Remembering Sue Higgins, Calgary alderman: a fiscal conservative, sure, but the real McCoy, not just some ideologue

Posted on February 18, 2014, 12:38 am
8 mins

Sue Higgins in a characteristic pose, grabbed from the Internet. Below: Her official City of Calgary mug, from back in the day.

When I heard on the car radio yesterday afternoon that Sue Higgins had died, the first thing I thought of was that green pantsuit.

This is a funny thing to remember about a person of such real substance, but the seven-term Calgary alderman – and by God, Sue Higgins was an alderman, not a city councillor and most certainly not an alderperson – surely did have her own style. And that green pantsuit – in a shade sometimes seen on fire trucks but seldom in nature – was certainly part of it.

Calgary’s elected municipal representatives were aldermen long after everyone else in Alberta with that job had become a councillor, thanks to the fierce rear-guard action fought by Ms. Higgins against crazy new-fangled terminology.

It’s a tribute to the native of Barrie, Ont., who grew up in High River that I can’t talk about a city councillor anywhere to this day without unintentionally saying “alderman” at least once. She was 78 and living in long-term care – a situation that stinks, she advised a reporter last year – when she died.

Ms. Higgins was a fixture at City Hall when I was the Calgary Herald’s City Hall reporter, and her often combative pronouncements mixed devotion to lost causes that really should have been no one’s hill to die on – the battle to preserve alderman, for example – with frequent moments of genuinely deep common sense.

She was a fiscal conservative, alright, but in my estimation she was the real McCoy – more interested in saving taxpayers money from the foolish spending schemes senior City Hall politicians and bureaucrats will sometimes cook up than advocating loony right ideology for the mere sake of toeing the party line.

That could drive the bureaucrats crazy. In various obits on the Internet last night, several acquaintances recalled the council meeting she closely interrogated city staff for six hours on the cost of photocopier toner. Thankfully, I wasn’t on duty that evening.

Her interrogations were always razor sharp, and she didn’t lose many fights with anyone who took issue with her because the facts – all the facts, no matter how insignificant – were always right there where she needed them.

When she stepped aside from council and ran for mayor in 1983, she lost to a guy named Ralph Klein, who went on to be premier of Alberta. It’s said here we would have done better with a real fiscal conservative like Ms. Higgins as premier than one like Ralph Klein. Unlike the beloved Ralph, I am confident Ms. Higgins would actually have done the math before privatizing a public service.

Unsurprisingly, when she returned to council after three years, the voters of Ward 12 were fiercely loyal, because they recognized she was looking out for their interests – in exhaustive detail. I’m sure they admired her grit as well, for when she started her political career in 1977 she was a widow and a single mom with three kids at a time when politicians weren’t paid much on the theory that what they were doing was public service.

Ms. Higgins’ language was, shall we say, to the point? I agree with the commenter on one of her obituaries that terms like “feisty” or “fiery” don’t quite get it right, and moreover aren’t the kind of words that would be used to describe a man who said the same things. She was a no-nonsense speaker, more like, and occasionally pretty salty. The odd stevedore might’ve blushed and run out of the room, but then Calgary’s not a seaport town.

Certainly, when Sue Higgins spoke, you sure as … uh … hell knew where she stood. And it is said here that in politics, this is a virtue.

She had a sly sense of humour too, if you listened carefully, anyway, which most of her opponents didn’t because they were too mad at her. Trouble is, while this isn’t exactly a family blog, the best Sue Higgins one-liner I can remember, about whether or not to spend a tidy sum on a Grey Cup party for the Stampeders if they happened to bring the cup home, is just a little too rough for the sensitivities of the early Twenty-teens. (In the event, the Stamps didn’t win, solving the problem the easy way.)

But, as they say, underneath that rough exterior lurked a very decent person, who cared about her constituents, was capable of real kindness and was a committed devotee to the idea of making Calgary a great city.

Speaking of hills to die on and of backing the wrong cause, though, Ms. Higgins was a pack-a-day smoker for decades who fought a long and determined battle against the increasing encroachments upon that pleasurable but dangerous activity.

When I covered Calgary City Hall, the word among the media was that there was a secret smoking chamber, vented to the ceiling, in the Aldermen’s Lounge behind the council chamber. “Had to be,” someone explained. “Sue insisted.”

I can’t vouch that this is true, reporters weren’t invited in there in those days. But, if it is, I wouldn’t be surprised Ms. Higgins gave ’em hell for the cost of the ventilation when it was done.

So it is an irony of sorts, I suppose, that it was lung cancer that forced her to give up smoking two years ago, and hastened her end.

Calgary has named a dog park after Ms. Higgins, but I can’t shake the feeling someone who was there so long, and played such an influential role on the development of the city, deserves just a little more recognition.

Calgary’s city councillors should think about that.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

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