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The October municipal election in Calgary is going to be a lively one. Mayor Naheed Nenshi has announced that he won’t be running again, and that leaves at least seven council seats up for grabs. One of those seats is Ward 7, where Councillor Druh Farrell has served Calgarians since she was first elected in 2001.
Throughout her career, Farrell has pursued an unabashedly progressive vision for Calgary’s future, fighting for projects such as affordable housing, the Green Line and the Peace Bridge—often in the face of intense opposition.
But what was Farrell’s life like before politics, and what’s next for her? Jeremy Appel, The Sprawl’s municipal politics reporter, sat down with Farrell for a wide-ranging interview about the highs and lows of her career—and what’s ahead for both her and the city. A lightly edited transcript of their conversation is below. —Jeremy Klaszus
A conversation with Councillor Druh Farrell
JEREMY APPEL: I was wondering if you could tell me a bit about your life before politics. Tell me about your upbringing, your career trajectory, and your decision to enter public life.
COUN. DRUH FARRELL: Well, I had a very stable upbringing with a lovely family. My parents were quite progressive, and we would discuss politics at home around the dinner table. My father had his own business; he was an entrepreneur, but I learned about the term “living wage” when I was a little kid, long before it was in the popular discourse. And my mother was talked a lot about the civil rights movement in the US. So we would talk a lot about racism and discrimination and equity—maybe not using those terms of the day in the early ’60s, but I think that helped form my values. And I lost my father when I was 15, and that was a very, very difficult time for the whole family, but it, I think, taught me empathy, and understanding at an early age what grief was all about.
I went into design school and became a clothing designer and had a clothing business with my husband, and we exported all through the U.S. And that was about 17 years that I did clothing. [It was] rewarding in one area, where it fed my creative soul, and I love that aspect of colour and design and texture. But I also did a huge amount of volunteering for my community, and that sort of seeded the decision to run for council. I was on my community board. I was on the community planning committee as the chair in Hillhurst-Sunnyside, and also chaired an organization called the Inner City Coalition comprised of about 50-plus community associations that talked about things like density and sustainability. So it just paved the way to a decision to get into politics. I also was the head of the Kensington Business Association, and so brought those different perspectives to the role as a member of council.
APPEL: So that’s interesting that you were a business owner, and a business owner in the fashion industry. I don’t think that’s something that most people associate with left-wing politics. Were you an outlier in there? I mean, you were part of the business association. Were there a lot of disagreements you had with other people in the industry?
FARRELL: No, no, I think because predominantly small business and what it means to be an entrepreneur—take risks—and then my experience with different small businesses within the Kensington area. My mother, also, after my father died, started a women’s clothing store on 17 Avenue, and I worked with her and designed accessories for her store, so I saw the struggles of people who were trying to survive in small business. I don’t see them as antithetical to the work that I do around justice and equity and poverty. Small business is the lifeblood of our society, and we often neglect it. So, no, I don’t see that as working against those values. I see that very much as part of those values. And certainly, my experience with my father helped teach me how important it was to have homegrown, local entrepreneurs trying to survive and thrive in today’s society.
APPEL: You mentioned growing up in the shadow of the civil rights movement. And there have been quite a few political movements since—what comes to mind is the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, and the women’s movement, of course. Were you involved in these sorts of struggles?
FARRELL: Well, I certainly had opinions on them, and certainly with South African apartheid had very strong opinions in solidarity with the people striving for justice. You know, really the only thing that I did was join in boycotts. I’m not sure how effective they were, but I supported them.
And then we always talked about politics at home and it was part of the conversation, so we never shied away from having strong opinions and debating those opinions and, hopefully, adjusting and reforming those opinions. So it just became part of my DNA, thinking about the world around me. I have always been interested in world dynamics, and “act locally, think globally” is part of how I grew up.
If you can’t work in a respectful environment and find a way to work together, then I think you’re a failure as a politician.
APPEL: Fast forward to 2001, and you were elected to council. Who did you run against? Who was your opponent?
