslim and mayor of a city is beyond me. It’s interesting to note that none of the stories have mentioned religious affiliations of the two front-runners. Nobody had the time to question their religious affiliations.
“It is sad that every time a visible minority candidate stands for office, the media brings his ethnicity and religion forward. Why would a Muslim mayor be different from a Christian mayor? Would a Christian mayor be better than a Muslim mayor? Are there any qualifications that a Christian mayor has, and a Muslim mayor lacks? To me, the only difference is their different religious beliefs.”
As it turned out, Mayor Nenshi proved all those doomsayers and political pundits wrong by serving three terms as mayor., totalling 11 years. He was declared by Maclean’s Magazine as the second most important person in Canada after Prime Minister Stephen Harper. On his 43rd birthday in 2014, Nenshi received an unexpected present by being named No. 1 mayor in the world, becoming “the most admired mayor” of any large city. The World Mayor Prize declared him “an urban visionary” and a role model to many in North America and Europe “for decisive management, inclusivity and forward thinking.”
Gondek’s mayoralty campaign focused on issues such as investing in transportation, getting more property tax dollars from the provincial government, and making Calgary a “centre for excellence” to boost social, economic and environmental recovery.
“Thank you, Calgary, with all of my heart,” Gondek said during her victory speech. “Thank you for engaging in democracy and sending a clear signal about what our future looks like. Thank you for embracing a vision of promise and opportunity. As your mayor, I will lead with courage, with conviction and with humility.”
In Edmonton, former federal cabinet minister Sohi, a Sikh immigrant from India, will become the city’s first mayor of South Asian origin. “As an 18-year-old immigrant without much to my name, I had ambitions and dreams to build a better life in a new home — dreams that sometimes seemed impossible,” Sohi said during his victory speech. “Today, because of you, because of everyone in this room, we have made the impossible possible.”
Sohi was a city bus driver and an Edmonton city councillor before entering federal politics and serving as Minister of Natural Resources and Minister of Infrastructure and Communities under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Lori Williams, policy studies professor at Mount Royal University, said it was significant that “We’ve got firsts in both cities.” In both elections, Alberta voters expressed a desire for change, and largely rejected candidates opposed to public health measures to deal with COVID-19, Williams said. (Farkas, Gondek’s main rival, was the only councillor to vote against a vaccine-passport bylaw in Calgary last month.)
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Alberta Premier Jason Kenny who said they were looking forward to working with the newly elected mayors shouldn’t be surprised if they came knocking their doors soon to discuss several unresolved issues. In his congratulatory message, federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh said: “You’ve made history. For women and people of colour across this country, you’ve broken barriers. And you’ve paved the way for future generations to dream bigger.”
Gondek’s victory is particularly pleasant for me as a constituent of Ward 3 which she represented as my councillor before the election. I was impressed with her voting performance and her contributions in debating various issues on council, championing public transit, police reform and city growth.
At this juncture, it is most appropriate to recall U.S. Vice-President Kamala Harris’s remarkable words: “While I may be the first woman in this office. I will not be the last, because every little girl watching tonight sees that this is a country of possibilities.” Let’s hope that more females are encouraged to follow Gondek’s example.
Both Gondek and Sohi’s victories are a testimony of how Alberta has progressed politically, accepting leadership roles from qualified, professional, and dedicated members of visible minority. I hope that both Godnek and Sohi will not only follow Nenshi’s footsteps but outshine him in steering their municipalities.
Mansoor Ladha is a Calgary-based writer and author of Memoirs of a Muhindi: Fleeing East Africa for the West and A Portrait in Pluralism: Aga Khan’s Shia Ismaili Muslims.