Calgary's new mayor-elect, Jyoti Gondek, in her own words
CBC Calgary is profiling five leading mayoral candidates in advance of Oct. 18
UPDATE: This story was initially published before the election and was republished on election night, Oct. 18, after the CBC News decision desk projected Jyoti Gondek was elected as the next mayor of Calgary. Official results were to be published by noon on Oct. 22. You can also see the full Calgary municipal election results here.
Calgary will soon see a new face in the mayor's chair.
Candidate Jyoti Gondek spoke with CBC's Sarah Rieger about her story, her vision for Calgary and why she feels she is the right person to lead this city into its next chapter.
Here's what she had to say.
(Editor's note: Her comments have been edited for length and clarity.)
On coming to Calgary
(Ed.: Gondek was born in the United Kingdom to parents who immigrated from Punjab, India.)
It was the early 1970s in the United Kingdom, and my parents were thinking about if they should find a different life for our family.
They thought Canada was going to be a more welcoming environment.
They looked at a map and said, "you know what looks central? Winnipeg." So off we went. (Gondek was four-years-old.)
My dad was with the land titles office, so we lived in Neepawa, in Portage la Prairie, in Brandon. When I graduated high school, I thought "I need to be more cosmopolitan." I applied to the University of British Columbia and made the move to Vancouver.
I came back to Manitoba to finish up my master's degree and landed a job with the Manitoba government as a policy analyst with women's shelters.
[My husband Todd and I] had mutual friends. We had gone to several socials together in Manitoba — you have a big event, everyone gets together. We started dating in 1990 and got married in '96.
[Then] my husband got offered a job in Alberta.
We lived in Wainwright for a year. I managed to get a job with Credit Union Central of Alberta in Calgary in 1997. And that's when everything opened up … we've been here ever since.
When we first moved to Calgary, my cousin had an apartment he rented to us on 19th Avenue and Fourth Street S.W. We had a great time living there with our futon, our Blockbuster card, and going to places like Melrose and Mercury.
[But we] very quickly realized we did not quite have the cash we needed to buy a home in that area.
We [bought our first home] in Coventry Hills, which is a beautiful community. We lived there for seven years until we merged our households with my mom … [moving] next door to Panorama Hills.
My kiddo has always called this house home. It's very different than my childhood where I lived in so many different places.
(Ed.: The Gondek family shares the home with their dog, too: Smokey.)
The path to politics
I started off thinking I was going to be a journalist, and then … kind of accidentally got into sociology.
I was looking at the concept of corporate social responsibility in my master's degree. I did research with a local oil and gas company and they were practising a lot of responsible behaviours. That led me to start my consulting company, to help other companies be socially responsible.
By the time I went back to do my PhD … it was more about understanding how did other cities get this right? How did they future-proof themselves?
(Ed.: Gondek studied urban-rural struggles in regions like Rocky View County.)
I became exposed to many different ideologies of residents, businesses and elected officials in … it's incredibly fortuitous that's what I studied because now that's the reality of having to make decisions at a council level.
My parents were both very good at explaining to me that you have to give back.
I’m not crying, you’re crying.♥️<a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/JYOTi4mayor?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#JYOTi4mayor</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/yyccc?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#yyccc</a> <a href="https://t.co/bTHV9bCUI1">pic.twitter.com/bTHV9bCUI1</a>—@JyotiGondek
When [my dad] passed unexpectedly in 2003, I was looking through things he had left unfinished.
One [of his projects] was how to have Punjabi be a secondary language option in the public school system. I reached out to his friends and they explained to me what they were trying to accomplish.
I remember using my research skills to build the business cases … we were successful. It struck me that this is what he meant by being politically engaged, to make sure that [by] engaging with your government …you can make life better for people.
I'm sorry that he wasn't able to see it, but he really turned things around for me.
When I was running the Westman Centre for Real Estate Studies at the [University of Calgary's] Haskayne School of Business … I realized I had spent time volunteering on three election campaigns [as well as various other volunteer board roles.]
It started to occur to me that my love of city building had taken me down this journey of trying to influence from the outside.
