Meet a candidate for mayor: Jan Damery


Calgary will soon see a new face in the mayor’s chair.

In advance of the Oct. 18 municipal election, CBC Calgary is profiling five leading candidates in the mayoral race; the other profiles can be found here.

Candidate Jan Damery spoke with CBC’s Sarah Rieger about her story, her vision for Calgary and why she feels she is the right person to lead this city into its next chapter. 

Here’s what she had to say.

(Editor’s note: Her comments have been edited for length and clarity.) 

On coming to Calgary

I grew up on the north side of the tracks [in Edmonton.] I went to a large high school … [that] was known as a bit of a rough school … very much lower-income, working class.

My dad worked two jobs as long as I can remember. Mom worked nights so that we could get our first house … I think they just barely qualified for a mortgage. So there was always this work ethic … [they] bought their first home just as I was starting Grade 1.

My father has a large extended family. I have the great gift of knowing all four of my grandparents, and my mom’s dad was highly influential in my life, particularly in terms of service to community. I’m seeking my first public office position, which he would be incredibly proud of because his dream for me was I would be prime minister. 

[It was a] very sporty family. I grew up going to football games, hockey games. 

I was also, significantly, the first person in my family on both sides to go to university.

I actually went into university to be in pre-med, initially, and one of my options was economics. I fell in love with it.

Jan Damery grew up in Edmonton, and moved to Calgary as an adult when she was working for an oil and gas company. (Submitted by Jan Damery’s campaign)

I finished the top of my class. That led me to go to UBC to do my master’s degree. And then I came back and taught at the University of Alberta.

I was working at [Alberta’s] department of energy … as they were deregulating the natural gas industry. 

My [colleague] and I were younger than 25, and at the time there were huge federal-provincial negotiations going on between the various energy ministers. There was this big energy conference in Kananaskis. And so [we] were asked to drive vans, but we were too young! And I still remember the assistant deputy minister saying, ‘Oh my God, we’ve got these young analysts doing this leading-edge work as we, sort of, forge these deregulation agreements. They can’t even drive a rental car.

In 1990, TransCanada moved its head office from Toronto. One of the vice-presidents said, “you need to come work with me because I think you know the system better than some of our people.” That was how I ended up in Calgary.

My husband at the time and I, the first house we bought … was in Shawnessy.

I, though, tend to be more of an inner-city kind of girl … after a couple of years, we were able to buy a house in Hillhurst. [When] that marriage ended, I bought my first house solo in Haysboro from a girlfriend … I painted it yellow on the inside.

[TransCanada] had a package at the time where they were paying people to go do not-for-profit work. I agreed to go over to the United Way … I thought I’d be there six months. I stayed six years.

[My current husband], Paul, I met when I was travelling around the globe working for the Aga Khan University. Ironically, I met Paul online — he lived in Canmore. He had young boys … they were born and raised in Canmore, so I agreed to move to Canmore for that period. 

The path to politics

I was travelling a lot, almost 180 days of the year … it was hard on the family. So we started to look at what else I wanted to do.

My friend Sue at YWCA had been trying to talk me into joining her because they had their sights at that time on building the new YWCA home … I fell in love with the organization, fell in love with the opportunity to build legacy infrastructure for our city. 

My career is probably unusual. I think the common thread through all of these is sort of empowering people.

(Ed.: Damery returned to Calgary, eventually settling in Altadore. They share the home with their dog, Padre.)

What a blessing to have this kind of neighbourhood.

I have an artificial right knee [that was replaced when I was 45]. Originally, it was a horseback-riding incident, and when I was 14 and because I was a jock, I didn’t respect the injury. 

When we moved to Altadore, there was something called 9Round [circuit training with kickboxing]. I got addicted to it … [that, and] I love walking the dog, that’s always been my sanctuary and solace — [that’s why] I’ve been so adamant about making sure pedestrians can get around our city. 

[During] our first two weeks living on the street, all the neighbours had a tradition of doing something on Neighbour Day called Wine Walk, where … people would kind of go from house to house. 

It was an amazing way to meet our neighbours, and many of them are [now] working on my campaign. 

Service to community — I’m wired by that.

I was concerned coming out of the pandemic about a singular focus on energy. We are way more than that. And I’m very concerned about us losing our young. I’ve got a 24-year-old stepson who left the city a year ago because he could not get a job here as an apprentice carpenter. He’s now in Victoria, thriving. 

