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Nenshi taking heat on labour record from fellow Alberta NDP leadership candidates

Candidates vying to be the next leader of Alberta’s Opposition NDP want answers from presumed front-runner Naheed Nenshi about a five-year-old letter that they say signals he is anti-union.

In the letter obtained by The Canadian Press, Nenshi – when he was Calgary mayor in 2019 – urges the United Conservative Party government for help on a city plan to sell off public services to private operators.

The signed letter asks the province to allow new owners of sold-off entities not to be bound by existing collective agreements.

Nenshi is considered to be leading the race to replace current NDP Leader Rachel Notley. He has been drawing hundreds to party events and one leadership rival, Rakhi Pancholi, has quit the contest to join his team.

The remaining four candidates say the letter raises concerns Nenshi might steer the party away from its traditional labour-friendly roots should he win.

“(The letter) is pretty shocking. It is a request to exempt himself from the law,” said leadership candidate and Calgary NDP legislature member Kathleen Ganley.

“If you sign your name to something, you’re signing your name to something.

“The fate of working people and the laws of the land are not things that are top issues for him. That’s problematic for me.”

Nenshi, in an interview, said the letter is not what it appears to be.

He characterized it as political manoeuvring to thwart local attempts to privatize Calgary golf courses, because he knew the request would be denied by the province on legal grounds.

“I never believed in it, and I did it because council asked me to do it,” Nenshi said of the letter.

“I believe that collective agreements and collective bargaining rights are incredibly important.”

Nenshi said he didn’t undermine labour laws as mayor and “won’t do it as premier.”

Candidate Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, said he hopes Nenshi uses concerns with the letter to offer explicit proposals that show he is on the side of working Albertans, such as matching McGowan’s promise to raise the minimum wage.

“This raises red flags about Naheed’s judgment. At worst, it suggests that when push comes to shove, he can’t be counted on to take the side of workers,” said McGowan.

“That’s a pretty serious concern to be raised about someone who is running to lead what is, or at least was, the workers’ party.”

Candidate Jodi Calahoo Stonehouse, a rookie Edmonton legislature member, said in a statement: “It’s about the legal nature of keeping a contract and your word.”

“I have to call it like I see it … Nenshi does not and has never deferred to council on matters of values.”

Candidate Sarah Hoffman, an Edmonton legislature member, pointed to her work as a former health minister fighting efforts to privatize health-care services, and as a former board chair with Edmonton Public Schools to get disagreeing people on the same page.

“To sign your name to a letter that says that you were asking the government to do something that is counter to your values isn’t leadership,” she said.

The dispute turns up the temperature in a race that has been relatively quiet. A second official party leadership debate is scheduled for Saturday in Calgary.

NDP members are able to vote starting June 3, and the party is to announce its new leader June 22.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 8, 2024.

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