It struck me that I should perhaps try to get a seat at the table and be a decision-maker instead.
(Ed.: In 2017, Gondek was elected as councillor for Ward 3, which extends from Deerfoot Trail west to Hidden Valley and is adjacent to Stoney Trail.)
On the issues: property taxes
In 2019, I was able to create a major shift on council to have more interest from my colleagues on how we set mill rates for property taxes.
The property taxes we collect are intended to pay for our operating budget. We do not collect a surplus. So what we collect has to be correlated with what we're spending.
What we should be doing is looking at the estimated property tax we will collect based on the market value assessment of our properties — that's what the Municipal Government Act allows us to do.
There's only one certain and predictable revenue stream: property taxes.
It's pretty limited in how we operate … so what we really need to do is open up the idea of having a better system of revenue.
There is a fair amount of talk from our provincial government that we need a fair deal with our federal government.
Municipalities in Alberta have pointed out that it's incredibly significant that we have a fair deal with our provincial government — when our provincial government offloads responsibilities and costs onto municipalities like Calgary.
When you look at affordable housing, in particular, subsidized housing, the situation we've been in as a city is we've had to pick up maintenance costs because they weren't built into provincial budgets. You can't just create the structure. You have to have a maintenance component in the annual operating budget.
I've also brought up the concept of child care at a municipal level.
Sometimes people tell me to stay in my lane, but I can tell you this: there really are no lanes anymore. Everything is uncertain and everything is wide open. And I'm not prepared to leave money on the table with the federal government [on child care] just because we can't get a provincial deal.
On the issues: revitalizing downtown
[Downtown] is not our sole focus area. We are here to serve Calgarians no matter where they live. But the thing about downtown properties is they carry a very high value.
When we have stronger downtown property values, it generates a great deal of revenue and it allows us to keep people's taxes stable.
If we were able to keep just a little bit of the percentage that we send up to the province from our property taxes, we would be in very good shape.
Secondly, the thing that would benefit us is to have a tax base in the industrial sector. We are a place with an incredible logistics system … [that] doesn't increase the burden on taxpayers. In fact, it spreads it out amongst more.
On the issues: the Green Line
Strong cities have strong public transit networks. It allows people equal access to services and amenities.
In Calgary, we do not have a north-south rapid transit line — I'm disappointed that we're not going to get the full line to the north in this first stage.
I am proud to have fought for the money that was needed to create the functional plan that allows the north to evolve into bus rapid transit quickly, and then into light-rail transit as soon as more funding becomes available.
The project is strong, it's backed by business as well.
I drive my vehicle when I need to. I walk as much as I can. I take the bus whenever I'm able to. I've been scooting around downtown.
What's particularly significant to me is that not all of those options are available to my mom or my kiddo. And they both desire to have a level of independence.
I get to experience the city through these three different lenses of three different generations. And the biggest thing I'm committed to is a city that is accessible to everyone.
On the issues: the new arena
When the decision for the event centre came to council in 2019 … I felt confident we were entering into a fair negotiation.
The Calgary Municipal Land Corporation would be overseeing the development; they have delivered many incredible projects — the new Central Library being a great example of on time and on budget.
The redone deal we were presented this year was not what we negotiated. It was dropped in our lap at 1:30 p.m. in the middle of a four-day council meeting, which meant we didn't have time to really digest it … if we didn't have time, it certainly wasn't easily available for Calgarians to understand.
There was a particular appendix that troubled me. It talked about creating a strategy for event management and mobility. There was an additional $10 million embedded there, so that's $10 million the city took on that nobody really talked about.
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My greatest concern is that a project we felt would be an urban event centre with proper public transit availability is now going to turn into a project where we're building oversized roadways to accommodate vehicular traffic. That was not what we were supposed to do.
On the issues: the environment
Cities that have declared a climate crisis are in a very good position in terms of being able to access funding streams intended to create a more sustainable city. I don't want us to miss those opportunities.
I remember the counsel for the U.K. at the time, Caroline Saunders, said to me the opportunities are big on a global stage for any city interested in demonstrating it wants to be greener, and we can connect you with those global leaders, but you have to make a commitment.
