Last week marked a monumental moment in Alberta’s history after Jyoti Gondek was elected as Calgary’s first female and Punjabi mayor, and Amarjeet Sohi was elected as Edmonton’s first Punjabi mayor.
From an outsider’s perspective, the only tidbits I usually know about Alberta pertains to the prevalence of racist rhetoric and divisive politics, so it was to my absolute surprise that two people who look like me, were immigrants to Canada, and who were likely raised with the same ideals as me, are now mayors of two of the largest cities in Alberta.
It was a historic moment for Punjabi Canadians across the country.
Born in the UK, Jyoti Gondek moved to Manitoba at the age of four with her Punjabi parents. She encountered her first experience of discrimination in Manitoba as her father, Jasdev Singh Grewal, a turbaned Sikh, cut his hair to integrate with society. Jyoti often cites that it was her father, a lawyer by profession who passed away in 2003, who introduced to her the importance of community work.
With a Bachelor of Arts in Criminology and Sociology, a Master of Arts in Organizational Sociology, and later a PhD in Urban Sociology, in an effort to continue her father’s legacy Gondek worked to fulfill one of his projects to implement Punjabi as a second language option in the Calgary Board of Education.
From then on, she became the principal of her own consulting firm (“Tick”), the director of the Westman Centre for Real Estate Studies at University of Calgary’s Haskayne School of Business, as well as a Councillor for Ward 3 in Calgary amongst many other passion projects.
In her time as a Mayor for Calgary, Jyoti hopes to invest in the arts and creative sectors, transition into an inclusive economic recovery, address economic and social injustices, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, revive Downtown Calgary, prioritize housing and homelessness, build the Greenline – a north-south rapid transit line, and reduce the property taxation proportion that Calgary pays to the province.
Born in Punjabi, India, Amarjeet Sohi moved to Edmonton at the age of 18 with his family. He faced his own experiences of racism in Canada in the 1980’s. As a passionate young theater junkie, Sohi returned to India at the age of 24 with an artist friend and ended up being jailed as a political prisoner for his activism for land reform in Bihar.
Wrongfully dubbed as a terrorist, Sohi faced traumatizing conditions over 21 months in prison. Today, this traumatic experience is part of what drives Sohi to fight for the people of his community.
Upon returning to Edmonton, Sohi worked a myriad of blue-collar jobs, such as flipping burgers, cleaning buildings, delivering newspapers, driving a taxi, and also driving buses. In his time working for the Edmonton Transit System, Sohi became involved in the local union and became a strong advocate for bus drivers in Edmonton.
All while regularly engaging with community advocacy work, Sohi made his move into politics as a Councillor for Ward 6 in Edmonton. Eventually this led to his role as a Member of Parliament for Edmonton Mill Woods and as a Minister of Infrastructure and Communities and a Minister of Natural Resources.
In his time as a Mayor for Edmonton, Sohi aspires to improve quality of life, protect the natural environment and combat climate change, address systemic inequities, enhance public services, build Edmonton’s business community, and prioritize social disparities.
Why Does This Matter?
Despite having initially known nothing about their campaigns or their backgrounds, I found myself rejoicing for Gondek and Sohi and the rest of the South Asian diaspora when news of their monumental wins were announced.
Sense of community is so important to South Asians, so much so that a win by any of us feels like a win for the entire community. However, as I began to read about the lived experiences and progressive platforms of these now-mayors, I realized that Gondek and Sohi being elected as mayors in Alberta is not just a win for South Asians but it is a win for everyone.
The mayoral role within a city is so crucial and difficult. For those of us who may not be familiar with the intricacies of local politics, a mayor’s job in Canada is to act as a leader within an elected council, amid senior staff of the city, within the community and its organizations and use this leadership to empower others to make change.
In a world where we are faced with the onslaught of climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic, housing un-affordability, and more, there is a need not only for visionary leaders but also for diverse leaders from populations that have been severely misrepresented.
As I hope we will all see, Gondek and Sohi’s visionary leadership, commitment to their citizenry, and their representation as BIPOC Canadian’s will help serve Calgary and Edmonton as well as, as a precedent for the rest of Canada.
Here are three things that both leaders exemplify.
- Visionary Leadership
Based on their individual platforms, Gondek and Sohi are each envisioning a much more equitable, resilient, and vibrant Calgary and Edmonton. However, together they also plan to bolster a partnership of sorts to prioritize affordable housing and childcare, and to partner with the provincial government to actualize economic recovery.
- Dedication to Community
While Gondek and Sohi come into their respected mayoral roles with progressive policies and a wealth of knowledge, what stands out most to me is their individual commitments to ਸੇਵਾ (seva - “selfless service”) - whether that be Jyoti continuing her father’s legacy or Amarjeet advocating for bus drivers in Edmonton. Research has shown that decision makers can often have a paternalistic view of the public, so it is refreshing to see two mayors that realize the importance of serving people first.
- Normalize Representation
It is also important to emphasize the importance of diversity in the mayoral role. If you’re ever bored, look up the history of mayors in your city on Wikipedia. What you will likely find is that the theme has often been white males. In the reckoning of Canada as an inherently racist state, it’s time to shake up the status quo and bring in a more diverse set of voices like Gondek and Sohi to reflect the swath of people’s lived experiences and to empower more diverse voices to enter politics and continue this feedback loop. As Gondek iterates, “we have finally demonstrated that women and people of colour can be in leadership positions. I hope we have normalized this now.”
Jyoti, to me, is an inspiration for women of colour everywhere who hope to pursue academia and strive to be future leaders. Her dedication to the City of Calgary is admirable and it is clear that she cares directly about the intersection of people and spaces as an urban sociologist (even in her canvassing efforts).
While Amarjeet does not have a formal education, what’s special about him (besides his very entertaining Tik Tok account) is that we all know an Amarjeet – whether it be your dad, uncle, mom, aunt, etc. He’s hardworking and incredibly driven, and as a result his experience and tenacity are sure to make a difference.
I’m excited to see how Gondek and Sohi progress together and individually for the future of Calgary and Edmonton, and for the rest of Alberta. I think that their role as mayors however will go beyond their home province, and serve as a stepping stone for the rest of Canada.
About the author:Jasmin Senghera (she/her) is a graduate student pursuing her Master of Community and Regional planning at UBC. She also holds a BSc in Environmental Sciences from UBC. As a future urban planner and aspiring writer she is interested in covering her thoughts on all things cities and her South Asian experience. When she isn’t at work or at school, you can find her with her nose in a book or making yet another Spotify playlist.
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