Why Tomorrow's Municipal Elections Are Provincial Elections

Opinion: Yes, we don't go to the polls to decide who leads our province until 2023 — but mayors and councillors, especially those in Calgary and Edmonton, already lead our province

The past 20 months of the pandemic have often felt like one recurring day. But that feeling of unwanted repetition has spilled into the 2021 municipal election, too. This election has felt oddly similar to recent elections in Alberta, despite so much being different. The equalization referendum, the never-ending pandemic and the rise of shady actors in the form of third-party advertisers have all brought new flavours to the municipal campaigns this year. What’s familiar, though, is a larger feeling that it’s Alberta itself that’s the central election issue. Who are we? What are we trying to achieve? Where are we going?

Given the metaphoric fork on our path we’re at as a province in 2021, this year’s municipal elections, from Brooks to Wembley and towns and cities in between, are important for those places but also for the entire province.

I moved to Edmonton in March 2013, just before the election that swept Mayor Don Iveson to power and Alberta’s capital city onto the national stage as a stereotype-bucking, young, dynamic, growing place. The same feeling had taken hold in Calgary in 2010, with Mayor Naheed Nenshi’s Purple Wave. Old Canada, which to me means east of Winnipeg, was suddenly interested in Alberta because of it all. I vividly remember working at The Globe and Mail in Toronto in 2011 and watching an entire floor of usually cynical journalists rush to get close to the visiting Nenshi as he strolled through the newsroom. Nenshi had an almost punk, establishment-breaking quality about him. Alberta, through Nenshi and later Iveson, did, too.

So much has changed in a decade. In 2021, both Iveson and Nenshi have wisely chosen not to run for re-election. Both are less popular than they were a few short years ago. This isn’t surprising for multi-term mayors heading for greener pastures; still, it’s been startling to watch. In Calgary, there’s talk from many of having tired of Nenshi, even from some who previously supported or still admire him. As Calgary mayoral candidate Jyoti Gondek’s campaign staffer, Stephen Carter, told Jason Markusoff in Maclean’s in 2020, “When you kind of know Nenshi, his charm is pretty spectacular. When you really know Nenshi, his arrogance overcomes his charm.”

I found similar, if much less pointed, sentiments of fatigue with Iveson when I wrote a profile of him recently. What struck me most writing that story is that few wanted to talk, on the record, about Iveson’s legacy for Edmonton — I had more than 10 ‘no comments’ when the tape was rolling. Those who did speak talked of Iveson’s undeniable legacy of changing Edmonton’s systems and vision, but also of a growing disconnect between him and many corners of Edmonton. As you can’t help but notice, and as I wrote about, those who dislike Edmonton’s current mayor usually don’t know how to spell his surname — that’s how disconnected they are from him.

The pandemic, the impossibility that Nenshi and Iveson were ever going to deliver on all the outsized promise that both represented early in their rise to power, and the ongoing fall of Alberta’s oil and gas-focussed economy has injured both outgoing mayors. But it’s what this injury has done to the larger truth that the two symbolized — that in Alberta’s biggest cities, and even in its midsize ones, there’s a progressive, not-so-conservative streak that’s growing and becoming more sophisticated — that I think our election will be most interesting to gauge. By answering it, the election will partially answer the ‘Alberta’ questions I raised earlier — what are we about and where are we going?

That’s why these municipal elections are a provincial election, folks.

Two (Not So Popular) Ideas of Calgary

Let’s turn to Calgary. As is usual in all Alberta politics, there are two rough offerings for voters on October 18. These are candidates that look into the past or present for their moorings versus candidates who imagine changing things for the future. In Calgary, it’s possible to view the two front-runners for mayor using this lens, if imperfectly.

One of them, Jeromy Farkas, has promised to bring spending and taxes down, to “defend” Calgary’s police (which means maintaining or growing their funding) and to “protect” single-family housing neighbourhoods. All of this is a response to the language and policies of Nenshi’s time as mayor.

Gondek, the other leading candidate, has pledged to push for a fairer deal with the province when it comes to Calgary’s revenues, and talks in her platform of the need for inclusive policies, action on climate change, housing and downtown vibrancy, as well as continuing to build better transit options. While Gondek’s platform is not a Nenshi platform, it’s the closest realistic option Calgarians have to continue along Nenshi’s path of city-focused thinking and change after October 18. This is, itself, not something that is hugely popular.

Indeed, what’s notable is that neither Farkas or Gondek has captured the imagination of Calgary in 2021 in the way Nenshi did in his first election. A significant number of voters in the city have suggested to pollsters that they’re actually undecided on their vote. Farkas has appealed to those frustrated with Nenshi’s time as mayor to vote strategically for him, rather than for Davison or Field, as a way to prevent Gondek from winning. He paints Gondek in his open letter as “hard-left.”

Meanwhile, mayoral candidates Jan Damery, Zane Novak and Virginia Stone have pushed voters to not vote strategically.

“Someone says ‘can you get in instead of so and so, and so and so is the lesser of two evils,’” Novak said, as reported by LiveWire Calgary. “My reply is, ‘you’re still voting for evil.’”

Calgary in 2010 it is not.

The Rise of Partisanship

Next, a thought on partisanship. What’s become clear in the election races in both Edmonton and Calgary is that those interested in provincial politics are increasingly interested in municipal elections in both cities — and increasingly willing to meddle in them.