FARRELL: Well, I like to think I didn’t run against anyone. I ran for a position. So there was a full slate of candidates, and I did quite well, I think largely because I had so many connections within the ward and within the community and was supported by both grassroots organizations and individuals, but also business, which was interesting. So I have varied interests, and tried to provide a broad perspective on what I would try and do with the job.
APPEL: But was there an incumbent that you were—
FARRELL: No. Bev Longstaff was the previous councillor. I really enjoyed working with Bev, a very progressive councillor who decided to run for mayor. And when the seat became available, then I decided to throw my name in the ring.
APPEL: And was this something that you saw yourself doing for – I mean, maybe not specifically 20 years, but sort of a long-term project, or was it more of, like, a, “Yeah, I’ll give it a try, see what happens,” and here we are?
FARRELL: I never anticipated staying 20 years. I sort of thought that I would get in, stay a couple of terms, and then leave. I can’t imagine staying that long if I hadn’t constantly found new things to sink my teeth into. And so you could look at the job through a few perspectives: You can look at the job as a change agent—and that’s why I ran—or you can look at the job as just simply maintaining the status quo and reacting to a situation. And there was a lot of work to do, so I also realized it takes time to really make a difference. So, no, I never saw this as a life career at all. It sort of evolved into it. But if I would’ve ever been bored or found that I was stagnating, I would’ve backed out sooner.
APPEL: And what was it that kept you running? It was just, there kept being more and more issues that you felt that you were best-suited to address?
FARRELL: Well, I looked at my original campaign brochure not that long ago, and the topics that were interesting to me then, remain. The issue of smart growth—how we grow our city to be more sustainable environmentally, fiscally, socially. The idea of building a more equitable city. Transforming our downtown—that’s a lifetime of commitment. It will require probably another lifetime to get the downtown to turn around. East Village—the idea of transit-oriented development; changing the city so that it’s more walkable, more accessible, greener. The commitment around climate change is something that I care deeply about. Those have been constants throughout my career, and I’ve learned—certainly become more knowledgeable and more sophisticated, but I know that with this job, if you approach it in the right way, you never stop learning. You just learn to know what you don’t know.
APPEL: Who was the mayor in 2001 when you were—
FARRELL: It was Dave Bronconnier and he and I were elected together. He was a councillor prior to running for mayor, and we got elected at the same time – he ran as mayor and I ran as councillor. We didn’t get along initially. It was quite interesting. But we ended up becoming very good friends. But it was initially a lot of fireworks between us, and then we really shared a vision around East Village specifically, but the idea of beauty, building quality, building things to last. Those are values that we shared.
APPEL: You know I’m going to ask to tell me more about the initial fireworks between yourself and Mayor Bronconnier.
FARRELL: [laughs] Oh, I think we just maybe didn’t know each other well. I remember when the first term he was speaking at a chamber event and suggested the members of council he thought shouldn’t get elected again, and I was one of them. So we had it out.
But we ended up really learning to respect each other’s opinion and worked together. He had an extraordinary ability to get things done—a very creative thinker around solutions. And I helped define the problem, and he would often find a solution. For example, East Village was something I ran on—just the lack of hope for this community that was right next to the downtown, at the confluence of two rivers, and had been languishing for decades. That was a battle that I took on, and then he was able to find financial mechanisms to sort of take the vision that I had and help bring it to fruition. So I thought we made a good team.
APPEL: Was there a significant difference in vision between yourself and Bronconnier?
FARRELL: It could’ve been that. It’s hard to say. It was so long ago. I laugh at it now. It must’ve been stressful then, but we stayed in touch, and I really enjoyed him as a mayor. Very different than Mayor Nenshi, but we enjoyed each other. So it was short-lived, this tension. It was an interesting evolution of our relationship. And it goes to show that if you try and find common ground with somebody, you generally can find a way to work together to make the city better, and isn’t that what we were both there for?
Although Calgarians like to think of ourselves as mavericks, we’re often really afraid of change.
APPEL: And then, of course, Mayor Nenshi, as you just alluded to, was elected in 2010. What did you make of him at the time? I know he was a political outsider—you know, obviously the first Muslim mayor in North America. But in terms of his broader vision for the city, how did it fit in with yours?
