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Calgary mayoral forum: Non-profits, charities and the connection to Calgary prosperity

Collaboration was the key word at one of the first mayoral forums prior to Calgary’s upcoming municipal election.

The virtual event was hosted by the Association of Fundraising Professionals, Calgary and Area Chapter, and focused on the city’s role in fostering partnerships with the dozens of organizations across Calgary.

Five mayoral hopefuls attended the vision-style forum: Jan Damery, Brad Field, Jyoti Gondek, Zane Novak and Grace Yan. Each attendee was given a minute to open and then out of seven questions, responses were randomly sought from at least two candidates.

Read our intro profiles on these candidates and more on candidates in your respective wards here (and then bookmark it!)

It wasn’t a debate per se, but it offered each candidate the chance to set out their vision for Calgary.

That didn’t stop Jan Damery from opening with a splash, taking aim at the only current sitting member of council in attendance.

“Current council is divisive, it’s dysfunctional and it’s ineffective,” she said.

“Being part of council means you’re part of the problem and not part of the solution.”

Most candidates’ opening described their experience and their general vision for the city: bringing back vibrancy, establishing partnerships and listening to the perspectives of Calgarians.

Candidate Zane Novak said Calgary was once a place brimming with opportunity; it was a city with one of the highest likelihoods of a person finding success.

“I no longer see that. So, it’s motivated me to take a greater role in how this city is unfolding,” he said.

The downtown and non-profit contribution to economy

The first question was on the vision for Calgary’s downtown and how non-profits would play a role in that vision.   

Jyoti Gondek championed the city’s recent Greater Downtown plan, noting that its development brought together key stakeholders – including non-profits. Gondek said for too long the downtown was just a place for head offices.

“It was a place that you came to your work, and then you went home to somewhere else. And that’s something that’s held us back,” she said.   Gondek said the city needs to create a regulatory system that spurs a wide-range of businesses, amenities and improvements in the core.

Candidates were asked about how they would engage the charitable and non-profit sector as contributors to the economy.

Brad Field said the first step was to recognize their economic contributions. He said they are part of the economic engine.

“They provide employment, they spend money locally on goods and services, in some cases, they pay property taxes,” he said.

Field said all stakeholders had to be at the table from the start of the discussion and reduce bureaucracy so the organizations could focus their effort on the work they do.

Novak said greater collaboration was key. He wanted to see the amalgamation of back-end services like human resources and accounting. Sharing that expense could free up more resources for programs and services.

Civic Partners

Jan Damery said the City needs to get out of the way and enable the 17 civic partners to do their work in Calgary. That was in response to a question on how they would support those partners.

“The conditions that are placed on funding by the city and other levels of government and other funders actually get in the way of that agency doing amazing, powerful work,” she said.

Damery, former VP with the YWCA Calgary said these organizations often feel “handcuffed” by reporting regulations and specificity in where money is spent.

Novak said the city could be a mentor to these organizations to help them deploy the funds in the most efficient way. He also said a program like one he’s implemented – gain share – would enable employees or volunteers of the partners contribute to idea on creating efficiency within the different partners.

Grace Yan said she’d like a better understanding of what each partner does and the needs they have. From there, she’d like to set out a plan to boost donations and trim operating costs to improve overall return on investment.

Mental health and addictions

When it comes to handling mental health and addictions, Brad Field said the front-line agencies are the experts.

“City council, as mayor, we have to learn to listen and engage in conversation with an open mind and open heart to learning and to better facilitating the success of these agencies within the City of Calgary,” he said.

Field advocated for a neighbours-helping-neighbours approach, to lessen the burden on taxed first responders. That includes prioritizing public safety and security, he said. Field also said a housing-first strategy that also looked at short-term housing will fill a gap in services.

Jyoti Gondek said the city has stepped back from the role of trying to be the experts and they’ve worked on amalgamating resources as Novak had suggested. They’ve also incorporated a housing-first model.

“I think we’ve evolved from the mindset we must lead every project to we must be the convener of the people that can best help us accomplish our goals,” she said.

Homelessness – can it be ended?

Jan Damery said Calgary’s been working for 15 years on the 10-year plan to end homelessness. Building 100-200 affordable housing units a year won’t address the need that’s out there, she said. Damery also said the key is in providing wraparound services to go with it.

“I think we’ve actually got to level up,” she said.  

“This is about scaling to really ensure that we are meeting people where they’re at, getting the support to navigate the system, and making sure to that we’ve got those services available.”

It’s important to give social agencies the resources they need to tackle the complex work they’re tasked with, Damery said.

Grace Yan said Calgary should look at the plan executed by Medicine Hat, where they claim to have ended homelessness. Yan also said the focus should be on addressing mental health and addictions, we can accelerate the reduction in homelessness in Calgary.

A Calgary for all

Candidates were asked about one step that could be taken to create a Calgary for all.

Gondek said quite often the City is tied to following, to the letter, its policy and procedures. That needs to relax a bit, she said.

“I think as a city, we are sometimes so mired in the way we’ve always done things and the way we need to do them according to a procedure bylaw that we forget there’s people that we actually serve,” she said.

Gondek also said the city needs to foster a safer space to talk – for all citizens.

Novak said the issue comes down to leadership. He said the polarization that’s infested the city has a real problem. He’s seen it at city hall.

“There is such a lack of commonality, a lack of willingness to sit together to talk and to come up with a way that works best,” he said.

Novak said city council needs to lead as a team.

“It’s been a long time since Calgary’s had a win and I think part of that comes down to leadership,” he said.

“Everything gets kicked down the road. I mean, we wait for years on new infrastructure for transit, we wait for years or decisions on an arena. In the meantime, other communities are passing us.”

A video of the full forum can be found on the AFP Calgary website. (It includes a question on densification and the role of non-profits and community associations in engagement prior to decisions being made.)

The Calgary municipal election will be held Oct. 18, 2021.