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The People I Meet—Jennifer Handley, Mayor of Nanton, July 2023

Updated: Jul 15, 2023

Feeling a little insecure after four days of being loved up and spoilt by my friend Sul-ra in Calgary, I’m on the road to nowhere again in my van. Me and myself. “Wherever I go, there I am.”

My first overnight stop is the Canadian Grain Elevator Discovery Center in Nanton. It’s deserted.

The Grain Elevators, two run-down historic buildings, are situated off the highway in a semi-industrial area. As a solo female traveller, it feels a little creepy, but there is a Harvest Host sticker on a dusty door, so I know I’m legit and will not get a midnight knock on the door moving me on. I’m still reluctant to “settle in” and have my van ready for a speedy departure if necessary.

“Pull yourself together, Julie.” I hear my mother’s voice. So, I take myself for a walk to downtown Nanton. If you have never been to Nanton, it is a small shabby town two hours from Calgary in the middle of lucerne and grassland, surrounded by cattle and horse ranches.

I am delighted by downtown Nanton, a cluster of boutiques, cafes, and sophisticated home décor shops. The nearby suburb is tree-lined, with quaint cottages and old houses, and I fantasize about living there. The heavens open suddenly, and I’m caught in a massive deluge. I am drenched.

Back in my van, dried out and settling in for the evening, a car pulls up to the Grain Elevators, followed by another and another. People hurry inside. I notice a burly man with a black-and-white cowskin hat, a black beard and pink hair amongst the gatherers.

“Hello,” says a bright voice. At my “bedroom door” is a petite woman with a big smile. “My name is Jennifer, and I am the Mayor of Nanton,” she introduces herself with a firm handshake. “So cool that you are overnighting here. We want more of you.” We agree to meet for coffee the following day.

Jennifer Handley is a real estate agent, the mother of two teenagers and the Mayor of Nanton. Her husband runs a local restaurant called “The Buzz.” The family moved to Nanton from Calgary 17 years ago. Jennifer reflects, “When I first arrived in Nanton, I noticed how quiet and dark it is, compared to Calgary. I felt released from the consumerism of shopping malls. The restaurants close at 6:00 pm, so friends gather in each other’s homes.”

And, of course, the Grain Elevators are putting on a local show about a true crime – Nanton’s Great Train Robbery, in 1907. On the upcoming weekend, The Rocky Horror Show will screen on one of the Grain Elevators' outdoor sidings, and the town will gather for free to enjoy. I regret that I will not be in Nanton with a prime seat to watch the movie with the local townsfolk.

As a woman, I am always curious as to why another woman will put herself on the political firing line. I am a big advocate for diversity at the political table, especially at a municipal level; however, I would bow under the abuse that women in politics have to weather.

“I wanted to understand how the town worked,” says Jennifer, “and be part of the decision-making.”

Jennifer became a member of the Nanton Council in 2023. She was 33 years old, and no one on the council looked like her. It consisted of mostly retired white men and one retired woman. Jennifer brought a different voice to the table, and in 2017 she was elected Mayor. She is currently in her second term, having weathered COVID and the divisiveness it created in her community.

‘People felt helpless. It impacted businesses, children’s education and lifestyles. We had to close municipal buildings and activities. My job as Mayor was to balance the Province's decisions in a small town with a limited budget, part-time staff and a divided community.”

She describes the abuse she faced during COVID, and the traumatic things said about her and her family. Yet, despite this, she was reelected in October 2021 and can now look forward to steering the municipality towards future projects that include the town's day-to-day operations and assets management. Nanton is investigating how to provide a sustainable water system for the town. Currently, 90 percent of the water comes from overland Mosquito Creek, which needs to be more sustainable. An alternative would be to build a pipeline from the High River. The current water infrastructure in the town is 100 years old and needs replacement. Leakages result in water loss, and it is almost impossible to scope and isolate the lines to understand their condition better.

Volunteers run her pet project, the Canadian Granary Elevator Discovery Centre. Plans are in place to beautify the area, restore the Grain Elevators and make it a welcoming place.

Talking to a small town mayor about asset management reminds me that municipal politics directly affects our drinking water, sewage, roads, schools, parks and recreation centres, libraries, and countless other daily usages of our tax-paying dollars.

I reflect on how grateful I am, as an immigrant, to have landed in a country like Canada. May politicians always remember that their job is to serve and govern. With women like Jennifer Handley stepping up, I feel somewhat reassured.

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