FARRELL: I knew Mayor Nenshi before he got elected. I’ve known him for a number of years. We sat on the imagineCALGARY working group together, so I knew he was smart and energetic and would bring a really new perspective to the city, so I was thrilled when he got elected. I think Calgarians woke up the next morning and saw themselves differently. Maybe they surprised themselves, that they would elect a very progressive, intellectual, Muslim mayor, and that isn’t how I—I didn’t see Naheed as a Muslim mayor. I saw him as a very smart person who cared deeply about the city, and his first campaign, “campaigning in full sentences,” was a real treat. And, you know, the advent of populist politics was sort of starting to happen then, and he transcended that, and that was a pleasure.
APPEL: And through your 20 years on council, two different mayors, how have you seen the city evolve, not just physically—with, say, East Village and those types of things—but also in terms of the discourse in the city?
FARRELL: Well, I think in some ways we have gone backwards in the last number of years. Calgary has always seen itself as a bit of a big small town, and although we like to think of ourselves as mavericks, we’re often really afraid of change, and quite small-c conservative in our approach to things. But I really saw Calgary as starting to take these giant leaps forward – you know, with the arts, with development, with sort of our more global perspective. I think in the last while, perhaps at the advent of really partisan, tribal politics, I see a real drive to take us backwards. And that worries me, because I don’t think anyone wins with that.
APPEL: Do you think that that has to do with the fact that prior to 2015 there was this, you know, political giant of the PC Party that was the only game in town, so people were maybe more pragmatic, and then the NDP got selected and suddenly we had a two-party system? What role do you think that played in sort of –and I don’t mean to blame the NDP for this—coarsening our political discussion?
FARRELL: I don’t know if that had anything to do with that. I saw the real shift where—and this is a global phenomenon. This isn’t unique to Calgary. But there was the advent of the Manning Centre. They started in Calgary. They specifically wanted to control Calgary city council. It was funded by a handful of suburban developers. There was a very famous video that one of the participants of one of these meetings ended up filming it and then it went public. But it was really an effort to control council. So it was an interesting combination of the Manning Centre—you know, a right-wing think tank—and a partnership with suburban developers, which I think was an unholy marriage, frankly, because we were talking about how to pay for growth, and so where was the politics of it, and where was the self-interest? But they tried to weigh into city politics and control it like I had never seen before. I think that’s scary. And so then out of that came the effort for political action committees.
But we’re seeing this around the world. And the beauty of cities is it’s nonpartisan, and it’s pretty hard to be partisan when you’re delivering clean water, or garbage collection, or transit. I mean, what’s partisan about delivering services that Calgarians need? And so to boil everything down to a right or left… Is it left to have clean water supply? I don’t think so.
APPEL: I think some people would say it is—like, people on the left—because the right is often trying to obstruct these sorts of projects.
FARRELL: Well, I think that’s a new thing. When I first got elected, we had members of council who I didn’t even know who they lean toward as far as provincial or federal politics. It wasn’t discussed. And it would really boil down to each individual decision. If a member of council voted against something I wanted, we would just agree to disagree, kind of dust yourself off, and go for lunch. And this partisanship, this tribalism, that’s entering politics, that is a new phenomenon, and it is a very dangerous one, and we should fight it. So I would hope with this new council they could find ways to find common ground and let go of these partisan issues and just talk about what’s best for Calgarians as a whole.
APPEL: Are you concerned that with the proliferation of these political action committees—or third-party advertisers, as they’re technically known in Canada—who are allowed to just sort of flood the airwaves with their messages, don’t have to be true or false … Now with the UCP, a person can donate to as many of them as they want, up to $30,000, and they can spend as much money outside the election period as they want. That’s going to make it a lot harder for there to be a more conciliatory environment at council, right?
FARRELL: Yeah, that’s not a good thing. It’s dark money: They don’t have to identify who they are. Calgary and Alberta are sort of known as a bit of a Wild West when it comes to campaign finances anyway, where we, in the past, weren’t required to list our donors prior to an election—and that’s really important, that people know who supports you. And political action committees and large amounts of money just erode the democratic system. And when I first got elected, I think we spent under $20,000, and I did very well in my first election.
