OPINION | Why Alberta's cities should prepare for a fight in 2021

“In a way, what we’re seeing play out is almost punishment for success. The economy is working in the wrong place for Alberta: The city.”

Alberta conservatives have Calgary and Edmonton in their crosshairs for the next municipal elections

From left, Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi. (Nathan Gross/CBC, Emilie Vast/CBC, Mike Symington/CBC)

This column is an opinion from Tim Querengesser, a writer based in Edmonton.


In November, Kerry Diotte, the Conservative member of Parliament for Edmonton-Griesbach and a former Edmonton city councillor, sat on a three-person panel in Red Deer tasked with offering fellow conservatives strategies to win municipal elections in 2021.

"We should get in front of this," Diotte said. "City councils and school boards are a breeding ground for socialists who will later cause us a lot of trouble." 

The Red Deer panel was organized by the Calgary-based Manning Centre. Since 2013, the group has spent money to help conservatives win municipal elections while it has shouted about big city "waste."

Put these two points together, and add in the anxious talk about party politics that spilled out of a meeting between Alberta mayors and the UCP in Edmonton this month, and you can make an unsettling prediction: Alberta conservatives have Calgary and Edmonton councils in their crosshairs for 2021.

This is not good.

Parties are not part of our city elections right now. Talk of parties and municipal councils usually creates debate on the merits or drawbacks. Pro: Voters will know what a candidate supports. Con: Parties stifle independent action.

But let's not waste time with this.

Cuts, heavy-handedness and weakening institutions are not a vision for our two big cities, says Querengesser. (CBC)

Instead, if the governing UCP or those within its closest orbit descend on the councils of our two big cities in 2021, we have a bigger problem: The economy. 

Edmonton and Calgary are home to more than half of Alberta's people and GDP. They are two of the fastest growing large cities in Canada and are central to the province's economic and cultural futures.

This puts the contempt many subscribers to the UCP's style of conservatism have for these cities in context. Here, please recall the easily found snark on social media about "over-caffeinated" "urban elites," who are not the "real," "hard-working" people. 

This camp does not have a viable vision for Edmonton and Calgary. Cuts, heavy-handedness and weakening institutions are not vision.

Querengesser says Alberta's collective future is brighter only if its two big cities thrive. (CBC)

Our two big cities, and the province as a whole, need better than austerity. Alberta's collective future is brighter only if its two big cities thrive. That's why Edmonton and Calgary need to fight back in 2021. 

Anti-big-city rhetoric is flowing

So, what's actually happening?

Flanking Diotte on the Manning Centre panel, which was called "Local Councils in 2021," were Mike Nickel and Jeromy Farkas. Months after being re-elected to Edmonton council, Nickel ran for a provincial UCP nomination and lost. Farkas, meanwhile, is a conservative councillor in Calgary. 

Both offered their views on how conservatives can win municipal elections. 

But beyond their strategizing, telling rhetoric is already flowing from the top.

Right out of the gate, the UCP government established a pattern of singling out Edmonton and Calgary. Some greatest hits include Municipal Affairs Minister Kaycee Madu taking to Postmedia papers in October to chide the two cities on the "unsustainable growth" in their budgets, before cutting their city charters. Another came days later, when Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer kneecapped Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi with the epithet that he's "Trudeau's mayor." 

Alberta Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer lashed out at Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi last year, writing on Twitter, 'Trudeau's mayor is out to lunch.' (CBC)

Meddlers are meddling, too. This is nothing new in Calgary but surely is in Edmonton.

Some city watchers, me included, were taken aback in November when an Edmonton city councillor introduced a motion to explore bus rapid-transit at the eleventh hour of deliberations on an LRT expansion.

The LRT project will see the province provide Edmonton with $1.04 billion in capital. The councillor's motion failed in a 10-3 vote. Had it passed, the whole LRT expansion could have tanked, potentially leaving the provincial money unspent.

The cynic in me thinks those who pushed the councillor to introduce the motion wanted this exact scenario. The support letter he tabled showed several were conservative donors or fundraisers. 

What comes next is anyone's guess — though most share that guess. Indeed, Edmonton mayor Don Iveson spoke last week of his worries about the province meddling in the next election within earshot of reporters. 

Fellow councillor Andrew Knack took to Twitter and put it even more plainly. "There is no need for any part of partisan politics to enter municipal government," he wrote.

They can all see the signs. 

In April, Edmonton will host its first edition of the conservative "Take Back City Hallcampaign, which was first spawned in Calgary. And multiple sources tell me they've heard about a potential provincial bill, which they expect this spring, that could reopen pathways for big money to flow into campaigns at the municipal level. This bill, they say, could add to the power of political action committees, or PACs.

A man wearing glasses and a suit stands in front of Alberta and Canada flags.
When Municipal Affairs Minister Kaycee Madu announced changes are planned for the Local Authorities Elections Act, many expressed concern about partisan politics entering municipal elections. (Peter Evans/CBC)

Speaking vaguely to this, Madu said last week that the province is considering changes to the Local Authorities Elections Act, which regulates things like campaign finance rules, but added, "Our government has no intention to introduce partisan politics into municipal elections."

