Mayoral Election 2021 Meet the Candidates is The Gateway’s series of interviews with candidates running in Edmonton’s mayoral race. This is the first of eight articles.
With the October 18 municipal election just around the corner, The Gateway sat down and interviewed candidates running in Edmonton’s mayoral race. Amarjeet Sohi was interviewed for the first instalment of this series.
Growing up in Punjab, Sohi was 18 when he moved to Edmonton with his parents. After driving busses for the Edmonton Transit System, Sohi ran for city council in 2004. Though initially unsuccessful, he was elected to city council in 2007, where he served for eight years. Sohi was then elected as the Member of Parliament for Edmonton Mill Woods in 2015 and served for four years. While in Parliament, he was appointed to Cabinet as the Minister of Infrastructure and Communities and the Minister of Natural Resources. Currently, Sohi teaches about compassionate and collaborative leadership at MacEwan University.
The Gateway spoke with Sohi to find out more on how, if elected, he plans to represent the residents and students of Edmonton as the city’s new mayor.
Responses have been edited for clarity and length.
The Gateway: Why did you decide to run in this election?
Sohi: I believe that Edmonton is at a very pivotal, uncertain time because of COVID-19, and how we emerge from COVID-19. I believe that my experience, my knowledge, my connections, as well as the temperament that I will bring to governance, is necessary for us to recover from COVID-19 in the right way, and make sure businesses are back on their feet.
We can create economic opportunities for future generations so that people can remain here and build their lives here, the same way I was able to build my life here. Along with that, strong leadership is required to tackle challenges of homelessness, mental health, and addiction. It is also required to play a more active role in tackling climate change, and building more sustainable communities to create more green jobs and opportunities for Edmontonians, along with tackling issues of inequities that exist in our community around racism, discrimination, and the work we need to do on reconciliation with Indigenous communities.
I believe that these — sometimes seemingly insurmountable and daunting tasks — may seem very difficult to tackle. However, I think I have the skillset, the knowledge, and the experience to tackle these, and that’s why I’m stepping up to provide the leadership.
What is the biggest issue you see facing the city and how would you address it?
There are a number of issues, and they are all intersecting. They are all interconnected. Economic growth and opportunities for jobs, along with well-paying middle class jobs for Edmontonians and making sure that everyone is able to take part in that economy and that Edmonton should be for all of us, is a primary concern.
If people are hurting because of mental health, addiction, poverty, or homelessness, they can’t really be part of the economy, or the society. How can we build their capacity by healing the pain that they are going through? Economic growth is also tied to environmental sustainability and climate change. The opportunity that action on climate change presents for Edmonton, and the Edmonton region, is huge. We have the technology and the know-how to decarbonize our economy, and we can invest in that to create jobs, and at the same time make a difference in reducing emissions. Because of my own lived experience of racism and discrimination, I am also well-positioned to understand and tackle those issues.
Those are the things that I think Edmontonians are concerned about. At the same time the city’s fundamental responsibility is to provide quality public services to Edmontonians while keeping our taxes and user fees affordable, and investing in arts and culture to create vibrancy and help downtown revitalize. Those are the things that we have heard from people, and those are the things that we are focused on.
Are there any prominent past city leadership decisions you disagreed with?
I’m pretty sure there were a number of issues that that I disagreed on, but I always believe that listening to people and building consensus is necessary at a local level.
One thing that I’m very proud of is that, even if I disagree with my colleagues, I will demonstrate that disagreement in a respectful way in a council meeting or committee meeting, but never take it personally and never attack my colleagues personally. [I will] never say demeaning or bad things about them, because that breaks the relationship, and that hinders the ability of being able to work together. Collaboration is key at the local level. I believe in collaboration and I have done big things because of that collaborative approach, and that’s what I would like to focus on.
What previous experiences do you have that make you a good candidate for Mayor of Edmonton?
I came to this city with nothing. Edmonton is a city that has given me the opportunity to grow here. I also faced a lot of challenges. That lived experience is absolutely something that drives me every day. It motivates me to wake up in the morning and build a better society.
Along with my eight years of council [experience], my four years as a Member of Parliament and leading two major economic portfolios — Infrastructure [and Communities], and Natural Resources — I gained experience by working with every province and every territory from coast to coast in this country. [I also gained experience] working with the private sector negotiating big deals — like the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion project or setting up big institutions like the Canada Infrastructure Bank, as well as setting up one of the largest infrastructure ministries in Canadian history. I think that experience is absolutely what enables me and puts me in a very unique position to provide the leadership that our city needs.
If elected, how would you support post-secondary students within Edmonton?
Though post-secondary institutions are not in the purview of the city, I see the city’s role in making living affordable for students. So investing in affordable housing, not on campus but off campus — you know, secondary suites, for example, was a big controversy. When I was in city council, I was one of the strongest proponents of creating secondary suites to make housing affordable. Garden suites are another way to make housing affordable. Also, I was the biggest champion of the U-Pass, because the U-Pass makes transportation affordable for students. There are things that cities can do to allow access to amenities and recreational facilities that are affordable. The Leisure Access Program that we passed allows low-income Edmontonians to have access to recreation centres and other amenities free of charge. Students are part of Edmonton — you are Edmontonians just like anyone else.