Now civic elections are upwards of a hundred, two hundred, three hundred thousand dollars. It’s really difficult if you don’t have a swack of money behind you, but it’s not impossible. Evidence of that is, when Mayor Nenshi won, he underspent Ric McIver, and he was able to do it because of just the sheer volume of volunteers—you know, grassroots effort. And I don’t think anything beats grassroots movement, but it does make it harder. And so if we really care about democracy in our country, in our province, we’ll try and get that big money out of politics.
One of the best pieces of advice I ever had was… leave breadcrumbs. Explain why you’re doing things.
APPEL: Did that play a role in your decision to call it quits?
FARRELL: No. No. I approach campaigns in a values-based way, and I never trash-talked my competitor. I never thought of them as running against me; I thought of them as running for the job. I always stuck to my values and expected my campaign team to do the same thing, and talked about my vision for Calgary, and if Calgarians decided to make a choice that they didn’t like that vision anymore, then I would respect that decision. That’s what democracy is all about. And, no, I would’ve proceeded along that line.
It’s been 20 years; I don’t think I need to have a reason why I’m retiring [laughs], but I made a decision during the last campaign that this would be my last term. And certainly, the acrimony that happens in council hasn’t helped try and make me change my mind. I don’t know if anything could’ve made me change my mind. But I do worry about the future and will do whatever I can to ensure that we keep politics with integrity.
APPEL: Do you have sort of a successor in mind? I know there are three candidates right now running in Ward 7, one who used to work for you quite some time ago, Heather McRae. And Marilyn North Peigan, who would be, I believe, the first Blackfoot Piikani woman to be elected to council. Have you spoken to either of them about their campaigns?
FARRELL: No, I haven’t. I’m certainly open to talking to any candidate who wants to learn about the issues and learn about the ward. But no, I do not have a successor in mind. I don’t believe you can choose your successor. That’s up to my constituents and Calgarians to decide, and they will decide on the best candidate for the time. And I fully suspect that there will be more candidates. It’ll be an open ward. And it’s only been a couple of weeks since I announced, and I expect there will be more candidates coming.
APPEL: So you’re not going to make an endorsement.
FARRELL: No, I won’t. No.
APPEL: What about for mayor?
FARRELL: We’ll see. I think there’s still some people that will come forward as well, and I’ll have to make a decision whether I publicly talk about candidates. I might retweet a few people and speak privately with people who are asking my opinion, but at this point, no, I don’t have a favourite. I know some people who I would rather not be—
APPEL: Yeah, I wanted to talk about—
FARRELL: —but I’m not going to speak about that. I don’t know when truth became optional in politics, and I believe that if you run a dirty campaign, that’s how you will govern. And so I hold everyone up to—including myself—up to a high standard of, you know, speak the truth, be honest about your beliefs and the way you’re going to vote in the future, what you support and what you don’t, and let the electorate decide that. But you can’t be all things to all people. You also have to recognize that. But we’re seeing more and more where people are just saying anything, and that’s a scary proposition just for society.
APPEL: Well, and they don’t even need to say anything themselves. They just have the PACs do it for them. And attack their opponents as—I’ll ask you about that specifically in a bit because you’ve been targeted by some of these PACs, quite aggressively, in recent years. But I think you’re suggesting that some candidates do also get their hands dirty in that regard.
FARRELL: It’s all right to point out obvious flaws of candidates who are running. However, if you are relying on somebody else to do your dirty work for you, and they’re putting out stuff that’s obviously not true, or warping the truth, then what does that say about that candidate? So with all of my campaigns, my campaign team knew that I was going to hold all of us to a high moral standard because it reflected on me, and I wasn’t just a product, I’m the candidate. And so during a campaign, if you’re going to weaken your values at that time, what does that say about you as a person, and what does that say about you as a leader?
APPEL: Now, of course, on any board, you have people who share your vision and core beliefs, and you have people who don’t, who are frustrating to deal with, I guess you could say. On city council the stakes are a lot higher. Obviously there are councillors you see eye-to-eye with and those you don’t, so tell me a bit about that—how you navigate the different relationships you have with your colleagues on council.