This is hardly an earth-shattering observation. This has been clear since at least the 2017 campaign, when in Calgary Nenshi faced off a well-connected challenger in Bill Smith and in Edmonton there were unsubstantiated rumblings of provincial party involvement for some candidates. I was approached by people back in 2017 who suggested it was happening, but never got underneath it.

What’s different this time around, though, is that varying ideas on either the right and left are battling it out in municipal elections, and largely in the open. There’s an element of disintegration on both sides. In Calgary, there are increasingly diverse ideas about what it means to be conservative in 2021 (see Farkas, Field and Davison, among others), as well as a sizeable progressive streak; in Edmonton, the idea of what ‘progressive’ means in a city where all but one provincial MLA is from the New Democratic Party has started to play out, dragging those who were once on the same team into hard-to-watch personality attacks. Rage co-editor Danielle Paradis offered a nuanced look at some of this battle here.

What both right and left clearly understand is that more than 50 per cent of Alberta simply lives in Calgary and Edmonton. The grassroots once were a rural thing in Alberta. The partisan interest in municipal politics shows that the balance of power is shifting, even if the narratives and mythologies about what this place is all about are not.

The grassroots are growing urban. That’s another reason tomorrow’s municipal elections have a provincial dimension to them.

The Referendum Effect

This newsletter was inspired to form and think of the 2021 municipal elections in Alberta as a provincial vote by the actual provincial vote that’s been tacked on in the form of two referendum questions.

Recall that many municipal leaders were concerned about this. Barry Morishita, the former Alberta Urban Municipalities Association president, commented that the referendum would “drown out” local issues during the municipal races. Several municipal leaders I spoke with for this newsletter since February have expressed similar worries.

But Jack Lucas, a political scientist at the University of Calgary with expertise in municipal politics in Alberta, has written a column for CBC that argues this hasn’t happened. “Municipal candidates in Calgary, knocking on thousands of doors across the city, have told me almost no one mentions equalization (or the other questions, for that matter),” Lucas writes. “Perhaps, in the election's closing days, we'll see a surge of attention to equalization. But it's unlikely.”

What has become clear is that a majority of respondents to researchers in a recent study suggest they will vote yes. The same research has also suggested that these voters don’t truly understand equalization or what they are in fact voting yes for.

A new video of Alberta Premier Jason Kenney reveals the question as asked (in this writer’s opinion) is rather meaningless or at least misleading. As Kenney says:

The referendum on equalization is a chance for Albertans to say yes to our request for a fair deal in Canadian federation. Voting yes on this will not end equalization because it is a principle embedded in the Constitution … and it can only be amended out of the Constitution with the consent of, I believe, seven provinces, representing 50 per cent of the population, plus both houses of the federal parliament, and that’s just not going to happen. Our expectation is not that there will be a constitutional amendment or the end of equalization, but we’re using this to get leverage, to basically take a page out of Quebec’s playbook.

Vote yes for leverage, then, or no to deny leverage. Clear? Nope. It’s muddled and open to interpretation. You couldn’t use this referendum question to determine what sort of sandwich Albertans prefer, let alone if we should pursue renegotiating our place in the federation.

But regardless of the result, there will be efforts to use the result to pursue provincial-government goals. Unless, of course, the referendum makes good on some who’ve suggested it will turn into a referendum on Premier Kenney. And what of the scenario where Calgarians vote yes but Edmonton’s vote no, as raised on the most recent West of Centre podcast? How do we interpret that result?

As I say, this is a municipal vote but also a provincial one.

Nenshi Does a Nenshi

Politics, let’s be honest, are petty. So let’s look at pettiness. Nenshi in Calgary has for years won attention and praise from afar, as well as votes in a city that’s ostensibly a conservative fortress in Canada. Unsurprisingly, the most conservative elements of Alberta dislike Nenshi, a lot, if only for the confidence that his popularity affords him to speak back to them when they purport to speak for all of Alberta.

So when Nenshi did a Nenshi by posting a targeted goodbye message to the provincial government on Twitter Sunday, it upset those eager to see him go. A lot.

Nenshi’s goodbye note highlights the change coming to Calgary — a new mayor and nine new councillors — is the largest change in recent memory. “It is critical that we choose those who can meet this moment in history, those who can take us into the positive future we want and we need,” he writes.

He adds, in a shot at Farkas, that “anyone who is promising a four-year tax freeze needs to explain how they will do it — particularly if they want to invest in the largest department: the police.”

And Nenshi adds in a shot at Kenney: “But when you vote, I hope you do so with optimism and with joy. With hope for a better future. Because it will be amazing. (Oh, and do vote against Jason Kenney’s ridiculous referendums, on principle if nothing else).”

As I have suggested, tomorrow’s election may be municipal but it has provincial ramifications. In Edmonton and Calgary, Alberta has had two cities that have pushed the provincial conversation in different directions than its provincial leaders have, especially since 2019. In these cities live more than half of Alberta. More than eight in 10 Albertans live in urbanized areas. Tomorrow they will vote for their next councils.

As political strategist Zain Velji tweeted in his endorsement for Gondek in Calgary and Amarjeet Sohi in Edmonton, Alberta has a chance to “dispel lazy myths” and continue on a path of progress tomorrow.

You’d better believe this is a provincial election, then.