I also see a fundamental role of the mayor that has not been properly utilized, which is being the advocate of the community. Post-secondary institutions in our city are under attack from the provincial government. We need to stand up, and we need to work together. I will put together a coalition of leaders that will help advance our city’s interests. One of these interests is well-paid, well-functioning post-secondary institutions that we are so proud of, and that have done so much for our city. We should be defending them.
As a lot of students use transit within the city, in what ways are you looking to support Edmonton’s Transit System?
The introduction of the U-Pass, continuing that U-Pass, extending it to international students later on, and making it available that you can use it anytime you want to use it — that absolutely was the best decision council made, and I was proud to provide leadership on that. Accessibility is another part — public transit should be accessible in every part of the city. I’m disappointed with city council’s decision to reduce service in a number of areas that has impacted the ability for people to use public transit, for students as well. I’m going to work with council to restore some of that service. Public transit should also be safe for everyone to use. Safety is becoming a concern on LRT stations, on transit centres, and on buses. That’s another area that I am going to work hard on.
If elected, how will you concretely work to address climate change?
I believe that if Canada is serious about being net zero by 2050, that is not possible without the participation of urban centres. Edmonton is the fifth largest city in Canada. We produce a lot of emissions, from buildings, from transportation, and from the use of many other amenities that we have.
My commitment is to accelerate the retrofitting of the old buildings. We are going to create an agency that will bring all the resources together to facilitate that. We are also going to electrify our public transit system. We are going to work with the federal government and the provincial government to support communities to decarbonize and invest in geothermal, invest in carbon capture storage and utilization, and invest in other new technologies. We also propose the creation of an Edmonton Innovation Fund that will allow us to accelerate and advance new technology that will help us reduce emissions. There are a lot of things that we can do, and we will be doing. 15 minute communities are another aspect. We are proponents of 15 minute communities so living local, where you don’t have to drive a long distance, reduces your carbon footprint in a significant way.
If elected, how will you concretely work to support Indigenous communities and students in Edmonton?
One thing I always stress is the reason I’ve been able to succeed here is because I’ve been able to live here. This is Indigenous land, this is Treaty Six territory. What this land has given me, I always have deepest of appreciation for.
I am deeply committed to reconciliation with Indigenous communities. I was one of the strongest proponents in the federal government on reconciliation. We designed certain programs, particularly [working towards] eliminating the drinking advisories for Indigenous communities and investing in housing and Indigenous infrastructure. At City Hall I want to work with Edmonton’s Indigenous communities to move forward on reconciliation and make sure the city is doing its part. We just announced our approach to naming and renaming buildings and and statues in Edmonton, because we want to reflect on the history and make sure that problematic figures have their names removed in a proactive way.
I also am committed to supporting more businesses from Indigenous communities, as well as tackling homelessness and mental health issues. Most of the people, unfortunately, who are homeless come from Indigenous communities because of their historical trauma, because of those residential schools that people were forced to live in, and because of the racism that Indigenous communities face on a daily basis. We need to end those things, so that is what I would like to focus on.
According to a recent UASU poll, many Albertan students are heavily considering leaving the province after finishing their degrees. What initiatives are you considering to keep young professionals in the province, and specifically within Edmonton?
Edmonton has a lot to offer. Edmonton is an affordable city. Edmonton has so many wonderful amenities. We have the largest urban park in the river valley, which is cherished and which we need to protect. There are so many other things to do in Edmonton, and there is a wonderful quality of life that Edmonton offers.
If people don’t have the opportunity to make a living here, to practice what you have learned, to turn those ideas into into tangible things, then they are going to move somewhere else to seek those opportunities. Economic growth is essential. Economic opportunities to set up a business here, to find a decent well-paying job here, is critical for young people to stay here and keep them here. That is why I’m focused on economic growth. That is why am proposing to create a mayor’s advisory council on business growth, so we can focus on areas where we can grow.
The biggest investment that we make is people’s capacity, and human capital in people. It’s well known that people with the university graduation find employment, but they need to move to find employment. We don’t want them to move. We want them to find their jobs here, and to start their businesses here. That is what we are focused on.
If you were to choose one initiative or area of policy, what makes you stand out from the other candidates?
I think what makes me stand out is my deep commitment to Edmonton and the opportunities that I see here. Opportunities to build a decent life, to make a decent living, and to be part of the community. Everything that I do is intersecting and we need to do all those things together to build the capacity of people to participate.
Fun Question: What is your favourite piece of public art in Edmonton?
My favourite piece of public art is not a standalone [piece]. I love the Art Gallery [of Alberta]. It was a controversial project being undertaken, but now look at it. It is this beautiful, beautiful building. It is just a beautiful place to go and look at and admire from the outside. If you go inside you will find some beautiful things, but if you look from the outside — that is a beautiful piece of art.