Society

Mayor Jyoti Gondek is creating the Calgary of the future—starting downtown

“People think you walk down the street in Calgary and see J.R. Ewing. We’re also the third most diverse city in Canada.” 
Katie Underwood
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Black and white image of woman with smiling into the camera with her head resting on one hand
(Photography by Allison Seto)

Fires are burning all around Jyoti Gondek. There are the actual fires, blazing wildly across Alberta, but also transit violence, empty office towers—the same sticky issues facing most big-city mayors in Canada. See also: the shock-jock politics that railroaded Alberta’s last election.

Gondek, a former policy analyst turned city councillor, has become a standout progressive in a province that’s mostly gone UCP blue. She’s allergic to lofty ideological pronouncements, but you can discern her stance from her strategy: pushing mobile crisis-response teams to fight homelessness; courting young workers, a move that has drawn record venture-capital dollars to Calgary; and exploring green energy sources, placing her in the crosshairs of Alberta’s oil industry.

Calgary recently threw $200 million into a visionary downtown turnaround, converting vacant offices into housing—a plan that’s attracted “how’d she do that” inquiries from American mayors and supercharged a city once speculated to become the next Detroit. Gondek isn’t trying to burn down Cowtown’s establishment—even if her name is Punjabi for “little flame.” She’s trying to do her job.

I have to ask: how are you faring with the fires? Have you ever seen anything like this?

It’s haunting. It reminds us of what happened in Fort McMurray in 2016. Last week, we had a fire in a Calgary city park called McHugh Bluff. We’ve been in smoky situations before. We just haven’t seen it at this level, this close.

I imagine your job now involves some measure of emergency management.

I woke up the Saturday before the fires started, and thought, What if these things move in quickly from the north? We ended up opening an emergency centre that provided housing to 39 evacuees from Northern Alberta. We had to be good neighbours.

RELATED: What it was like to fight a colossal East Coast wildfire

You moved to Calgary in 1997, is that right?

Yes, my 25th anniversary was last year.

The city’s changed a lot, even in the last two years—partly because of your efforts. What was your impression of Calgary before you arrived?

I’d been coming to visit from Manitoba, where I grew up, since the ’80s. I also dated a guy in university who was from here, and Electric Avenue—the nightlife district—was big then. Everyone I met seemed gung-ho about the opportunities. When my husband, who’s a geological engineer, got offered a job with the military, we moved to Wainwright. I had my eye on Calgary.

What do most people get wrong about Calgary? We know the stereotypes: oil, gas, the Stampede. That’s pretty much it.

People of a certain age will remember the show Dallas. So: that. They think you walk down the street here and see J.R. Ewing. The Stampede is an institution, but there aren’t beer gardens everywhere, all year round. We’re also the third most diverse city in Canada. It’s fascinating to watch people who live in other cities—who have seen their own cities evolve over time—think that ours hasn’t.

Do Calgarians get that the city has the potential to be more than an oil-and-gas mecca? Have you received pushback on that idea?

Yes, I have. The day I was elected, I gave an interview about how important it is to focus on our energy-production methods, rather than our output. Some Calgary companies are working to find renewable alternatives. People took that soundbite to mean “she doesn’t want to focus on oil and gas anymore.” It was the furthest thing from what I actually said, but they were fine to believe the headline. So, yeah: there’s pushback. But we have a climate crisis to address.

A lot of Canadian mayors are trapped in an either-or binary when it comes to the issue of homelessness, with a social safety net on one side and infinite police officers on the other. Your sociology Ph.D. has clearly influenced your mandate: affordable housing and mental health supports. Now, Calgary’s looking like a progressive outlier in an otherwise very conservative province.

I don’t feel like any political party, provincial or federal, is completely aligned with my vision or values. I see solutions and grab the ones that help me at a particular moment in time.

So you’re a pragmatist, not some bleeding-heart socialist—no offence to them. You’re taking a compassionate approach to homelessness, for example, because it works.

Yes. Everyone should just lose their ideologies and focus on solving problems. If we did that, we’d all be better off.

It seems like there’s more leeway to just be a public servant in municipal politics. At the provincial level, you’re expected to be a personality. Is that what appeals to you about your job?

Yes. People often characterize municipal politicians as climbers—they think we’re cutting our teeth here but really aspire to higher orders. That’s a falsehood. I didn’t want to be a council member because I wanted to be somebody; I wanted to do something. Anyone who’s done this job will tell you it’s more difficult than being within a party system. You have much less support. There’s also no one telling you how to think, which I find liberating.

A lot of big cities are dealing with a slew of office buildings sitting vacant since the pandemic. While others are scratching their heads, within two years, you’re 30 per cent of the way to your goal of converting six million square feet for new uses. Mind-blowing!

You know the phrase “overnight success”? We’re not that. We started to think about what to do with our commercial downtown space in 2015, when the energy sector was going through a decline.

What’s the big idea here? How does it work?

The secret sauce, if you will, was creating a fund for the private sector to tap into. Companies submit an application indicating how they want to convert a building, then the administration evaluates it. So far, we’ve kicked in $86 million—money that’s paid out when projects are completed. Of the 10 we’ve approved, there’s one run by a group called Homespace that’s entirely affordable housing. It’s a real success story!

