“I Didn’t Run Because I’m A Woman.*” Calgary’s New Mayor On Her Historic Win

Photo by Sheena Zilinski
*Okay yes, but Calgary’s first-ever woman mayor (and woman of colour mayor) is bringing lived experience and busting up stereotypes... and that’s just her first week.
Just a few months ago, Jyoti Gondek was a city councillor with 2% name recognition and a dream. Now she is the mayor of Calgary — the first woman ever to hold her city’s top office. Gondek made a powerful feminist statement out of the gate, refusing to swear in a councillor who was re-elected despite revelations of sexual misconduct. Here she tells Refinery29 Canada how she feels about being a history maker, why she plans to declare a climate emergency (suck it, Jason Kenney), and the long-time fashion obsession that brought her luck on election day. 
First off, congratulations. Second, wow! Your win was a major defeat. With the benefit of one week’s retrospect, how did you pull it off?
I didn’t enter into the race lightly. Back in December, I decided to run because I thought there was a lot of work that still needed to be completed by council around budgeting and culture change within our organization. I felt that our city needed a brand ambassador that demonstrated that we’re not a stereotype of our past. So I made this big decision. I think I had about 2% name recognition when we launched in early January. My team and I built a strategy that was about demonstrating that I had the policy knowledge, the understanding of process, and the passion to do the job and then we just worked hard. It sounds so cheesy to say that, but it really was getting out there every day, speaking with Calgarians and understanding their priorities.
Was there anything that stuck out as a priority among young women voters? 
Well what was interesting is how much people were discounting youth in this election. They were talking about how my competitors had a distinct advantage because they were able to attract a more senior population — that those were the people who would head to the polls and the so-called “kids” would never show up to vote. I knew that wasn’t true. I heard the conviction in the voices of the young people that I spoke with. With young women in particular, they cared about everything from child care to equal opportunity to period products being available publicly. They showed a lot of compassion for people in positions of vulnerability; they showed a lot of passion for climate. And then they cared a lot about representation: There was a sense that it was beyond time that they saw themselves reflected in government. 
You are Calgary’s first woman mayor and a woman of colour. Both of these things feel hugely important, but during your campaign you talked about not wanting to put too much focus on them. Was that strategic? Philosophical? 
I think my point was that I didn’t run because I’m a woman or because I’m a person of colour, I ran because I am qualified and I can do this job and the other two things happen to come with it and give me a lived experience that informs all of the decisions that I make.

I didn’t run because I’m a woman or because I’m a person of colour, I ran because I am qualified and I can do this job.

Calgary Mayor Jyoti Gondek
Right. But it’s more than you just “happen to be” a woman. For example, your first high-profile move as mayor was refusing to swear in Sean Chu, a city councillor who was found guilty of professional misconduct based on inappropriate physical contact with a minor. I’m not saying a man in your role couldn’t have made the same decision you did, but your gender does seem to play into it.
I don’t think you’re wrong. Women go through experiences like this at a much greater rate than men do and because of that we have a certain conviction to make sure it doesn't happen again. In this week alone, we can see that horrible situation loom over our council. It is also looming over our premier’s government, not to mention looming large over the NHL. These are situations that need to be dealt with head on. We have gone on far too long not believing victims and giving perpetrators every opportunity to tell their story. Enough! It’s just enough.
Did you struggle at all with the decision to have a justice of the peace swear in Councillor Chu? 
Well there was absolutely no way I was swearing this person in. I was not wavering from that. But the thing that I had to consider was how important it was not to make a mockery or a circus out of a day that was so significant for all of the other people who got elected to council. I had to make sure that they were able to enjoy their victory, so I made what I feel was the rational decision to step away and let the justice take over.  
You got a lot of support, but also pushback. 
There’s always pushback, there were mean tweets... 
Speaking of… you and the other women candidates received way more than your fair share of online abuse. Were you prepared? Can you prepare for that level of personal attack?  
I was not totally surprised because it had been ramping up during my term on council, but it was a lot. In this campaign specifically, I got a lot of “she’s playing the race card, the gender card, she a left wing nut job Commie, she has no qualifications, she has never had a job before…”
But, but, but... those things are all demonstrably untrue!! Does that make it more or less difficult? 
You know, at first I had the reaction that you’re having. You want to fight back. But eventually you realize that there are people you’re not going to convince, regardless of what’s true. You’re not happy about it, it still hurts. The goal is to be able to compartmentalize.
Right, but that’s easier said than done. Any tips on ignoring the haters? 
I wouldn’t believe the argument that you have to develop a thick skin because once you do that you stop feeling and if you can’t feel what’s happening around you, you will not be a good policy maker or a good leader. You need to continue to feel the feels, while also having a strong support network. That is probably the most important thing, having people around you who can call any time who are willing to listen. They will offer advice only if asked, but mostly they need to be a sounding board.
Who is your sounding board?
I’ve got my kid, my husband, and my mom living in the house with me, but they’re not the ones I go to with the pain because it will hurt them the way it hurt me. It’s usually a good friend of mine named Janelle. We met quite randomly about ten years ago when I was working in city building. She knows when I want support, but she’s not afraid to tell me how it is. Sometimes people in positions of power surround themselves with folks who tell them they’re always right. Janelle is not afraid to say “that’s a terrible idea.” Or like, “I understand the point you’re trying to make, but I don’t know that it’s coming through…” 
I know it’s considered poor form to ask women in politics about their fashion choices, but your election day outfit was a serious look. For anyone who missed it, you wore a necktie. Hard not to see that as sort of subversive and symbolic. 
You know my junior high and high school friends will tell you that it was not a rarity to see me wearing a tie. My dad taught me how to tie one when I was eight years old. The decision to wear a tie on election day wasn’t intentional, it’s just a look that I love and then in the evening I wore a dress. In terms of clothing and the portrayal of gender identity, I think we are way too hung up on things. I grew up with Annie Lennox, Grace Jones, Boy George. If one thing I can do for our complicated world is to let people know that you can wear what you want to, that’s what I’m going to do.
Have you ever felt pressure to decide between being a serious person and a person who cares about fashion? 
I think I felt earlier in my career. I would worry about what to wear to a big meeting, an interview: Was it too bold? Not bold enough? Too masculine? Too feminine? There’s something about finding a sense of peace with who you are and being able to present how you want to. 