FARRELL: Well, I think in order to be successful on council you have to be able to build relationships. You’re one vote, and you need eight votes to get anything through. You also need to develop relationships with city administration. They’re the experts. And so if you can’t work in a respectful environment and find a way to work together, then I think you’re a failure as a politician. What we’re seeing on this particular council is some members of—you know what? If I brought a motion forward that said the sun will rise in the east, they would probably vote against it. And that, I think, is that weakening, that hyper-partisanship, that’s entering into politics. And I think we should all be saying that that’s not acceptable.
But I would say the vast majority of council members will look at the issue and vote on the issue, so we still have the majority of members of council who will make a decision based on that. And I think that’s the strength of municipal politics.
I’m a small, soft-spoken woman who probably should support powerful men. And so I’ve been very effective.
APPEL: And are there councillors who you don’t see eye-to-eye with politically but you actually get along with quite well outside of the council chambers, or are those days past?
FARRELL: I think even people I get along with politically or we generally see—I mean, there’s always tension, it’s human nature, and you just have to learn to work with people, in all aspects of life. So maybe it’s maturity. But I am seeing an erosion of civic discourse, and I think this new council will have an opportunity to get that back. I don’t really dismiss anyone as a fait accompli. I try and make an effort to explain why I want to go a certain direction.
One of the best pieces of advice I ever had was from a former city manager. I tend to be way ahead in my thinking. I mean, I think Don Braid once said I brought the city of Calgary kicking and screaming into the 21st century [laughs]. So the advice that the city manager gave was: Leave breadcrumbs. Explain why you’re doing things, and maybe make decisions in an incremental way that helps move the city forward gradually rather than in giant leaps. And that was very sound advice.
So when I’m working with my colleagues, I try and explain why I think this is good for the city, but also absorb new information from them on their perspective, because we bring ward perspective as well, and that’s more, you know, regional parts of the city; and then adapt my opinion to help reach consensus. And it’s been very successful. I’ve had very few failures in my 20 years.
APPEL: But when you mentioned earlier about how some of your opponents have misrepresented your positions and lied about you and attacked you personally, I mean, surely you’re referring to some people in particular. Who?
FARRELL: No, that’s not who I am. You know, I won those elections, and I just dusted myself off and moved forward and did the work. And I worked very hard, and I have always looked at the lens of, am I making decisions that work for the next generation? That’s the lens that I always found helped me make good decisions, or decisions that fit my values, is: does it make the city better for the next generation? And it’s really hard for politicians to make long-term decisions, because the value of those decisions aren’t always readily apparent. And you have to, sometimes, take those risks. The Peace Bridge is one example. I knew that was a good decision for the future and would be a challenge for the present. But it was worth it, and I’d do it again.
APPEL: Yeah. I was actually speaking to former Ward 11 councillor Brian Pincott recently for a piece I was working on, and he mentioned the Peace Bridge in particular as sort of a struggle for him to justify to his constituents, who don’t – you know, it’s not in his ward. It is in your ward, right?
APPEL: Okay. And did you also have challenges justifying it to your constituents, who were actually directly affected by it, or was it an easier sell to them?
FARRELL: That was certainly a mix. I mean, it was political for a whole number of reasons. It came up sort of during an election period, sort of at a time when we were starting to see these hyper-partisan elections. It was the first really major infrastructure for pedestrians and cyclists exclusively, other than our pathway system. The same day as we voted on the Peace Bridge, we spent a couple billion dollars on transportation projects, road projects. So it was, I think, controversial because it was for active mobility.
It was also controversial because it was unabashedly beautiful. And I remember my brother was at a dinner party, and somebody at the party found out he was my brother and said, “You tell your sister that if we want beauty, we will go to Brussels or Paris, but in Calgary we just need it to work.” And I think that, to me, showed that we’re a boom-and-bust city. A lot of people moved here to make their fortune and then had no intention of living here when they got older. They planned on leaving and retiring elsewhere, and those long-term investments were seen as wasteful because this was a place where you made your money. And so that was a struggle.
