Druh Farrell reflects on accomplishments, controversies of 20-year tenure as Ward 7 councillor

After 20 years serving Calgary’s Ward 7, Monday’s city council meeting was the last for Coun. Druh Farrell.

Born and raised in Calgary, Farrell was elected to council in 2001 representing inner-city constituents. Ward 7 straddles 16th Avenue N. from Montgomery to Deerfoot Trail, mostly north of the Bow River but including the eastern half of downtown.

She is one of at least nine city councillors who is not seeking re-election in the municipal election this fall. She first announced her decision in a February blog post.

“It won’t be me championing our downtown into the coming decades,” Farrell wrote.

“We need bold leadership around the council table to ensure our downtown is transformed into a true community where people will want to live, work, learn and play for years to come.”

And while Farrell isn’t the city’s longest-serving councillor — Ward 10’s Ray Jones served 27 years before retiring in 2020, and his vacant seat will also be up for grabs on Oct. 18 — she has watched Calgary evolve from the vantage point of municipal decision-making for the past two decades.

Last Friday, Farrell reflected on her tenure and decision to leave in an interview with Calgary Eyeopener host David Gray.

“One is never done with this job, there’s lots more that I would love to see happen with my city,” Farrell said.

“But I felt that my work was pretty much complete, so it was time to move on.”

The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: Let’s talk about your work over 20 years. What’s on your checklist as your top accomplishments over this time?

A: I’m proud of the big things like the East Village transformation, the new Central Library, the Peace Bridge, public realm improvements, but also the small things — community gardens is one that I’m particularly proud about.

But I’ve been reflecting a lot on what I think are my accomplishments, and it’s how I made the decision that I’m most proud of.

St. Patrick’s Island was part of the East Village redevelopment. (City of Calgary)

It’s very easy to get buffeted by a variety of opinions.

I always used the lens of looking at it through the next generation — ‘Would this be something that strengthens the city and makes it a better place to live?’ — and that made the decision so much more clear.

The library is an example. It was built for the people, and everyone is welcome, and so that whole set of values encapsulates what I’ve been trying to accomplish.

The Peace Bridge connecting Sunnyside to downtown Calgary has been used by pedestrians and cyclists to cross the Bow River since 2012. It’s become a popular spot for locals and tourists alike to take photos. (Rachel Maclean/CBC)

Q: You talked about the buffeting along the way. Let’s talk about the Peace Bridge. Do you remember the anger, and now it’s become a symbol of the city. Isn’t that remarkable?

A: I expected that to happen, but it was a painful journey, that’s for certain.

It was worth it, when you look at how it has become the symbol of Calgary, and if you look at who’s using it, every possible walk of life are hanging out on that bridge — it’s become a public space over the river. 

Visitors explore the new Calgary Library following its opening in November 2018. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

That’s the biggest struggle when you’re in political life: you’re expected to make long-term decisions, but it’s very difficult because sometimes the benefits aren’t readily apparent until later.

Let’s not forget the East Village work was extremely controversial and acrimonious, but it’s hard to even remember how difficult it was because it just is such a success.

So it’s worth sticking to your guns when you’re trying to do something that is for the long-term benefit of the city.

Q: A study came out a couple of weeks ago from the University of Calgary showing kids in Calgary developed cavities faster than those in Edmonton, where there is fluoride. You were instrumental in having it removed a decade ago. Do you regret that decision, or do you stick with your guns on that one?

A: As far as a yes or no, I think it’s more complicated than that.

The motion that I brought forward to council had two parts to it. One was not to reintroduce fluoride as we were going through a capital improvement to the water treatment plant, but it was also to take that money and put it toward long-term access to affordable dental care.

The decision now is up to the next council, it’s out of my hands. But I think what was lost from that whole conversation was the desperate need to provide affordable dental care to Calgarians — particularly children. 

Q: For Calgarians and especially Ward 7 residents listening right now, what would you like to say to them as you say goodbye politically?

A: As far as the upcoming election is concerned, it’s so much easier to divide than it is to unite. And so, I hope that Calgarians choose the people who will unite, who will see a hopeful vision for the city, and have the guts to implement that vision with the help of Calgarians — they have great ideas.

But I feel a tremendous sense of gratitude. I have worked with most the extraordinary people. Public servants are generally some of the best people you could ever know. They care about their city, they love their city.

I’ve been blessed with working with great councils and members of the public who have so many good ideas, and sometimes you just need to run with them.

So, I’m thankful.

With files from Sarah Rieger and the Calgary Eyeopener.

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