Originally published Dec. 21

Calgary at a Crossroads

I'd like to introduce you to Henry. It's likely you've met dozens of Henrys over the past seven months. You might be like Henry yourself.

Henry is 57 and works in upper management at an oil and gas company in downtown Calgary. Almost nobody he knows voted for Alberta's NDP government. Those who did, he's sure, did it to punish the PCs, not reward the NDP.

Henry is confident he knows and represents the real Calgary. That he has his finger on the pulse of the city. He sees Calgary's NDP majority as a blip — an overreaction from a city fed up with the PCs. One that everybody is surely regretting today.

Henry is convinced that the counter-revolution is just around the corner and that Calgary will reclaim its lost status as the conservative heartland of Canada.

But the young valet who waved him into the parkade, the underemployed barista he bought his $7 coffee from, the new Albertan who will be his bank teller today and the new Canadian who will clean his office tonight might beg to differ.

No buyers remorse

St. Patrick's Island

Electing an NDP government was certainly a dramatic expression of how much our city has changed, but in truth there's very little to suggest it was a careless or temporary act on the part of Calgarians.

The NDP are — today — the most popular provincial political party in the city, and their vote has proven surprisingly durable. A recent poll showed NDP support down sharply provincewide, but at 30 per cent in Calgary — down only four points from the 34 per cent the NDP got in the May election.

Put another way: after raising income taxes, after starting a royalty review, after promising the introduction of a carbon tax, after public backlash against Bill 6 and after Premier Notley's honeymoon was supposed to be well over, nine out of 10 Calgarians who voted NDP in May would vote NDP again.

Why doesn't Henry know this? Why would he find this so hard to believe?

A false 'consensus' 


It's not that our friend Henry doesn't realize the world was full of valets and baristas and bank tellers and cleaners, but he believes their numbers were fewer and their opinions more similar to his own.

Henry, like all of us, was susceptible to what psychologists call the "false-consensus effect."

It's human nature to overestimate how normal you are. You'll inevitably come to the conclusion that the amount of money you make, the habits you have, the beliefs you carry and even your age and ethnicity, are more common than they really are.

Henry also travels in fairly small circles. He drives to his high-income job from his high-income suburb where he talks to his high-income colleagues — all of whom share the same oil-and-gas background.

When a group of similar people are overestimating how normal they are together — when it seems like there are no dissenting voices — a minority can very easily trick itself into believing it is the majority.

A younger, more diverse, more educated city

Shima Safwat

Henry has tricked himself into believing he is representative of Calgarians, but the truth is Calgary has become cosmopolitan and complex. Henry's downtown bubble is wildly removed from today's Calgary.

The average Calgarian is only 36. Alberta is the only province in the country where baby boomers are outnumbered by their children.

We are a more diverse city. Twenty-five years ago, less than 14 per cent of Calgarians were a visible minority. Today, more than a third of Calgarians fit in that category.

We are a more educated city. In that same 25-year period, the per cent of Calgarians with a bachelor's degree doubled.

We are more progressive than we've ever been.

The right-wing myths of small government and conservatism fuelling our success have died hard. Many of us never learned them in the first place.

We are more attuned to issues such as poverty and income inequality. The cost of child care for our young families is more relevant and financially impactful than the tax rate for income above $125,000. Our young families make us worry deeply about the environment and sustainability issues.

The NDP might not be speaking Henry's language, but they are speaking a language that has become mother tongue to a growing number of Calgarians.

Nenshi, Ceci, Hehr ​
Notley and Nenshi

The change shows across party lines, across all levels of government, and includes many of the highest profile Calgary politicians.

Municipally, there is no stronger presence or personality than our mayor Naheed Nenshi. Provincially, Calgary is home to powerful cabinet ministers like Finance Minister Joe Ceci. Even federally — the last level of government where the majority of representation is conservative — the Liberals made a minor breakthrough, winning seats in Calgary for the first time in the modern history of our city.

A diverse city has begun to elect progressives at all levels of government.                                              

It's hard to wave it away. Henry might not like it. Henry might not even believe it. But that doesn't change the facts: Calgary has changed.

CBC Calgary's special focus on life in our city during the downturn. A look at Calgary's culture, identity and what it means to be Calgarian. Read more stories from the series at Calgary at a Crossroads.