Women underrepresented on Calgary city council; 18 seek council and mayor seats in 2021

Three women city on Calgary city council ahead of the 2021 municipal election: (L to R) Jyoti Gondek, Druh Farrell and Diane Colley-Urquhart. Supplied by the City of Calgary

Calgary city council has a representation problem.

Of the 15 people on council, including 14 councillors and one mayor, five are BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of colour) and three are women.

Calgary’s demographics from the most recent federal census are drastically different: about 40 per cent of Calgarians identify as BIPOC and 50 per cent are women.

‘We know that when we have a council with equal representation, there are better outcomes for everyone,” said Zoe Keirstead, chair of Equal Voice Calgary.

“When council represents the city that they are elected to represent and they have women at the table, the government is more responsible, accountable, effective and can just pass policies and make policy thinking of the city that they are representing.”

Equal Voice is one multi-partisan non-profit trying to get more women elected to office in the 2021 Calgary election.

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“It’s just trying to encourage women and know that they have support and make sure that they feel as though they are prepared and that they have the support that they need to make sure that they feel as though they can succeed or go in with their best foot forward,” Keirstead told Global News.

Ask Her YYC is another volunteer non-profit trying to get more women in seats at the city’s decision-making table.

“We just need to see our community in our political leaders,” said Gillian Hynes, president of Ask Her YYC.

“And so whether that’s gender inclusion, whether that’s race or ethnicity, whether whatever that is age, we need to see that breadth, because that’s when you get really robust policy decision making and decision making that reflects your community.”

In the past few years, both organizations have offered training sessions to help prepare would-be female candidates and staff to run election campaigns for all orders of government.

“Our role is more on the systems approach where, you know, for us, what we try to do is build that pipeline and help women who have thought about running or are interested, but don’t really know where to start — that’s our role,” Hynes said.

Last year, Ask Her YYC had more than 50 women run through their Prepare Her program — double their expected demand. Seven of their graduates have decided to run for office and more have joined other campaigns.

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Election ’Herstory’

For the upcoming municipal election, 18 women have so far registered with Elections Calgary to run in 11 wards and for mayor. Six races — Wards 2, 7, 8, 10, 11 and mayor — have more than one female candidate.

But don’t call it a “slate of female candidates.”

“If we had no women running, would we call it a slate of male candidates?” Ward 3 councillor and mayoral candidate Jyoti Gondek said. “Has anyone ever asked that question ever in the history of time? If there were no women running, no one’s ever said, ‘This is a male slate.’

A veteran of past campaigns and now leading her second municipal campaign, Gondek has participated in past Ask Her programs.

“My biggest participation was a few months ago when one of their most recent cohorts was going through the process of learning what it means to be a candidate,” the Ward 3 councillor said.

“I was able to come and give a presentation on the nitty gritty of what a member of council does and what they need to be prepared for.”

One of two women running for mayor in the 2021 Calgary election, Gondek said having more women in positions of power helps normalize the idea that it should be a person’s qualifications, not gender, that garners that role.

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“There’s been times that I’ve had meetings where there’s an assumption that I’m not a councillor, that I’m somebody’s assistant,” she said. “There’s been situations where I’ve been at an event with my husband and it’s assumed that he must be the councillor or that I must be somebody’s wife.

“If it is not normalized, if people don’t expect to see a woman in this kind of position, then they just default to the fact that she must be something else.

“My experiences reflect that we are not all the way there yet and understanding the fact that, you know, a woman can be a member of council.”

Calgary has a long history of women sitting on city council, starting with Hannah “Annie” Gale, first elected in 1917. Gale was among the first women to serve on any municipal council in the British Commonwealth.

And Virnetta Anderson was the first woman of colour voted to council, in 1974.

If council’s makeup fully reflected the diversity of the citizens it serves in 2021, six councillors would be racialized and between seven and eight women would sit around the horseshoe at city hall.

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But there’s only ever been a maximum of six women — or 40 per cent — serving on council at any one time, like when Ward 7 councillor Druh Farrell was elected in 2001.

“It used to be quite normal for women to get into local politics,” Farrell said.

“And yeah, it makes a difference — it makes a difference in behaviour around the council table. It makes a difference on what kind of topics, generally, we talk about and elevate.”

Farrell is one of three women that currently sit on council. She said the effect of having women on council goes back to Alderman Gale, saying “she had a big impact.”

“She ran on social justice and equity during a period of deep poverty — like the Vacant Lots Gardening Club — trying to ensure that people had fresh produce and were able to have access to healthy food,” the outgoing Ward 7 councillor said.

“Those were issues that maybe wouldn’t have been brought to the fore if it wouldn’t have been brought up by a woman.”

Gale came to office at the same time as the suffrage movement, shortly after women in Alberta got the right to vote. Shortly before leaving council in 1923, Gale became acting mayor for a short time. The following year she ran for school board trustee before permanently relocating to Vancouver in 1925.

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“It was a terrible time for her,” Farrell said. “If you read books written about her, her husband also worked for the city and went through a terrible time of peer pressure. And they eventually left the city.”