But there were also people who really, really loved the idea of a beautiful bridge over our beautiful river, and so when we had the opening, 7,000 people showed up at the opening of the Peace Bridge, and within a couple of weeks my number-one opponent, who was campaigning against the Peace Bridge, had in his campaign literature the photograph of his headshot on the Peace Bridge. So I figured that it was going to be okay.
APPEL: What would you say were your major accomplishments in your 20 years on council, and why do you consider them to be particularly noteworthy?
FARRELL: Well, you know, it’s very hard, after 20 years, to come up with a list of accomplishments. There are many, from accessibility to East Village. I think the most physical is East Village, some major downtown projects, the river pathway, Eau Claire, Memorial Drive, curbside recycling. That was the first motion I brought forward, by the way, was, in 2002, I think, I brought forward a motion to look at curbside recycling and composting, and it took 10 years, so it goes to show how you have to be persistent in order to get things done.
But I think what I’m most proud of is that I based my decisions on how it will help the next generation. So from climate to sustainability to affordable housing to equity, it’s always through that lens, and that’s what I’m most proud of. I’ve never made decisions based on tomorrow’s headlines. I was open to making difficult decisions that maybe weren’t popular for the day. It’s not like I didn’t listen to my constituents. I did. I listened, I consulted, I adapted, I tried to find ways to build consensus, and then I made a decision. But it was always through that lens, and that’s what I’m most proud of. I never deviated from that.
I don’t want to be one of those retired politicians who chirps from the sidelines.
APPEL: I wanted to ask about the Green Line, because you’ve been a staunch proponent of that, as well as other councillors who don’t necessarily fall where you do on the political spectrum. Of course, it’s had some roadblocks, I would say, from the provincial government. I was wondering, do you think it’s going to get built in full at some point in the near future?
FARRELL: I hope so. It’s the right thing to do. It’s a project that will help bring Calgary into the future. We know that the future of transportation is public transport. It’s the most efficient use of space, and it’s the most efficient use of transportation dollars, and Calgary desperately needs it. We need it for the jobs during construction, and we definitely need it for equitable transportation system that serves a huge part of our city. I believe that we will go forward with a portion of it now. We have funding from the city; we have funding from the federal government; and it’s really up to the province if it goes the whole distance.
And I’m not sure why they don’t see value in this project. It’s quite distressing, considering the rigor that we’ve gone through to analyze, the consultation—years and years of the most in-depth consultation I’ve ever seen—and to then, at the 11th hour, say that it’s a train to nowhere, that’s insulting to every community along the route. It’s the first really urban train system that we will have. We’ve got a hub-and-spoke LRT system. It works very well; it serves Calgary very well. But the Green Line is a truly urban system that will create places, community hubs, all along its length, and it’s critical for the future. So regardless of whether it happens in full in the next couple of years, it will happen. It’s just the right thing to do. It’s the way you plan modern cities.
It’s interesting what we’ve seen in the last little while, and it gives me a tremendous amount of hope. We’re seeing young people get involved, and they’re changing the game. They want different things than my generation wants. I want my generation to have a good life, but we have to build the city for the future. And so what we saw with the Southwest Bus Rapid Transit, we saw students and community advocates speaking out for public transit. When I first got elected, nobody spoke out for public transit. And people are more global now. They’ve traveled; they see how people get around around the world, and they know public transit is the way of the future and they’re willing to speak out for it.
I hope that through this upcoming election, we have that generation get behind candidates that they support and help them get elected. And I hope younger people also run and bring that fresh perspective to the council table.
APPEL: But you won’t endorse them if they do.
FARRELL: [laughs] I’m waiting to see all the candidates. But maybe I will. We’ll see. If there’s somebody that really inspires me, then I might help, and help campaign. But it’s a little early on, and I don’t think Calgarians are particularly thinking about the election yet. Insiders are, but I don’t think Calgarians are.
APPEL: Yeah. Nerds like me are, but …
FARRELL: Yeah. We’ll live and breathe it until the election day.
APPEL: I wanted to ask you about fluoridation.
