Calgary’s New Mayor Says Her City Is More Than an Oil Town

With the recent oil price recovery, Calgary has awakened from a long economic slumber, and its new mayor wants to help the city reduce its dependency on oil by becoming a leader in new sources of energy.

Jyoti Gondek has a Ph.D. in urban sociology, was a member of the city’s planning commission and a city councilor. She promotes policies that put her at odds with the city’s conservative establishment, which is entwined with the oil industry.

Oil’s last collapse, in 2014-15, gave Calgary, a city of 1.3 million, a problem now facing most cities: finding new uses for empty downtown office towers. As has been the case with many cities since the start of the pandemic, Calgary has also found rising numbers of people, many with severe mental health and drug problems, living on its streets.

I met with Ms. Gondek, the city’s second consecutive mayor of South Asian heritage, earlier this week at city hall, days after the city and the province had announced that they would both contribute a total of 867 million Canadian dollars to build a new arena for the Calgary Flames. The announcement was widely seen as a move to bolster the re-election hopes of the premier, Danielle Smith, who often stymies Ms. Gondek’s political agenda, in the current provincial election campaign. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What do people get wrong about Calgary?

Folks that don’t live here and haven’t visited here have been sold a stereotype of who we are. It’s sort of this cartoon image of Calgary. And I think we’ve done a remarkably poor job of telling our story properly as Calgarians.

The narrative developed that we were only interested in oil and gas — and that was about it. We’ve let it get away from us and we’re trying to regain it now. The investment that we need here is too important. We need to be talking about who we really are.

How has Calgary’s growing ethnic diversity changed the city?

It’s the third most diverse city in Canada, and yet a lot of people don’t know that about us. But if you spend any amount of time here, it’s quite evident.

The capacity building that many ethnic communities have done allows newcomers to come here and actually settle here and not just make this a landing place. People come into Calgary and they stay.

That comes about with a couple of things. There’s the economic advantage. If it’s easier to get a job, the better the income levels are, the more affordable your housing is — all those factors certainly play a role. But when you see people who look like you, when you’re out somewhere and you hear your mother tongue, when you are embracing a cultural activity and you find a piece of your own history in it — all that makes you feel like this place understands you, that you belong here. It’s taken a long time to cultivate that.

There have been many oil- and gas-related booms and busts. Is that cycle doomed to continue?

We are now at a remarkable point where true energy transformation is possible, but we need to make some pretty significant investments. So we have an energy transition center in the city that is looking at some big, bold moves in partnership with a lot of our oil sands companies. We have folks who are actively looking at hydrogen and critical mineral strategies.

So we’ve got a lot of really big interest in the future of energy production. While we were a hub for oil and gas, we continue to be a hub for the new face of energy.

  • Dan Bilefsky met with another of Canada’s new big-city mayors: Ken Sim, Vancouver’s first mayor of Chinese descent. Mr. Sim has been drawn into the current political storm caused by claims that the Chinese government interfered in Canadian elections.

  • Canada expelled a Chinese diplomat whom it accused of intimidating and gathering information on a Conservative member of Parliament. Soon afterward, China retaliated by sending home a diplomat from the Canadian consulate in Shanghai.

  • Wildfire season in Alberta and British Columbia has started, covering an unusually wide swath of the province. Forecasts of hot weather for the weekend have officials bracing for more fire outbreaks.

  • Striker the Samoyed stole the show at last year’s Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, only to lose in the final round. He’s now retired, and Sarah Lyall reports from his home in Toronto that Striker “is still a champion, and he is still busy — playing, romping, posing and shedding.”

  • Canada is expanding its training program for Ukrainian forces to a NATO base in Latvia where about 800 Canadian military members are now stationed. Canada has had a presence there since 2017 as part of a battle group to bolster the alliance’s security efforts in the Baltic region.

  • “BlackBerry,” a comedy about Canada’s onetime tech giant directed by Matt Johnson, is a New York Times Critic’s Pick. In her review, Jeannette Catsoulis writes that it is “a tale of scrabbling toward success that tempers its humor with an oddly moving wistfulness.”

  • A Canadian actor is the subject of another Critic’s Pick. “Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie” is a biographical documentary that both reviews the actor’s career and explores his experiences learning to live with Parkinson’s disease.

  • After 27 years of performing and recording, the Canadian band Sum 41 is breaking up its act.

  • Denis Shapovalov, the Canadian tennis player, who is currently ranked 27th, is among those criticizing some tournaments, including Canada’s National Bank Open, for still offering less prize money to women than they do for men.

  • Connie Walker, a Canadian journalist who is a member of the Okanese First Nation in southern Saskatchewan, was singled out by the Pulitzer Prize jury for her work in a podcast about residential schools.

A native of Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has reported about Canada for The New York Times for the past 16 years. Follow him on Twitter at @ianrausten.

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