Why 'conservative' Calgary keeps electing progressive mayors

On some issues, Calgarians have distinctively conservative tendencies. And there’s a deep connection between Calgary and the federal Conservative Party. But in municipal politics, Calgarians tend to hold clearly progressive policy attitudes.

Toronto elects Rob and John, while Calgary elects Naheed and Jyoti: What gives?

Calgary's mayor-elect Jyoti Gondek, left, and outgoing Mayor Naheed Nenshi met on Tuesday. (Mike Symington/CBC)

Every four years, on the day after Calgary's municipal election, political junkies across Canada suffer a collective outbreak of cognitive dissonance.

How can it be, they ask, that "conservative Calgary" has elected such a distinctly un-conservative council?

Why is it, they wonder, that Toronto's mayors are named "Rob" and "John" and Calgary's are named "Naheed" and "Jyoti"?

Just what exactly is going on out there? 

Let's be honest: Calgary has a reputation as a conservative place. When we don't live up to it — for instance, when a member of the UCP cabinet tells Calgarians on election day to "vote right" and Calgarians respond with a friendly, "No, thanks!" — Canadians elsewhere are flummoxed. 

So let's tackle this reputation. Is Calgary really all that conservative? 

The answer is yes — sort of.

It depends a lot on the issue, and the level of government. On some issues, like energy policy, Calgarians have distinctively conservative tendencies. And there's a deep connection between Calgary and the federal Conservative Party. This makes us seem — and think of ourselves as — conservative. 

But, and this is the important part vis-a-vis the cognitive dissonance we provoke, Calgarians tend to hold clearly progressive policy attitudes in municipal politics.

In short: We're "policy progressives" but "symbolic conservatives." 

Let me explain what that means and why it matters for our municipal elections.

Ideology, cooked two ways

I know, dear reader, that your appetite for social science jargon is limited. But here's just a morsel of jargon that I think is actually quite useful: the distinction between policy ideology and symbolic ideology

Policy ideology is the name we give to our left-wing or right-wing policy preferences. These are the left-right patterns in our actual policy views. 

Symbolic ideology is about how we think of ourselves — where we feel we belong on the left-right spectrum.

Usually, policy ideology and symbolic ideology are closely related. But the way we think of ourselves can sometimes be different from our actual policy views.

And as we'll see, this can even be true of a whole city.

Conservative Calgary?

The best way to understand how conservative Calgarians really are is to compare ourselves with other Canadians using the biggest survey data set available: the 2019 Canadian Election Study, a massive survey of more than 38,000 Canadians, including more than 1,500 in Calgary. 

The 2019 Canadian Election Study survey is a treasure trove for politics nerds. It contains questions that allow us to dig into both policy and symbolic ideology. We can compare Calgarians with other Canadians with similar personal characteristics (things like age, gender and education) and who live in similarly urban environments. 

The result: sure, we're conservative. On both policy and symbolic ideology, we're about five points more conservative, on a 100-point scale, than otherwise similar Canadians.

On my measure, Calgary is the 82nd-most-conservative of Canada's 250 largest municipalities — far from the most conservative of the bunch, but distinctively right-leaning among Canada's big cities.

But here's the catch: policy ideology is about underlying left-right attitudes across lots of policy issues. And for Calgarians, it turns out that nearly all of our "conservatism" comes from conservative preferences in one area: energy policy. 

Calgarians tend to have especially conservative positions on issues like pipeline construction and carbon taxes. Hardly surprising.

On many other issues, from medically assisted dying to foreign trade, our views are indistinguishable from demographically similar Canadians outside of Calgary. That is, we look like broadly progressive urban Canadians. 

And when it comes to municipal issues, we tend to look even more consistently progressive.

Big-city issues

In the Canadian Municipal Election Study, which we completed in July and August of this year, we asked a random sample of 2,200 Calgarians how they would have voted on a number of municipal issues had they been on city council in the past term.

On average, we found Calgarians would have voted to reintroduce fluoride (68 per cent), reduce residential speed limits (54 per cent), refuse municipal funding for the NHL arena (59 per cent), approve the Green Line LRT (74 per cent), endorse the Guidebook for Great Communities (59 per cent) and reallocate $20 million in police funding to mental health and addictions programs (63 per cent). 

These positions are hardly conservative.

Canada's big-city residents tend to incline toward the progressive end of the ideological spectrum, and when it comes to municipal policy issues, the average Calgarians holds views that are largely in keeping with what we'd expect to find in any big Canadian city. 

This affects our municipal elections. 

Identities and policies

Years ago, a political scientist made the argument that many American citizens are "symbolic conservatives" but "policy liberals" — they think of themselves as conservatives but hold liberal attitudes on many policy issues.

In Calgary municipal politics, I think we see something very similar.

Calgarians have a longstanding connection to the Conservative Party of Canada — a connection that traces its roots all the way back to John Diefenbaker. This history, combined with conservative policy views in a few important domains, means Calgarians tend to think of themselves as conservative, even as they enthusiastically defend progressive policy positions on municipal issues.

This has consequences for how municipal candidates run for office.

Left-leaning candidates have the advantage of defending municipal policy positions that often align with the average Calgarian's preference (though these can vary from ward to ward). But because Calgarians tend to self-identify as more conservative, left-leaning municipal candidates often avoid defining themselves as "left-wing," "liberal" or "progressive."

Right-leaning candidates face a different challenge: how to connect with the conservative identity that many Calgarians share without advocating specific policy positions that will alienate voters.

One sensible solution is to emphasize fiscal policy (taxes, spending) and economic growth. Another option is to try to shift the terms of the debate itself, reconceptualizing what is at stake in municipal politics not as left-versus-right but instead as a debate between ordinary Calgarians and corporate elites — a difficult but potentially powerful approach that political scientists call (jargon alert!) heresthetic. 

Jyoti Gondek's victory in Calgary on Monday was historic, and the attention to her victory across the country was well deserved.

But for those of us who live here, it was hardly a shock. The last time this city elected a candidate with clear ties to provincial or federal Conservative parties, the Allied invasion at Normandy was a recent memory. 

So, is Calgary conservative?

The only way to answer is with one more piece of highly technical scientific jargon: Kinda.

Polling details and methodology:

The poll was conducted by Forum Research on behalf of the Canadian Municipal Election Study with the results based on a telephone recruit-to-web survey of 2,209 randomly selected eligible voters in the city of Calgary. The poll was conducted between July 6 and Aug. 4, 2021.

For comparison purposes, the margin of error for a probability sample of the same size would be plus or minus 2.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20. Results at a ward-level and other subsamples have a larger margin. For more methodology information, see here. See here for more details on the data, methods and sources in this analysis.


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