Mayoral Election 2021 Meet the Candidates is The Gateway’s series of interviews with candidates running in Edmonton’s mayoral race. This is the third 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. Michael Oshry was interviewed for the third instalment of this series.
Born in South Africa, Oshry was seven when he moved to Edmonton with his parents. He began his career by establishing local businesses in the city, including Remedy Cafe. Oshry co-founded FIRMA Foreign Exchange in 1998, sitting as the corporation’s president and CEO until 2013. He served one term on Edmonton’s City Council, representing Ward sipiwiyiniwak (previously Ward 5) from 2013 to 2017. After choosing not to seek reelection, Oshry founded Blue Pen Capital in 2018.
The Gateway spoke with Oshry 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?
Oshry: This is a really tough time for the city and there is a lot of uncertainty as to where economic and social successes are going to come from.
I have a background of having four years’ experience at city council along with having significant business experience with all [my] businesses. Along with the fact I’ve got a pretty strong social conscience, so I care about people.
When I put those things together, I felt it was time for me to step up and do something good to try to address these challenges and keep building the city so [young people] and others decide to live here. I’ve got kids about the same age as you in university — one of them at the U of A actually — and I want to make sure that they stay here. We’ve got to do a whole bunch of things in order for the city to keep having our success and let people thrive.
What is the biggest issue you see facing the city and how would you address it?
There’s two issues — I don’t know what’s bigger but they are both very important.
Number one is we have to get the economics of the city right. There’s a lot of people that are unemployed or underemployed and small businesses are having a hard time. It is hurting obviously people individually in businesses, but it is also hurting our tax base which is kind of boring but is really important. We need the appropriate funding to deal with the social challenges and infrastructure challenges that we have as a city.
The social challenges are plentiful and they need a lot of money, work and effort. So we have to get the economics right and spend appropriately on the social challenges and other things. I put those two things together. It’s not either or, we have to do both, but it’s going to be tricky to get a balance to do them appropriately and get the resources that will enable us to succeed in those challenges.
Are there any prominent past city leadership decisions you disagreed with?
I’ll say the the biggest one is actually spending.
Property tax rates, which I know students might not appreciate [but are] really important, have gone up higher than inflation and higher than the cost of living for 15 years. This means people in businesses are paying more and I don’t believe the services are much better. And the city’s not getting much bigger in comparison to the amount of money that we’re spending.
It sounds really boring and kind of dry, but it really does make a difference. We have to really make some priorities of the decision. It doesn’t matter if it’s a business or an individual, if everything that you do is a priority, then nothing is a priority. You have to pick a few things that you’re going to focus on. I think that’s really been the mistake in the last few years. We really don’t have a good idea of what those priorities are and then allocating the resources to those [priorities]. That really does affect a whole bunch of things. There has not been a lot of strong prioritization, so I think that has been a big challenge.
What previous experiences do you have that make you a good candidate for Mayor of Edmonton?
I was on city council for four years. I have got a university degree in city government and politics, so I know how the place works.
I’m also not a career politician. I do have a lot of perspectives from outside of being it’s at city government or government for my career. Also my background in business — I’m entrepreneurial. I have started a number of companies in the city, one of them was Remedy Cafe. Then I have some other businesses that are also quite large, with hundreds of people working in them. So I know how to bring a team together and put people in a place that they can succeed, work on a common goal, work with other people, let them have input.
I care about people. There’s a lot of challenges that we’ve got socially in the city. I put that all together, and I think I’m pretty well rounded. I’ve got the experience and the innate social side of me that I really want to do something good. I think I’m well-qualified for this.
If elected, how would you support post-secondary students within Edmonton?
We all know that post secondary is provincial jurisdiction. We have got to get a better relationship with our provincial government as a city. Right now it is terrible, and we have to fix that.
I’ll use an example of the U of A specifically. A lot of the big funding cuts that hit the U of A did not hit other universities in the province, especially in Calgary. That alone would make an enormous difference, because we would have more resources for our university.
There are lots of other things — I know there are some people in the U of A that are experiencing food insecurity and that’s where the city could step up, help, and partner with the food bank and others a little bit better. Then there are ideas coming out of the university that that need to be converted into businesses. We’ve got lots of brilliant people that have got really cool ideas in biological sciences or technology or whatever, and there’s a way that the city can play to help convert those ideas into companies that are staying here, hiring people, and paying taxes. We also have some challenges with transit, which is another one that I’m all over as well that we have got to address.
Those are just a few that come top of mind, but there’s a lot. The University of Alberta and other post-secondaries are a huge piece of our city. Overall, the city and the post-secondaries work okay together, but not good enough. We really have to get a better partnership between city government and post-secondary institutions on a bunch of different fronts.
As a lot of students use transit within the city, in what ways are you looking to support Edmonton’s Transit System?
