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Alberta NDP debate marked by agreement, until it came to Nenshi's record

EDMONTON — The second official Alberta NDP leadership debate saw five candidates eagerly agreeing with each other, until Naheed Nenshi was forced to defend against more attacks on his record as the mayor of Calgary.
Alberta NDP leadership candidate Naheed Nenshi answers a question during a leadership debate in Calgary, Alta., Saturday, May 11, 2024. Results of the leadership race are to be announced Jun. 22. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

EDMONTON — The second official Alberta NDP leadership debate saw five candidates eagerly agreeing with each other, until Naheed Nenshi was forced to defend against more attacks on his record as the mayor of Calgary.

Alberta Federation of Labour President Gil McGowan, who is among the candidates vying for the helm of Rachel Notley's Opposition party, asked why the former mayor signed a letter in 2019 asking the United Conservative Government to sidestep union agreements. 

The unearthed letter drew fire this week from Nenshi's rivals who suggested it signalled the presumed frontrunner was anti-union.

"How is this not a trust-buster?" McGowan asked during the event at BMO Centre in Calgary on Saturday.

Nenshi, who served as Calgary's mayor from 2010 until 2021 when he announced he would not seek another term, reiterated that he was at odds with a right-wing council at the time and his efforts actually subverted the privatization of city services. 

"I would never rip up a collective agreement. Collective bargaining is sacrosanct," he told the crowd.

Calgary MLA Kathleen Ganley, Edmonton MLAs Sarah Hoffman and Jodi Calahoo Stonehouse round out the list of candidates seeking to replace Notley, who announced in January she would step aside when a new leader is chosen.

Nenshi's status as the newcomer to the party, and relatively vague platform promises, have opened the door to questions about where he stands on key issues.

Meanwhile, the former mayor has been presenting a case to broaden the party's appeal to beat Premier Danielle Smith's United Conservatives in the 2027 election.

Shortly after Nenshi threw his hat in the ring, former candidate Rakhi Pancholi said she saw the memberships Nenshi had attracted, and dropped out of the race to join his team.

Hoffman, the former health minister and deputy premier during Notley's government, has appealed to the party's roots, and trumpeted herself as an “unapologetic" New Democrat.

On Saturday, Hoffman asked Nenshi why people were "evicted" without proper compensation from affordable housing units in Calgary during his tenure in 2017.

Nenshi said Hoffman didn't know the details, and suggested she was fearmongering.

"We ensured that every single tenant who was there had the opportunity to move into a Calgary Housing home with priority and every single one of them who needed to be rehoused in a better place got that better place," he said.

"Sometimes you've got to sit with people and find solutions for each individual rather than relying only on your ideology," he said.

Hoffman also took aim at Nenshi's stance in 2015 when he warned then-NDP premier Notley's move to bump wages could impact non-profit agencies and small businesses.

"There was at least one candidate on this stage who actually fought against the increased minimum wage, and that breaks my heart," Hoffman told the crowd.

Because of the debate format, Nenshi was unable to immediately respond.

Ganley, the former justice minister, focused on the importance of winning the next election with better economic policy platforms than the ruling UCP.

"Without them, all we are left with is anger and big personalities -- and we know that won't be enough," said Ganley.

Calahoo Stonehouse has been focusing her campaign on strengthening water protection, and said the province needs to renegotiate its oil and gas royalties.

McGowan capped his debate performance off in his closing statement with a plea for donations.

"If I don't raise another $50,000 soon, I'm toast."

The party counted just over 16,000 members as of Dec. 31, but sources have told The Canadian Press the total number could now be more than 85,000.

Another debate is scheduled for Edmonton next month, and the party will announce the new leader June 22. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 11, 2024.

Lisa Johnson, The Canadian Press