(ATR) Calgary’s divided city council took a number of key decisions to both advance and provide an "off-ramp" for the city’s Olympic bid.
A date and question for the 2026 Olympic plebiscite was set for November 13, although public engagement is yet to begin.
Voters will answer "Are you for or against Calgary hosting the 2026 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games?" by marking an x next to one of two choices: "I am for Calgary hosting" and "I am against Calgary hosting".
These decisions and more came as Calgary City Council wrapped up two days of contentious meetings on July 31 that offered a look into the uncertainties regarding the bid, and the lack of clarity, which citizens have seized on.
The council set a date of September 10 as the deadline for funding clarifications on the bid to be provided by the provincial and federal governments.
Councilor Diane Colley-Urquhart described the date, known colloquially by the council as the "off-ramp" for the bid, a "shot across the bow to the other orders of government" to reporters following the decision.
"If they’re interested and serious about Calgary being committed to this process, then now is the time for them to step up in a timely manner and respond to many of the things that we need answers to," Colley-Urquhart added.
A motion by a group of three councilors to make the newly formed Calgary Bid Corporation subject to freedom of information requests showed divisions within the council. A number of councilors expressed disdain for the motion, going as far as branding it unproductive and political grandstanding.
The council eventually voted 8-6 to continue debate on the motion, instead of having it reviewed by a committee which deals with the Olympic bid. One of the motion’s writers Councilor Jeromy Farkas warned the council was trying "to bury" efforts for transparency on the bid, while Councilor Colley-Urquhart countered that Farkas’ comments were akin to "gaslighting".
Eventually the motion was sent to the city’s law department on an 8-6 vote delaying the standoff.
Amidst the growing contention, the council unanimously decided to approve an additional CAN$5.1 million (US$3.9 million) to begin public engagement for the plebiscite.
Grassroots Citizens Take Over
Jason Ribeiro spends his days as a PhD candidate at the University of Calgary, and his free time on a mission to convince as many Calgarians that hosting the 2026 Olympic Games is a good idea for the city.
Ribeiro is a member of "Yes Calgary 2026," one of two competing civic groups that both say they are furthering conversations about the 2026 bid. He says the group includes a number of members of Calgary’s business and civic community, and the group is using social media and "coffee meetings" to convince potential voters. Ribeiro said so far the group is comprised of volunteers aiming to become the voice to counter the "quite negative and disorganized" rhetoric about a potential bid as City Council dragged its heels.
"We began thinking about what could Calgary leverage from this opportunity, and is it in our overall best fiscal and social interest to pursue a bid," Ribeiro said.
"Largely it's just trying to speak with ordinary folks and trying to speak with them about city building... and potentially discuss where the 2026 bid intersects with those interests."
Ribeiro said it was unsurprising how split the city council has been on the Olympic issue, as it falls in line with past actions on big issues for the city. He said that he "is a little disappointed" public engagement has taken a long time to formulate, but that has allowed Yes Calgary 2026 more time to try and win over voters.
On the opposite side of the coin is "No Calgary Olympics," another grassroots effort that is aiming to drive the conversation about costs of hosting an Olympics to convince voters not to back the project. Erin Waite, a spokesperson for the group, told ATR that the group has received guidance from the founders of the successful "No Boston Olympics" in shaping their campaign.
"It is that kind of situation, as milestones come up then there is a flurry of activity and conversation, so we are finding with every new piece of information there is quite a lot of interest and concern expressed on the no side," Waite said.
"There is very much an appetite to have conversation and understand information on the opposite side of the excitement and look at the costs, the application, and the downside risks. People are reaching out because they are hungry for that information."
While both groups remain committed to their respective convictions, Ribeiro and Waite said the groups are willing to reconsider their stances should a convincing argument to reconsider emerges.
Both groups were present recently as IOC Executive Director Christophe Dubi was invited by the Calgary Chamber of Commerce to speak about the process. Dubi took part in a panel discussion, before taking questions and answers from the public who attended the meeting.
The IOC said in a statement to ATR that it remains committed to the role of explaining Agenda 2020 and its "New Norm" bidding process while not being the one to guide public participation in bid cities.
"We are always glad to discuss these topics with local constituents and stakeholders when invited to do so," an IOC spokesperson added.
Government And BidCo Get Off the Ground
As citizens in Calgary attempt to shape the conversation ahead of the plebiscite, both the government and Calgary 2026 bid corporation have been slow to get plans moving.
Councilor Evan Woolley, chair of the city council committee on the bid, told ATR that the council will remain neutral in its public engagement. Wolley said the council will work to "inform and educate the public" about the status of the bid, "seek public input," and "Identify issues, concerns and opportunities," through public comment.
"We want citizens to participate in the engagement," Woolley said. "It’s an important topic, which has long term implications for Calgary and its future."
The budget approved by the council will allow for the city to hire an "external consultant" to help with engagement. The consultant’s job will be to "ensure citizens have the right opportunities to participate in the conversation, become informed on the process of the potential bid, and [inform people] how to participate in these conversations".
Meanwhile a spokesperson for the Calgary 2026 Bid Corporation said to ATR that public engagement is still in the "very early stage" of being planned.
Calgary 2026 expects to have its engagement plan completed in September after all hires are made and the corporation’s structure is finalized. The IOC visited Calgary in June and offered guidance for the bid in the areas of "the power of a vision, the importance of legacy and the opportunities for engagement in the social media age".
Capping off a week of Calgary Olympic news was the hiring of Mary Moran as bid chief executive. Moran will be the first woman to lead a Canadian Olympic bid, and will step aside from her role leading non-profit Calgary Economic Development.
Moran’s hire came right as the city council set its September 10 "off-ramp date," and the bid corporation admits it will have its work cut out for it to meet IOC deadlines. If Calgary makes it to the candidature phase this October, its next deadline will be to present a bid book to the IOC in January. She said it will be an "exciting fall" when the bid corporation begins its public engagement next month.
"We have to spend a lot more time with city council having dialogue and discussion with them," Moran said during her introductory press conference. "We just haven’t had a chance to because (Calgary 2026) hasn’t been up and operating yet."
Written by Aaron Bauer
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