Amarjeet Sohi | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Amarjeet Sohi

Amarjeet Sohi, politician, federal cabinet minister, mayor of Edmonton 2021–present (born 8 March 1964 in Banbhaura, Punjab, India). After being falsely accused of terrorism and imprisoned in India for 21 months, Amarjeet Sohi became involved in municipal politics in Edmonton. He served on city council for eight years before being elected as a Liberal MP for Edmonton’s Mill Woods riding. Sohi served as Minister of Infrastructure and Communities and Minister of Natural Resources before losing re-election in 2019. On 18 October 2021, he became the first person of a racialized minority to be elected mayor of Edmonton.

Early Years and Family

Amarjeet Sohi’s older brother, Jagdev, was the first in his family to move from Punjab, India, to Canada. In 1981, he sponsored his family to join him in Edmonton. At age 17, Amarjeet adjusted to life in Canada. Like many immigrants, he was subjected to racist bullying but persevered. He took ESL classes, attended Bonnie Doon High School and devoted hours in the local library to learning English.

Sohi worked in a fast-food restaurant, cleaned buildings and drove a cab. He also became involved as an actor and playwright in community theatre and volunteered for various cultural and recreational initiatives, including a local Punjabi literary society. Though he was active in Edmonton’s Punjabi community, Sohi did not adhere to strict Sikhism and did not wear a turban or beard. He opposed both Sikh fundamentalism and oppression of Sikhs by the Indian government.

Political Prisoner in India

In 1988, Sohi returned to India to visit family. He also became involved in social activism and calls for land reform in the state of Bihar. However, on the eve of a protest, Sohi was detained by police and accused of terrorism. As he recalled in 2015: “When they saw me, a Sikh, there from Punjab and from Canada, they said, ‘We must have a terrorist here.’” He was tortured and interrogated for a week and imprisoned without charges or trial.

Sohi eventually drew attention to his plight with a week-long hunger strike. The local press in India began covering his case. Meanwhile, in Edmonton, his family persuaded David Kilgour, the Conservative MP for Edmonton Southeast, to work toward Sohi’s release. Both the Mulroney government and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) became involved. Sohi was finally released on 9 July 1990 after 21 months in prison, including 18 months in solitary confinement.

Return to Canada

“I was quite disturbed when I got back,” Sohi told the Edmonton Journal in 2015. “There was a kind of withdrawal. It took a couple of years for me to put my life back together.” He drove a bus for the Edmonton Transit System from 1998 to 2007 and became involved with the local drivers’ union. Sohi married in Punjab in 1993. He and his wife, Sarbjeet, have a daughter, Seerat. Sohi became a Canadian citizen in 1994.

Edmonton City Council

In 2004, Amarjeet Sohi ran for a seat on Edmonton City Council to represent Ward 6. He came third in a field of six. In 2005, he was part of the team that began the Mill Woods Crime Council, one of two neighbourhood crime prevention councils in Edmonton’s West End. In 2007, he ran to be city councillor of Ward 6 and was successful. He was re-elected in 2010 with 64 per cent of the vote and again in 2013 with 75 per cent.

Throughout his eight years on council, Sohi worked to improve the city’s Light Rail Transit system; revitalize downtown; and build new recreational facilities, a seniors centre, and a new library and multicultural centre. He received several local awards in recognition of his work to reduce poverty, gender-based violence and racism. He also helped create REACH Edmonton, which engages municipal governments, agencies and citizens to identify and address gaps in social service programs. In 2015, the Edmonton Journal described Sohi as a “thoughtful, respected city councillor” and as “a consensus-builder known for his firm, quiet advocacy.” Sohi also represented Edmonton with the Canadian Urban Transit Association and the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association.

Member of Parliament

In 2015, Sohi became the Liberal Party candidate to contest the riding of Edmonton Mill Woods in the upcoming federal election. Like many other ridings, Edmonton Mill Woods’ boundaries had been redrawn to reflect shifts in population. (See Redistribution of Federal Electoral Districts.) Conservative MPs held the two predecessor ridings that became Edmonton Mill Woods: Mike Lake had won three straight elections in Edmonton-Mill Woods-Beaumon; and Tim Uppal, who had served in Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Cabinet, had won the Edmonton-Sherwood Park riding in 2008 and 2011. It would be a challenging race for Sohi.

Throughout his campaign, Sohi said that his top priorities were to bring federal money to the riding to create new infrastructure, a new Light Rapid Transit line, and to build more affordable housing. The final vote was so close that it required a judicial recount; it concluded that Sohi won the riding by 92 votes.

Canadian Parliament

Federal Cabinet Minister (2015-19)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed Sohi to serve in his Cabinet as the Minister of Infrastructure and Communities. Sohi oversaw the creation of a 12-year plan that devoted more than $180 billion to improving Canada’s roads, bridges and ports. The plan also dedicated research and spending to create more public transit, clean water and waste-water systems, as well as affordable housing. However, the plan was beset with problems and delays and failed to grow the GDP as expected.

In a July 2018 cabinet shuffle, Sohi was appointed Minister of Natural Resources. (See also Natural Resources.) It was a challenging portfolio. At the time, the government was being criticized by Western premiers and those in the oil and gas sector for promoting climate change policies that could negatively impact that sector. There was also great opposition in Alberta’s oil sector to the government’s Bill C-69, which changed how infrastructure projects like major pipelines would be approved. Sohi spearheaded the Trans Mountain pipeline project, securing cabinet approval and completing consultations with Indigenous communities.

In the October 2019 federal election, Sohi lost Edmonton’s Mill Woods riding to Tim Uppal. Unlike the close result in 2015, Uppal won more than 50 per cent of the vote compared to 33 per cent for Sohi.

Private Life and Return to Public Office

Following his 2019 defeat, Sohi accepted a position teaching a newly developed course at Edmonton’s MacEwan University; it was designed to have senior leaders consider ways to use community collaboration to fight systemic racism. He also became a senior advisor with the Ottawa-based ALAR Strategy Group.

On 17 May 2021, Sohi turned his attention back to municipal politics and announced that he was running for mayor of Edmonton to replace Don Iveson, who was not seeking re-election. Sohi said, “I believe that I have the skill set of collaboration, consensus-building and bridge-building that is necessary for us and that’s why I’m stepping up to provide this leadership.” His campaign focused on six priorities: quality of life; climate and environment; equity; public services; economic development; and social support. He emphasized that one could not be effectively addressed without also tackling the others.

Eleven candidates sought the mayor’s office; four had previous council experience. Throughout the campaign, Sohi emphasized his municipal and federal cabinet experience. He argued that he knew how to build bridges between people, business leaders and all three levels of government to advance an agenda.

Mayor of Edmonton

On 18 October 2021, Sohi became the first person of a racialized minority to be elected mayor of Edmonton. It was a decisive victory; he won 45 per cent of the vote, compared to 25 per cent for second-place finisher Mike Nickel. On election night, Sohi congratulated all the other candidates and said, “I hope with my win, and the community’s win, that we can inspire other people to run for office and also make structural changes.” He said the diversity of a community should be reflected in its public institutions so that people from various backgrounds can feel at home and not be dissuaded from participating in public life. (Sohi’s victory occurred on the same day that Jyoti Gondek, another Punjabi Canadian, was elected as the first female mayor of Calgary.)

In January 2022, Mayor Sohi stated that the city had to address four main priorities to begin to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic: money for housing and associated services; improved transit; downtown recovery; and support for the bid to host the 2026 FIFA World Cup. A month later, he expressed disappointment that the provincial budget did not contain the funding for these priorities and other issues, such as combatting the opioid crisis.