St. Albert Mayor Cathy Heron's unlikely path to politics

NAIT alum goes from lab tech to leadership

Last October, Cathy Heron’s “long internship” ended. She doesn’t mean to diminish her seven years as city councillor by referring to it that way. The opposite, in fact. After being elected mayor of St. Albert in 2017, she sees her introduction to politics as a time of listening, learning and thinking about better ways to run a city.

Those years were also an extension of her history of community building. During her time away from the workforce to raise her three children (now teenagers), Heron (Medical Laboratory Technology ’93) began volunteering.

She joined local not-for-profits, advisory boards to city council, and even managed a successful re-election campaign for previous mayor Nolan Crouse (Chemical Technology ’73). He returned the favour by convincing  her to run for council in 2010.

Now, Heron hopes to keep building, strengthening her community with what she sees as missing building blocks: a new library, more ice rinks and room to grow, as she works to annex land for a population that has swollen to nearly 65,000 people.

Mostly, though, she wants to build a better future for St. Albert as it transitions from bedroom community to self-sustaining city.

Though she once dropped out of Social 30 because of  a dislike of politics, Heron now feels she’s exactly where she belongs. As she settled into the role earlier this year, we asked her about how and why she’s come to embrace a life in leadership.

techlife: How did you go from Medical Laboratory Technology to mayor?

Cathy Heron: I learned a lot by sitting on the advisory board [to city council] for six years. Then, in 2004, Nolan Crouse ran for council and we put up a lawn sign for him. That was kind of the beginning of my entry to politics – taking that step so people know my political views. And he won. We had an email exchange where I said congratulations and if you ever want to run for mayor I’d love to help out. He showed up at my door three years later and said I want you to be my campaign manager.’ve always been popular among voters, earning the most votes among councillors in both your terms. What do you attribute that to?

I would attribute it to my involvement with the community [and to the fact that] I like to be positive. It was difficult for me [in the job] at first because I thought that everyone liked me. To learn as a politician that you can’t please everyone all of the time was really hard. You get lots of angry emails. And social media, good lord. If I can actually sit down face to face or talk to somebody on the phone and explain to them why I voted this way or why the city is doing this, generally I can come away from that conversation with a friend.

Why did you run for mayor?

It was a hard decision. It’s scary because if you don’t win, you’re done [as a city councillor] and I loved the role. But I felt like I was the best person for this job. I don’t want to sound arrogant. I’ve got the relationships, I understand the city. You can’t do as much on council as you can  from the mayor’s chair. There’s lots of opportunity to think and dream and make it a reality.

What is your approach to politics?

Anyone who runs for [office] needs to remember that they don’t know everything. When you can recognize that you need to seek out knowledgeable partners, it makes for [strong] relationships. That’s been my approach to everything in life: building the right network to  get the job done, bringing the right people together.

What would you change about the job?

I would like federal recognition that we are a legitimate level of government. I’m tired of being the child of the province. Whenever we want to change anything we have to go to the province. [If] I want to build a road, I have to go begging. That’s frustrating.

Sturgeon RiverWhat do you want for St. Albert?

People want their trees, they want the [Sturgeon] River to be healthy, they want a strong downtown core. Everything that we grew up with and made St. Albert special, just keep it. Make sure it grows [with] the city.

What has politics taught you about yourself?

I’m way stronger than I ever thought I would be. You can’t let yourself be swayed in your opinion and directions. And to do that you have to be strong. I was the shyest kid ever. My mom still doesn’t believe that I’m sitting here. I think part of being a strong person is being willing to adapt to the various circumstances in your life. My path has led me here.  

This article appears in the spring 2018 issue of techlife magazine.

A smarter city

Under former mayor Nolan Crouse, St. Albert co-founded the Alberta Smart City Alliance with a small group of post-secondary institutes (including NAIT) and technology companies. Current Mayor Cathy Heron continues to show leadership in the initiative, which aims to meet municipal challenges with high-tech solutions.

St. Albert’s Smart City Master Plan, which she helped create as a city councillor, highlights 65 initiatives under 29 strategies.

More than two dozen projects have been completed, including everything from real-time air quality monitoring, to the St. Albert Live YouTube channel, to electric transit buses. The city is submitting a proposal for a project to improve traffic flow to a federal funding program called the Smart Cities Challenge, which was shaped in part by consultation with Heron and other municipal leaders.

Homeless in St. Albert

St. Albert ranks among Alberta’s most affluent cities, with a median household income of nearly $120,000 (more than $15,000 above the provincial average), but it still struggles with homelessness – an issue Mayor Cathy Heron has made a priority.

According to a recent report, the city and nearby Sturgeon County include at least 100 people without stable housing. In response, the city is creating a taskforce to help those without any home whatsoever, as well as couch-surfing youth.

Moral imperatives aside, housing the homeless has been noted to save as much as $100,000 per person per year in social and health services. “Investment in social or soft services in a municipality end up paying off in the long run,” says Heron.

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