Despite the minister's assurances, I've spoken to many who expect conservatives to organize campaigns in both cities, likely in the form of slates (an idea that's rare but is used in Vancouver and Montreal).

The kicker? Edmonton's Iveson and Calgary's Nenshi are less than certain to seek re-election in 2021. 

Expect fireworks. 

Putting on the handcuffs 

Why would Alberta's current brand of conservatives want to influence big-city governments? 

I think it's about handcuffs. 

After scrapping their city charters and knocking Edmonton's and Calgary's real power back, the UCP government has now proposed it will force all municipalities to seek provincial approval before entering into agreements with the federal government. 

Both cities have to seek federal contributions to build desperately needed infrastructure and are doing so right now. A proposal that they must first obtain permission to make such deals with Ottawa, mixed with the city charter cuts, is not an idea. It's a set of handcuffs. 

You handcuff what you want to control or feel threatened by.

Edmonton and Calgary flaunt progressivism. They show that the conservative dominance of the provincial zeitgeist hangs at best by a thread. Edmonton has declared a climate emergency and banned conversion therapy. Calgary has built bike lanes and, well, there's that guy named Nenshi.

And the two mayors are popular. Iveson and his moderate progressive ways won more than 140,000 votes in 2017. Nenshi, who faced down a relatively organized conservative candidate in the form of Bill Smith, nonetheless garnered more than 112,000 votes that year. 

For those counting, the two big-city mayors won roughly 25 per cent as many votes in 2017 as the UCP did in the provincial election in 2019. 

As I say, handcuffs. 

Climate change protesters packed the Alberta Legislature grounds in Edmonton last September. Edmonton and Calgary flaunt progressivism, showing that the conservative dominance of the provincial zeitgeist hangs at best by a thread, says Tim Querengesser. (Terry Reith/CBC)

Economic damage

Why should we care?

Indeed, some will say that Calgary, and most especially Edmonton, need to feel the pain that less urban areas welded to the energy industry have felt for years.

We should care if we care about fairness.

"The real fiscal imbalance in this country is not between provinces and regions, it's between cities and everyone else," said Nenshi recently.

"Taxpayers in the cities pay the freight. As recently as 2015, Calgarians sent several billions of dollars a year more to the provincial government than we received back in provincial government benefits and services."

We should also care because of the provincial economic damage all of this comeuppance will create. 

The energy sector is not creating enough jobs to justify its pre-eminence in our province's concern. While — to pick but one example from our big cities — tech is.

In Edmonton, the tech sector has added nearly 6,000 jobs since 2014 and grew by 26 per cent. The city's internationally known artificial intelligence cluster has helped see the city rank seventh in Canada for the number of tech graduates it produces yearly. 

If things stay as they are today, will Alberta really be where those graduates work?

The UCP government has already given the tech sector its standard fare of cuts and indifference. Though the government has found time and money to send people on junkets to the United Kingdom to lobby for the energy industry, it didn't send a provincial representative — as every other province did — to a large tech conference in Las Vegas recently.

An Edmonton tech CEO was in Vegas and says he was approached by a Quebec representative to ask about his future plans.

"I think they can see when we don't have support or if we're kind of by ourselves," he told Global News

In a way, what we're seeing play out is almost punishment for success. The economy is working in the wrong place for Alberta: The city. 

Cities need a hand up

In modern Canada, the big city offers options when legacy industries stumble. This is a large reason why more than 80 per cent of Canadians (and indeed, Albertans) now live in an urban setting. 

My own hometown, Kitchener-Waterloo in Ontario, has gone through this cycle.

My family's livelihood was once tied to the auto-manufacturing sector. The industry shrunk. Jobs disappeared. And in its place, Kitchener-Waterloo has built a diversified economy, by adding tech.

People work at open work stations at Communitech, a tech startup hub in Kitchener, Ont. A report last year said the Waterloo region saw its tech talent pool grow by 39.7 per cent in a five-year period. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

Manufacturing remains — Toyota builds SUVs in the region — but the economy also has Google, Shopify and many other tech names you've never heard of but that are nonetheless hiring thousands of workers. 

Still, it might seem logical to cut provincial investment in transit, affordable housing or city-charter transfers to Edmonton and Calgary. Saving a billion on LRT means less taxes, right? 

Unfortunately, it doesn't work. The fastest way to build a high-cost, high-tax, deficit-scarred city is to under-invest and let it just grow through sprawl.

Cities are by definition places of collaboration and negotiation. And our biggest cities in Canada are where our economies thrive today.

Edmonton and Calgary, our big cities in Alberta, thrive if they can collaborate with the province rather than see it knock their power back, handcuff them and seek to meddle in their growth. 

They need a hand up, not handcuffs.

For the good of the entire province, our current brand of austerity conservatism should keep out of big-city politics.

I don't think it will. Which is why Calgary and Edmonton need to prepare to fight back in 2021.

This column is an opinion. For more information about our commentary section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Tim Querengesser is a writer in Edmonton. His writing on cities has appeared in publications such as CityLab, Canadian Geographic, Spacing and the Globe and Mail.