I have the skillset for mayor because I know how to bring diverse people together. That is, I believe, one of the key roles of a mayor, and I am not seeing it in the current councillors. [So I was] almost feeling a tap on the shoulder: “Jan, it’s time to serve.”

On the issues: property taxes

I’ve said that I’m committed to two terms as mayor because it’s going to take a renegotiation of our property tax system with the province. It actually is provincial legislation. I don’t feel a lot of people understand that the city … [has] very limited powers.

There’s unfairness — what I don’t like about the system is we see what happened with the hollowing out of land values downtown. 

We pit residential owners against business owners … we have to look at a different system.

I want to put a freeze on business taxes for the first four years out of reserves. We’ve got businesses that need to recover … they need that certainty.

But what I’ve said in terms of the residential file, we’ll stabilize taxes and they’ll only grow via population and inflation.

We have several candidates saying they’re going to cut taxes. It’s impossible given the communities we have brought on in the city — we already are seeing suffering in services. So we’ve got to make sure that we’re balancing and managing those expectations.

On the issues: revitalizing downtown

As an economist, [I believe] we have not paid enough attention to our local economy and shining the light, particularly, on a lot of the local tech and innovation that is going on in our city. 

One of the big challenges we’re finding across all sectors … is lack of talent, particularly in digital. Because I think of technology and digital as horizontal, it touches all of these different industries and we don’t have [it] if we’re not graduating sufficient talent. 

The idea that I’m building [is to] repurpose square footage downtown, helping our post-secondaries increase their downtown campus presence, so that we are graduating thousands of digital and tech students. 

[This] then attracts other businesses and also fuels the scaling of existing businesses. And by having campuses downtown, we start to see students, young people, living and working downtown. Our downtown has never been a neighbourhood. It’s always emptied out around 4 p.m. because of eastern markets. We need people living 24-7. 

Jan Damery oversaw fundraising for the YWCA’s new hub in Inglewood. (Submitted by Jan Damery’s campaign)

I’ve said [I’ll help create] 80,000 new jobs.

Like attracts like. Ever wondered why there’s usually a whole bunch of coffee shops on the same corner? It actually grows the market, and so we need to be working with our business leaders … and attracting more like industries.

We also have to put the cool back into Calgary. We’ve heard this from outsiders … our downtown wasn’t cool enough.

We have to invest in arts and entertainment. I’ve got an idea as well where we put a surf park on the Bow River. 

You’ll see that I’m a real systemic thinker, [it’s] how we put all these levers in place that drives the economy.

On the issues: the Green Line

I’m pro Green Line and I’m pro Green Line going north.

The Green Line … is the backbone of the network that we can start to connect to all of our neighbourhoods. We have communities in the north who are so under-resourced with transit. So the commitment is to try to get that line to at least [96th Avenue] and then also have other connector routes.

The market is going to tell us if they will bear the risk of cost overruns or uncertainty, if we cannot get fixed-price contracts, which I know is the strategy right now of the current municipal government; then we have to look at different alternatives to manage within budget.

I also built infrastructure in my pipeline days. I am committed to building within scope and managing within the budget. And so if we cannot overlay the risk on the market, then we have to reconfigure how we’re going to do it. 

On the issues: the new arena

I’m pro arena and the latest deal, which took a lot of [challenges] to come about. But it’s a good deal in the end because it puts the risk of any cost overruns on the private partner. So we are not risking public dollars. We’ve made our commitment to it.

But it’s important that we are a partner in that project — because we can ensure that we get the revitalized entertainment district in and around that arena, which is really important for revitalizing our downtown and making it a place that people want to be.

On the issues: the environment

I have a three-point plan to get us to finally meet our carbon emission targets. The city has failed consistently.

It’s actually to have an accountability framework with city managers and some incentives to ensure that we’re meeting those targets by reducing emissions in city operations. 

The second piece is working with Enmax to get them to net-zero by 2045. They’re already thinking this way. So as partners, and given that the city, it’s the sole shareholder, we have the opportunity to really work with them to get them there. That also really cuts our energy footprint, which cuts our carbon footprint. 

The third piece is an incentive program that builds off property taxes … to help both residences and businesses make investments, which currently would not be economic for them and certainly coming out of recovery, we have an added incentive that they would actually start to invest in energy reduction measures … we would measure all of this and be accountable to those targets.

We’re talking about giving the startup capital, if you will, with the incentives to actually move it in that direction.

I’m incredibly proud and excited about this program. I have consulted with a lot of climate and energy efficiency experts; they think it actually is workable and applaud … the accountability.