We have to get the transit system, especially out of COVID-19, working more efficiently and better. It’s a chicken and the egg thing: if [more] people use transit, the transit is good, but if transit gets better, the more people use it. We have to figure out that balance. We have to be flexible on routes. I know the redesign that happened last year is hit and miss for some people. We’ve got to look at that and see how we can do that differently.
When I was on city council, I represented the West end, and I pushed to get the West LRT done, so I’m glad it’s coming. We have to make sure that project is on time and on budget, and then look at expanding the LRT, assuming we have the resources. I know most students take transit, and we have to make sure that students and other people around the city can get around as efficiently as possible
If elected, how will you concretely work to address climate change?
My plan is to ensure that Edmonton becomes the clean technology capital of Canada, so we can partner with post-secondaries, energy companies, investment firms, and private businesses to do that. Government won’t solve this alone, we have to get the private sector involved. We have to make infill easier, so the city becomes more compact and more efficient. I’ve got a plan to replace buses with electric buses as they get to the end of their lives.
I’ll use one other specific example — the clean energy investment program. People don’t want to put solar on their houses or businesses because it’s expensive. So the plan is to have the city pay for it; it would go on the city’s books. Then the homeowner basically would get it for free initially and then they would pay it off on their property taxes and [there would be an] increase in property tax over about 20 years, but [the solar panels] would pay off with the savings that the solar produces. It’s pretty close to a net zero for the homeowner or the business owner, and then the city gets the money back over time because it’s getting paid [by] the property tax.
Those kind of practical ideas, that obviously help the environment, are a way that the city can play to make some of these expensive things cost-effective, and then make a big difference for people on their energy usage and their energy bill. I’m very practical, I come up with a few plans like this and then I’m going to implement them. I’m not going to just talk about it without doing anything about it. If you look at the website, there’s much more of my energy transition plan that the city does have a role to do, and I take it quite seriously.
If elected, how will you concretely work to support Indigenous communities and students in Edmonton?
I sat through the Truth and Reconciliation hearings in 2015 for a couple of days. I sat there listening to just these heartbreaking stories — heartbreaking is the best way to describe it for me.
Just like the energy transition, I’m thinking about what are we going to do specifically to help. I’m going to create a create an Indigenous Accountability Week in September every year where we meet with Indigenous elders and others to go through the Truth and Reconciliation calls to action. There’s 94 of them. 10 of them really affect cities specifically. We’re going to go through those 10 and work on them during the year. Every year until we get it done we are going to have an accountability week.
There’s interesting ideas that I’ve gotten Rossdale to develop west Rossdale down by the power plant, and partnering with the Indigenous community. Chief of Enoch [Cree Nation] Billy Morin is interested in that and has endorsed that plan.
Some of it is dealing with the the social aspects of the challenges, but some of it is also economic. We have got to create opportunity for the Indigenous population. We have to deal with some of the social things. In Edmonton five per cent of our population is Indigenous, but 65 per cent of the homeless population is Indigenous. So we have got to provide services to help as many people as possible around there.
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?
There are a whole bunch of things that we have to do right, it is not one thing.
We have to have a strong economy. People are not going to want to stay here if they can’t start a business or if they can’t find a good paying job. Without a strong economy people are going to leave.
We also then have to make sure that our housing stock is reasonably priced because most people eventually want to buy a house. If it’s a townhouse, or a condominium, or a house in the suburbs it doesn’t matter, we have got to make sure that it is reasonably priced.
Then we’ve got to make sure our education system is world class, which it actually is from kindergarten to [university]. So not everything is bad, that is actually going pretty well.
Also, we have to build the city and do interesting, cool things. Whether it’s the river valley, festivals, restaurants, activities, or events, we have just got to make it a cool, interesting, vibrant place to live. It’s not all about just doing the basics, we have to do some of the other things as well.
It’s a lot of work and a lot of things, but we have got to get a lot of this stuff right. I’m not a pessimist. I think overall, this is an amazing place to live, there’s great opportunity for people. It’s an amazing place. People here are friendly, and they help each other. It is a really unusual culture in a city like this. I’m pretty optimistic about it. We have a lot of work to do, but I think we can continue to build a city that people are going to want to live and spend their life in. So I’m very excited about the future.
If you were to choose one initiative or area of policy, what makes you stand out from the other candidates?
My policy plans are very specific about what we are going to do. We don’t talk about ending poverty — we talk about a social procurement plan or an after school plan for all kids. We don’t talk about ending homelessness — we talk about how we’re going to help as many people as possible with very specific amounts of money for housing or services that help the homeless population. We don’t just say we’re going to fix the environment — we talk about all the specific things. I’m not sure I could pick one winner, I just think that our policy pieces are very specific, very actionable, and very practical. That is what separates me from the other candidates.
Fun Question: What is your favourite piece of public art in Edmonton?
I don’t know what it’s called, but there is a bear in the lobby of the Epcor Tower downtown. If you go east of the arena, you will find the Epcor Tower. In the lobby of that building is two giant metal grizzly bears eating a salmon, it is enormous and really cool.