One of the biggest things the pandemic has shown us is the value of having amenities close to where we live. We also realize some of our sidewalks and pathways are not really designed for us to get from point A to point B.
The pandemic has shown us we have lots of opportunities to retrofit.
(Ed.: In 2018, Gondek was among the councillors who approved business cases for 14 new communities on the city's outskirts. In 2020, she voted against adding more — and asked that funding be reviewed for those communities that haven't yet started development. Here's how she says she reconciles those decisions.)
Development in the city needs to be driven by what makes the most sense from the lens of resilience.
From the economic perspective, I think the biggest mistake we've been making is making every decision on development political. What we should be doing is saying, 'the operating costs of the new community are this much? Therefore, the new community needs to be able to deliver that same amount in property tax dollars.'
That decision should be rooted in the facts of whether something can sustain itself.
We have never created a capital funding stream to give infrastructure improvements to established communities. So if you don't have the capital that rewards communities for taking on increased density, that's not ever going to happen in a meaningful way.
Calgary's path forward
I think it's really important for Calgary to make sure it has its own identity.
Oil and gas was what really set the reputation for the province, and, by default, it's set the reputation for every municipality as well.
Energy is something we will need into the future. It's just a fact of life. But energy production is something that can transition over time, and I think we've become incredibly fixated on the outcome instead of the process.
Let's talk about Calgary being the centre of excellence for the transition economy.
If you have ideas, if you have experience in the tech sector and you think you want to do something big and bold, our city is the place you need to locate.
You can't talk about just the economy or just the social side of a city's future. They are interconnected.
How will we make sure people have strong supports to get out of positions of vulnerability? That's what we need to be focused on. It's got to be socioeconomic. You cannot sacrifice one for the other.
(Ed.: What's something about yourself that you know you have to work on?)
When I started school and my kid started kindergarten in 2009, it hit me like a ton of bricks that I needed a support network.
That super mom image we put upon ourselves is not something that can be sustained.
Asking for support and help when needed is something I've learned.
That realization has made me a much better team member and team builder because I can now see when someone is struggling … if we band together, we can get this done in a much more efficient manner.
I'm particularly interested in working with the executive committee of council. That's something new, and I think it's going to be incredibly powerful to see the office of the mayor work with a dedicated group of councillors to deliver some of our big ideas. The ability for us to create a team is going to be an amazing opportunity.
On working with a new group of councillors
The most important thing to remember is that we should never dehumanize each other. It's easy to do in the theatre that is politics.
I've made it my business to really understand who my colleagues are, what drove them to serve … and what role do I play in their success?
That's what I really want to know as mayor. What can I do to help you accomplish the things that you need for your community?
When you build those relationships, you understand the skill sets that people bring.
[Also] I think if you're building a team where your expectation is everyone pulls the weight, you need to be prepared to reward them as well with the recognition they've earned.
What's one of your favourite made-in-Calgary meals or foods?
I love going to the Palomino and getting completely messy with barbeque as it's one of my favourite things, just a whole lot of meat. Maybe a couple of veggies on the side; not needed if not available.
Name a Calgary musician, artist, writer or filmmaker you're proud to share this city with.
I have a friend Noel who used to tell me about her sister, a documentarian and filmmaker named Cheryl Foggo who has done the story of John Ware. [She's] just a great example of the strength Calgary has in its creative sector.
(Ed.: The documentary tells the story of the Black cowboy who settled in Alberta before the turn of the 20th century.)
What's a personal achievement you're proud of?
Toilet training my kid, honestly. Parents, if you're out there, it's not fun. Teaching my kid how to read, that was pretty big as well.
Ginger Beef. Stampede mini donuts. A Caesar. You can only pick one:
You've got a week's vacation to spend in Canada, with an unlimited budget, but you can't stay here. Where are you headed?
If it's summer, probably go back to visit my friends in Winnipeg. If it's winter, bizarrely, I would go back to Quebec City. It's freezing but amazing.
As told to CBC's Sarah Rieger.