I wouldn’t believe the argument that you have to develop a thick skin... Once you do that you stop feeling and if you can’t feel what’s happening around you, you will not be a good policy maker or a good leader.

Okay, now that we’ve covered the big issues, let’s discuss climate change. 
Oh right, that. 
Less than 24 hours into the job and you stated your intention to declare a climate emergency. I want to talk about the reaction, but first, what does that mean exactly?
Declaring a climate emergency or a climate crisis is an act by which other cities have been able to make a clear statement on being interested in climate action. That clear declaration has allowed those cities to attract investment and capital because a lot of investors are actively looking for cleaner, greener, more sustainable processes and practices. So I thought it was perfectly logical to chase down the capital that’s out there by saying we’re a city that takes this seriously.
I’m sure you saw that Alberta Premier Jason Kenny tried to neg you by calling your climate position “peculiar.” He seems to be suggesting that a pro-climate agenda and a pro-business agenda are incompatible. 
I can only guess what his intention with that comment was. I believe that he has leaped to an assumption that because I believe in the climate crisis I can’t possibly believe in the energy sector. I would remind him that I finished a master’s in corporate social responsibility in 2003 so I have an education in what energy companies are doing globally around issues of environment and social responsibility.  
You mentioned earlier about wanting to push past the stereotype. It’s funny because Calgary does have a certain reputation for being a more conservative, meat and potatoes part of the country, and yet you keep electing progressive mayors. 
There is an impression of what Calgary is from the world outside and there is the Calgary that those of us who live here know and love. We are a city that is diverse in people but also in ideas and experiences and what was so great about this particular election is that we have a council that reflects that and a visual that goes with our brand. We are a city with a growing tech sector. We have set up an Energy Transition Centre, a carbon removal accelerator, in one of our downtown spaces. The young professionals that work there are telling me how incredibly meaningful this work is. 
What about for anyone considering a visit to Calgary? We hear a lot about the Stampede, but what else should we know? 
We have this amazing downtown area that has the full circuit. You can start at the National Music Centre and take in so much of the history of Canadian music and you’re just a hop and step away from Central Library, a globally recognized architectural marvel. A couple of blocks over is Arts Common, where all of our performing arts live and it is always a vibrant place to go. You can walk down the block to Stephen Avenue and experience all of the restaurants and cafes and then you hit the west end of downtown and you hit 17th Ave, vibrant and alive with activity and you end up facing Stampede grounds, which is a circuit in itself.
Obligatory Calgary question: How many pairs of cowboy boots do you own?
Three. My favourites are my burgundy ones that I bought at the Riley & McCormick store at the airport. It was 1998, the first year I lived here. I was picking up a friend who was coming in for Stampede, so I went in and got them and they are the greatest. I wear them all year, not just for Stampede.
Well I guess that makes sense — you’re the mayor of Calgary. 
We are wrapping up and it strikes me that this is the one of the first interviews I’ve done since March 2020 where we weren’t focused on COVID. I guess — finally — it’s starting to feel okay to talk about other things. Does it feel that way to you? 
I think that’s true to some extent. Since the election I’ve gone into Historic City Hall and taken up office in the area designated for myself and my team. It’s incredible and you have this feeling of big work and it’s so nice to be out and to not be in the same seat in my living room doing Zoom calls. We have been incredibly focused on getting as many people as possible vaccinated so we can continue to occupy these spaces. I’m very interested in making sure that COVID protocols continue to enforce vaccination.
Alberta has some of the highest rates of vaccine hesitancy in the country. Why is that and what’s the plan to solve it? 
We’ve seen a lot more hesitancy in our rural areas. I don’t think it helps when other levels of government perpetuate the myths that you don’t have to get vaccinated or you shouldn’t. When elected officials are actively undermining vaccination strategy, that’s tough. But on the positive side, rates for City of Calgary employees continue to rise. We just have to keep at it. 
I’m sure you’re pretty busy, but what pre-pandemic activity are you most looking forward to getting back when you can? I miss the elements. I’d love to get out and snowboard or walk on a beach. Both of those things involve us taking care of our collective public health, so that’s what we need to do.

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