Barriers to entry

More than a century later, a woman has not been elected to the mayor’s seat in Calgary, speaking to the glass ceiling that seems to remain at city hall.

“There are lots of things that contribute to that glass ceiling that are harder to get past,” said Lori Williams, a political science professor at Mount Royal University.

“Among the most important are those stereotypes about what makes a good politician. Think to what Donald Trump said about Hillary Clinton — she doesn’t look like a president.

“But another thing, and studies show one of the most influential factors is seeing ‘others’ in that position.”

While a female ward candidate can have more name recognition as a community volunteer or businessperson, Williams said getting an entire city to get behind the message and image of a female candidate can be an extraordinary task. It’s a task that seems to grow with the size of the city.

“The biggest city councils don’t tend to have as many female councillors and they don’t tend to have as many female mayors,” Williams said. “I would say partly because, in smaller centres, it’s part-time work, it isn’t terribly well paid, and it tends to be women who move up from the grassroots into politics.

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“The combination of access to funding and experience is something that most people get by actually doing.”

Programs that Equal Voice and Ask Her run include experiential learning of campaign activities like fundraising. They are also teaming up to run a virtual municipal campaign school starting in May.

“A big barrier to entry into politics for women is being nervous about their support,” Keirstead said. “Women like to have everything prepared and this will help them feel and have that support behind them and help them learn and make sure that they are ready for this election when it happens.”

“If you look at the system that we’ve created in politics, most of your strategists, most of your pollsters, most of the commentators, you know, most of the fundraisers, they’re all men,” Gondek said.

“It’s a network that is largely comprised of men. And so as a female candidate, it’s sometimes hard to crack those networks.”

A tale of two candidates

Leslyn Joseph and Kourtney Branagan are two council hopefuls, running in Wards 10 and 11, respectively.

Both have lived in Calgary for most of their lives and both are passionate about the issues that affect their wards. But they have very different experiences in community organizing and politics.

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Branagan’s earliest involvement was in high school, and she has volunteered with other election campaigns. She traces her decision to run back to some “life changes” in 2019, and participated in the suite of Ask Her YYC programs.

“The biggest takeaway, the biggest learning experience, was about what kind of campaign I wanted to run,” she told Global News. “One that… (was) based on my values and based on my experience and my vision for Calgary.

“That was really a really fantastic opportunity and really solidified the desire to run for council and reaffirmed that I have the skills needed.”

There’s been other benefits for Branagan.

“I have a couple of people from the program who I am working with, which is really fantastic,” she said. “It’s been great to lean back in on some of the organizers of Ask Her and even ask them some general, broad questions. And then just to make sure that when I’m building on a campaign strategy that the messaging is looking at those different target markets and looking at those different voter profiles.”

The female-centric political environment Ask Her nurtured during the programs was empowering for Branagan.

“Just seeing that lots of women came not necessarily to be candidates, (but) that they wanted to be strong voices on campaign, strong advocates and strong supporters of female candidates, and that that is equally as valuable,” she said.

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Joseph decided to run in the northeast ward following city council’s anti-racism hearings in July 2020. She announced her campaign in the fall and has experience with organizations like Defund2Fund and Calgary’s Black Lives Matter chapter. However, she wasn’t able to take the Ask Her programs because they were oversubscribed.

Joseph has instead found support from Lead YYC and Look Forward Calgary.

“I’ve gone through a few training sessions but I don’t have a giant team that’s super professional. It’s super grassroots,” Joseph told Global News.

“There’s not a lot of campaign managers — professional ones — to go around for everybody. Even other candidates that I talk to, they’re like, ‘Honestly, I’m just doing this by myself right now. If someone approaches me, I’ll take it.’”

Branagan, who found Carolyn Krahn and Lauren Herschel as fellow female candidates in Ward 11, said they have been in open communication about safety in the south Calgary ward.

“We have agreed that if we’re out and we had a house and it is a less than positive experience because we’re female, we owe it to each other to give each other the heads-up,” Branagan said.

“Or if we’re having someone who’s being toxic on some of our social media accounts, just that we owe each other the heads-up so that we don’t need to wade in those waters.”

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Joseph, a lifelong Calgarian with Caribbean heritage, said her team has similarly been a buffer for her.

“I have gone and knocked on doors, but I’ve actually heard more from my team where they’re getting questioned because I don’t have a picture, specifically because I’m Black on my brochure,” she said.

“My team has been questioned on my background and if I’m from here, and I’m like, ‘I don’t see how that matters, but OK.’”

Farrell, a 20-year veteran of council who is not seeking re-election this year, said the litany of challenges faced by women on council can be intimidating.

“I think it is a deterrent for some women,” she said. “And it shouldn’t have to rest on women to protect other women. It should be a societal statement that this will not do.

“To me, that’s a reason to run, not a reason to step away. Running — it would mean to fight for a better world, including for your own gender.”

Calgarians go to the polls on Oct. 18.

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