We have every opportunity to be a leader [in this area.]

Calgary’s financial path forward

(Ed.: Damery talks at points about pulling from city reserves to fulfil various mayoral promises. Here’s how she says that would work.)

There’s two components in terms of my finance plan. I’m [also] using a community revitalization levy to fund a lot of the startup capital.

We have a four-year budgeting process, I think a lot of people don’t realize [that].

That budget will be set in November for the next four years. So think about that. You have a brand new council and you’re already setting a budget for four years. 

That budget cycle means there’s an incentive for city departments to budget higher than their costs. What they do is they literally accumulate reserves in a separate fund that can be used. And so it’s very challenging to find out where all of these reserves [are], because they sit department by department. 

As an economist, that drives me bananas because it’s hard to get your hands around all of the capital and then appropriate and strategic deployment of capital.

We need to look at how we accumulate those reserves. Is it actually serving the population?

Those reserves … don’t go back into operations unless a directive is made by city council.

I would like to see that capital deployed far better and more efficiently. So we’ve identified very specific ways to use those reserves, ongoing funding for the kinds of programs you and I have just talked about. We are not increasing taxes to do that.

And then we’ve also found a way, much the same way that [the city] revitalized East Village with a community revitalization levy that works with the provincial government to borrow against future appreciation of property tax revenue. 

I talk about stability and then, also, keeping an eye as the city grows. This current council has committed to 14 new neighbourhoods in the outer reaches, which actually means our taxes are going to go up because we have to service those areas. I think this is something the public doesn’t understand in that density versus sprawl debate. 

We’ve got to have far more balance and far more transparency so we understand the consequences, long-term, of the choices we are making. 

Personal growth

[What’s something about yourself that you know you have to work on?]

Patience, always. I’m action-oriented, and I often can see where we need to go. 

So for me — and I think again, this is the difference in my leadership style versus what I’ve seen on council to date — I’ve learned over the years to make sure I’ve got the right people around and build the buy-in because people support what they create.

I can have the best idea in the world, but if no one supports me in it, it’s a bad idea. 

So, I can get impatient … but it’s always remembering that when you have buy-in, it’s the better solution. 

On working with a new group of councillors

I’m really excited because we’re going to have such turnover in council. I see nothing but opportunity because we get to reset how council is going to work, how it’s going to engage with itself and with administration.

One of the reasons I have such a detailed platform is it becomes a playbook that we [can] work with and start to get really clear priorities because it actually helps us coalesce around a vision for the city.

WATCH | Jan Damery on removing barriers to opportunity:

Jan Damery on removing barriers to opportunity

Calgary mayoral candidate Jan Damery on how the city needs to move forward. 1:10

I want to work with the team, that will be part of the orientation process. What are you going to change? How do you build on this?

The job for the mayor is always building relationships with councillors, knowing what’s important to them, knowing that there’s always going to be tradeoffs. 

At the end of the day, what we all care about … [is] we’re actually aiming for the same thing. 

Also, I want to change and increase the nature of the governance around council, so that we’re not writing motions in council meetings. We’re doing all of that work ahead of time. We’re having conversations. And so much of it is making sure that people are seeing themselves and what they are hearing in the solutions that we are proposing.

Lightning round

What’s one of your favourite made-in-Calgary meals or foods? 

[I spent] a lot of time working in Pakistan, in East Africa.…There are amazing samosas in this town. Samosa Factory and Chuma’s.

Name a Calgary musician, artist, writer or filmmaker you’re proud to share this city with.

I’ve always been a fan of Jann Arden. I’m probably aging myself, but I just think she’s amazing and she’s kind of the full deal. K.d. lang … one of my favourite renditions of Hallelujah is k.d. Lang.

What’s a personal achievement you’re proud of?

The relationships I have with my nieces and nephews, and with my stepsons. 

I also have an amazing circle of girlfriends. I’m known as a bit of the spoke in the wheel that connects people. That’s for me, my proudest thing are the relationships I have. And I maintain them and I grow them. And that pays back.

Ginger beef. Stampede mini donuts. A Caesar. You can only pick one: 

Ginger beef. 

You’ve got a week’s vacation to spend in Canada, with an unlimited budget, but you can’t stay here. Where are you headed?

Haida Gwaii. I have not been and it’s on my bucket list. The magic of that part, the Indigenous history, Emily Carr. For me, it’s a full, untapped ancient rainforest, the mystical and beauty of our country. 

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