This downtown makeover is getting a lot of international attention. I heard you’ve been getting questioned by mayors from other cities, like San Francisco. Is that surreal?

Yes. When I go to conferences, everyone asks, “How did you do it?” I’m not the genius who came up with this, you know. It’s been a group effort. The downtown-revitalization team from Houston sat down with me early on in my term and said, “People want to see results now. Keep reminding them it’s a 10-year plan.”

How much of your time do you spend on high-level city-building versus what I’ll call the Parks and Recreation aspects of municipal government? I’m sure you don’t spend your days dealing with exploded fire hydrants or missing dogs.

Some days, I feel a bit like Leslie Knope. We recently held a contest to choose the city bird, where Calgarians could get behind the flicker or the chickadee. My personal favourite, the crow, wasn’t even on the list. People were like, “You need better things to do than choosing birds!” So cranky.

Meanwhile, at the provincial level: a lot of wacky soundbites got thrown around during the last election. Danielle Smith, the premier, once called unvaccinated Canadians “the most discriminated-against group” she’d ever witnessed in her lifetime. She’s since walked that back.

I’ve stated publicly that that was a terrible comment. To forget the genocides, the Holocaust—to label the unvaccinated as the most hard done by—is absolutely wrong. I couldn’t let that one slide.

Fair enough. After the election, Smith responded to a journalist’s question about wildfires by saying that the Alberta government is bringing in arson investigators to trace the cause. (Experts seem to agree it’s largely climate change.) You seem like a get-things-done kind of gal. How do these sideshow discussions affect your ability to do that?

I don’t know why that comment was made. Here’s what I will say: this premier is used to being a broadcaster and being provocative. That’s why her show did well. She’s now in a role where you need to be measured in your language. Maybe she’s in that transition now.

Black and white image of woman wearing a short black blazer with silver buttons and a skirt, staring off into the distance with a slight smile on her face

Well, we’ve seen what can happen when someone with an entertainer’s mentality veers into politics.

Yes. We have.

What’s your mentality? Pure strategy?

I usually jot down an outcome, like what we want to accomplish as a city. Then I work backwards. Who needs to be involved? Who can be contrarian so we know we’ve got things right? I like being a convener.

Does that translate into an affinity for dinner parties, by any chance?

I rarely get to do dinner parties anymore. I’m a big fan of inviting people to city hall to spend 30 precious minutes asking them, “What do you think we should do about this?” I love that stuff.

Lazy dinner party question incoming! If you could invite one Canadian politician to dinner, living or dead, who would you host? What would you ask them?

Pierre Poilievre. I’d be wildly interested to hear why he does the things he does.

READ: Why is Pierre Poilievre so angry?

I suspect other Canadians might be, too. Which of his moves intrigue you?

The extreme populism, the need to label things. Like, he calls people in power “gatekeepers.” Why the constant need to have an antagonist for every issue? That’s not how the world works; it’s more complex.

Poilievre has gotten a lot of traction by focusing on housing. You live in a multi-generational home, which is an increasingly common setup for young Canadians for financial reasons. How is it working for you? Amazingly? Slightly chaotic?

Both. The Punjabi way is that, as your parents age, you either move in with them or they move in with you. On the day my dad passed away in 2003, my husband said to my mom, “Do you want to stay with us or should we come to you?” She said, “Tonight?” And he replied, “For good.”

What does that look like?

We built a new house one neighbourhood over. Mom’s got a full suite: kitchen, laundry, all that stuff. Having her there to look after my kiddo and pass on our language is a big deal. This job takes me away from her, which is tough. She’s learned how to text, so that helps.

RELATED: I live with my parents, in-laws and kid in a home specifically designed for multi-generational living

Is your mom someone you consult on city matters? Or is she the kind of mom who gives advice whether you want it or not?

She’s hilarious. She’ll text me while I’m in a meeting and be like, “Did you know this provincial or federal news happened?” I’ll go, “How did you know that?” Often, she’s heard it on Red FM, our local South Asian radio station, which she listens to five hours a day. She also hears the digs about me. The cost of being informed!

Do you have things that help you manage, when you want to react more like a hurt person than a politician?

I start every morning with the Japji Sahib, the Sikh morning prayer. It’s roughly 40 stanzas long, so I get in a good 15 minutes of grounding that way. I’m not always successful at responding compassionately, but I try.

People sometimes call Calgary “the Texas of Canada.” Back in March, you spoke on a SXSW panel in Austin about teaching city-building to school kids—using Minecraft. Are you a gamer?

I’ve watched my kid play Minecraft. I couldn’t do it to save my life, but Calgary’s the first city to use it as an urban-planning tool in partnership with school boards.

According to my googles, two of the most popular game modes are survival (where players extract natural resources to maintain well-being) and creative (where everyone has their basic needs met and can build with abandon). Not to put too fine a point on this, but the second mode seems like the Calgary of the Future.

I hadn’t thought of it that way! You should see what these Grade 4 students come up with: urban parks with accessible pathways; diverse food stands so people can see how great it is to be multicultural. They use terms like “anti-racism” and “green space.” Most kids just say “parks.” Doesn’t that give you hope for the future?

Did any of them mention oil?

The economic factor didn’t come into play, but no. I see what you’re saying.