APPEL: Because I think that that’s one issue where a lot of people who are otherwise strong supporters of you and the work you do sort of wonder where you’re coming from on this issue. So let’s clear the air here: What is your position on fluoridation?
FARRELL: I’m not a fan of water fluoridation. One percent of our drinking water is actually consumed, and the rest goes down the toilet, water the lawn. I’m concerned about dental health, and what I probably haven’t been very good at getting the message out is water fluoridation isn’t going to solve the dental health crisis that we’re experiencing in North America. Tooth decay is going up. Regardless of whether a city fluoridates or not, tooth decay is on the rise. And in Alberta we have the most expensive dental care in the country. It’s unaffordable. And so we need to be broader. So it’s certainly not about fluoridating water.
What worried me about water fluoridation is people thought they were done. It’s like a silver bullet—they could vote for this and then we don’t talk about it again. And meanwhile the dental health of children is deteriorating. So it was oversimplified as a solution, and it’s not a silver bullet. We need to be much broader, and we need affordable dental care for children in low income. And we need to talk about diet and health, and we’re getting away with not talking about those really important things. And so whether we put it back in the water or not, that is up for discussion for a future council. But we can’t lose sight of the need for better health for our children, and that’s more complicated.
APPEL: I think a lot of people, like the mayor, would agree with you that fluoridation isn’t a silver bullet. It’s not going to do much on its own, but it’s something, and it’s something that the city can do, unlike something like having a national dental care program like they do in the U.K. That’s outside of your control as a city councillor, but fluoridation is something you can do. So how do you respond to that line of criticism?
FARRELL: That the conversation stopped there. I think it made us feel comfortable that we had done all we needed to do, and in the meanwhile Edmonton, a city that fluoridates, the tooth decay is on the rise. It’s more complicated than that. It kind of reminds me a little bit of homeless shelters versus housing for people. If we build another homeless shelter, we may think that we’ve done our bit, but we still have homelessness. And so it’s a complicated problem that needs a complicated solution, a systemic solution. And the issue of water fluoridation has oversimplified it to the point where people have been absolved of a responsibility.
APPEL: I want to bring it back now to some of the criticisms you faced, which we’ve been alluding to previously, but I wanted to ask about them more specifically because there seems to me to be sort of a uniquely visceral hatred of you in some circles—and not just you, but Mayor Nenshi and Evan Woolley and Diane Colley-Urquhart. What do you think is going on there? You know, like Save Calgary. I mean, you’re their public enemy number one. There’s certainly an element of misogyny there, but at the same time they also, again, are strongly opposed to other politicians and attack them in similar disparaging, fact-free ways, who aren’t women. So what’s going on there?
FARRELL: Oh, I think there’s a certain amount of misogyny there. I mean, I’m a small, soft-spoken woman who probably should support powerful men. And so I’ve been very effective. And generally when I would bring an issue forward, it was well researched. I had done a significant amount of background work and consultation and was generally successful. So I think that, for people who didn’t like, or don’t like, a more forward-thinking city, that that may be threatening to them. And so what better than to attack the individual? But I know that one member of the media said I’m the toughest politician he’s ever seen. And I’m actually not tough. I’m a big softy, and I have a lot of compassion. But I am focused. I know what I want to achieve. And I took all that as just noise. And so I just let it brush over me and kept my eye on the ball.
We’re here as politicians to serve, and that has to be done with humility and grace.
But it’s been interesting, because, yes, it has been more visceral. And the media plays some role in that as well. One member of media referred to me for years as “Druh the Shrew,” and that’s just a misogynist term. Initially when I first got elected, almost every article included something to do with my size—I’m a very small woman—or what I wore and my appearance. And I hope that we hold the media to a higher standard as well because that’s demeaning to women, and it certainly doesn’t help women want to run. It’s a deterrent. And we need more diverse voices. We need all genders around the table, and we need the diversity that is Calgary. Let’s celebrate it, and let’s reflect it.
APPEL: And that certain columnist—I know you’re not keen on naming names, but I’ll name him: Rick Bell—why’d he stop calling you that? Did someone from your team reach out to him and be like, “That’s going a little too far”? Or was it he got bored, he found some other shiny object to chase?
FARRELL: Maybe. I mean, during the Peace Bridge, the media saw blood in the water, and it became quite shocking in its intensity. I mean, I like to say that the Peace Bridge just really reflects the lashes on my back—the cross hatches. But I think during the opening of the Peace Bridge it was a year and a half of constant, constant misinformation, hostility, just outrage for a project that’s actually quite small. And, interesting, at the time we approved the Peace Bridge, there was a temporary offramp for one roadway that was $20 million, and it was going to be temporary. And it’s since been demolished, so it was a throwaway, and that was at the same time as the Peace Bridge, so $20 million versus $25 million, and permanent structure. It’s become an emblem for the city. But I think during the opening of the Peace Bridge, I cried the entire day. I can’t tell you how many tears I’ve shed over that thing. I’d do it again, by the way. But I think the media then realized they went too far.
APPEL: Were these tears of sadness, or joy?
FARRELL: Of all. It was an unburdening of unbelievable pressure of a period of years. I mean, I became the focal point of this bridge because I was defending it. It was the right thing to do, and as I said, I would do it again. I think it’s beautiful, and it’s now become representative of our city. But it was pretty brutal. So yeah, I think tears of relief. Seven thousand people showed up to celebrate it. It was tears of joy. It was just an unburdening of a whole bunch of pressure. I never wanted to see another politician have to go through that kind of thing again, and I would hope that Calgarians would step in and try and protect those people if they became the flashpoint for that kind of hostility. It was out of proportion.
APPEL: Now that you’re leaving the political arena, do you intend on continuing to speak out on issues as they pertain to the city, maybe as they pertain to the province, now that you’re sort of unburdened by this focus on municipal issues, or national issues, global issues? I mean, you talked about dental care. That’s something that’s certainly out of the city’s control. What does your career post-politics look like?
FARRELL: Well, I’m going to take a break. I need a much-needed rest and restoration. And then we’ll see. I’m pretty open about my political views on social media, and I don’t limit them to city issues. I’m interested in provincial, federal, global, issues. We can’t isolate ourselves from the impacts of those, so I’m pretty open about my opinions. And I probably will continue to be. I have to be careful. I don’t want to be one of those retired politicians who chirps from the sidelines [laughs], so I’ll have to be judicious in how and what I comment on. But no, I’m not going to go away. It’s just part of who I am, and I observe the world around me and envision how it could be better, and that won’t stop.
APPEL: What advice do you have for young people who are getting engaged politically? What advice do you have for them based on your 20 years in public life?
FARRELL: I love talking to young people to try and inspire them to use their voice, because their voice matters. And what I have seen over the years, particularly with more young people speaking out, that their voice has a tremendous amount of power. And so use it. Don’t waste it. We see a lower ratio of young voters, for example. If more people voted, they could change the world. But in between elections, lean in. Speak up. Tell us what you want.
We’re losing young people in the city. We’re losing young people in the province of Alberta. That means a province without a future. They don’t see their values reflected. So there are certain things that are non-negotiables to them. They believe in racial justice. They believe in LGBTQ justice. Those are non-negotiable. They need to see those values reflected in their governments. And they can do that by just using their voice, and there are a myriad of ways that they can do that. And so that’s what I say to young people, is I don’t think they recognize how powerful they are, and a lot of people are afraid of that. They’re afraid of young people having that power. And so I encourage them.
And as for the next group of civic leaders: lead with humility. What I’m seeing lately is people are getting into politics and they’re fully formed. They know everything. When you get into this position, you know nothing. There’s so much to learn. Twenty years in, I am still learning. And know what you don’t know, and listen to the experts, because we have amazing people who work at the city, and they know their work. And believe in servant leadership. I mean, we’re here as politicians to serve, and that has to be done with humility and grace. And I think, finally, be kind, because we need more kindness right now. And so I think those are values that will just get us through life, regardless of whether you’re involved in the political arena.
APPEL: I think that’s a great place to end. Thank you so much for your time, Druh.
Jeremy Appel is the municipal politics reporter for The Sprawl.
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