Written by Tannis Baradziej

With more than eight years under her belt as a city alderman — and plenty to say about what’s been going on in Calgary lately, from $50, 000, 000 footbridges to aldermanic salary hikes amidst economic turmoil — Calgarians might expect a little frustration from the outspoken and frugal Diane Colley-Urquhart. But the woman known by some as Big Red has learned a thing or two in her time in office and, in staying true to her small-town roots, has given new meaning to the term “politically correct.”

Diane Colley-Urquhart is striding into a Humpty’s restaurant to talk about something she’s become all too familiar with discussing: herself.

Hearing the Ward 13 alderman come in from behind me, I turn to greet her and, moving right past my handshake, she leans in to give me a hug so warm and motherly you’d have thought we’d been friends for years.

“It’s so nice to meet you,” she says with a laugh and, sitting down, orders a coffee from the waitress in the quiet restaurant.

“I just came from Stelmach’s luncheon at the Crystal Ballroom,” she explains, taking a sip from her steaming cup of coffee.

Just then, the waitress walks up to our table and asks if we’re going to be having anything to eat today.

“No thanks, dear,” Diane says.

“Dear?” I ask. “Are you always this nice to everyone?”

“I come from humble beginnings,” she says with a laugh, going on to explain that only a few days prior, a group of MBA students were profiling her for a class assignment on leadership.

Colley-Urquhart on her parents' farm in Oyen. From left: her father Jim, mother Marie. Diane with husband David.

And so at Humpty’s we sit as she delves into her life growing up in small-town Oyen, Alberta, on a farm with her parents and younger sister. It was there she learned to value the hard work and integrity she tries to apply in her career as a Calgary alderman.
Diane moved to Calgary at 19 years old in 1967.

Now, at 61 years old, she’s been south to Wichita and east to Ottawa to work on presidential and prime ministerial campaigns. But it’s been in the past nearly nine years that Calgarians have become familiar with her political prowess.

That’s because she’s become something of a trailblazer when it comes to hot button issues in Calgary.

For example, the name Santiago Calatrava has come to mean a few things to aldermen and Calgarians in the know — and opinions on what he’ll mean to Calgary’s future esthetic can sway the debate in a room more than a poorly built footbridge in a Chinook wind.

Thankfully, the two new footbridges coming Calgary’s way by Calatrava – a renowned architect who’s been contracted by the city to design the pedestrian bridges – won’t be so unstable.

At the cost of $25 million each, they’ve come to represent a divide in opinion on city council as to how money ought to be spent in tough economic times.

It’s no secret where Diane’s sat on this issue and others like it.

She spearheaded a move among aldermen to resist the bridges. She and other members in her so-called Gang of Four — which also included Ric McIver, Joe Connelly, Andre Chabot — persisted in their belief that a time of recession is not the time to build fancy footbridges.
Nor is it the time, she says, for the mayor and aldermen to take their annual salary hike. The salary hike is tied to Alberta’s average weekly earnings from the year before. This year, that amounts to about 5.5 per cent — that’s an extra $5,000 for the aldermen and $8,000 in Mayor Dave Bronconnier’s pocket.

Again, Diane was one of six aldermen who voted on February 10 to look at other options rather than increasing a salary that already rings in at close to $100,000 a year.

She and seven of her colleagues voted against discussing the salary hike saying that it’s tied to a system and that they’ll suffer the hit next year due to this year’s economy.

But Diane says she just wasn’t buying that as an excuse.

“You can’t double talk,” she says. “You can’t fight for taxes on one hand and then put your hand out and take the raise.”

It must be taxing, then — forgive the pun, I say — to work with fellow councilors who are so quick to put their hands out when constituents are losing jobs in this economy.

“I’ve felt some frustration with (my colleagues),” she admits, explaining that choices like these come down to integrity and ethics.

Diane at gym
Pushing weights at the Talisman Centre

Building these bridges and taking the salary hike, she says, don’t fall in line with what she believes a person in her position ought to stand for.

“It’s not walking the talk. Leadership, in a word, is about people,” she says. “I think sometimes (some aldermen) forget about who they are and why they’re there.
“It’s not a pulpit for your own personal agenda.”

It’s her attitude and tendency to speak her mind like this that makes her a consistently quotable source in the media.

Former Calgary Sun journalist Shawn Logan says that when he needed a quote for a story, Diane’s was the place to go.

And he would know — the scribe spent every second Monday for the past two-and-a-half years looking down on meetings from his media booth, perched over the cream-coloured, carpeted council chamber.

Not a beat is missed from this vantage point and, at 9:30 a.m., he’s there watching Diane file into the horseshoe-shaped row of aldermanic seating.

Mayor Dave Bronconnier is seated comfortably in the middle of it all — from where Shawn sits, Diane is almost as far right as she can be from the mayor known to some blue-blooded Conservative Calgarians as nothing but a tax-and-spend Liberal.

It’s almost comedic watching municipal democracy unfold before my eyes — Diane, literally, almost always seems to be voting against the grain.

But she’s not contrarian simply for the sake of it.

“Dicu is smart about picking battles she can win,” Shawn says, calling her by the name she uses for herself when signing off in e-mails. “But I wouldn’t even say she’s the fiscal conscience of council.

“She votes for what she believes in and stands by it.”

Diane says her values were planted in her and tended to like tiny seeds by her hard-working parents on the farm where she grew up in a tiny town 327 km east of Calgary.

Her roots are in Oyen — a town that sits just west of the Alberta-Saskatchewan border with a population of just over 1,100 people.

“They wanted to meet me at the Hyatt,” she laughs and, before I have the chance to ask her why that’s so funny, she adds, “I’m not a Hyatt girl, I’m a Humpty’s girl.”

A look back on her childhood there reveals fond memories of playing sports, opera singing and lending a hand on the family farm.

Diane has lots to say about growing up there, but sitting down with her parents at her home one Saturday morning paints a picture more vivid than the oil-on-canvas images of east-coast sailors splashed across the walls of her house.

Before explaining Diane’s childhood as seen through the eyes of her parents, it’s necessary to first digress and explain the context in which these stories were told.

It’s a crisp February morning, and Diane’s invited me to have breakfast at her house with her husband, David, and her parents, Jim and Marie, who are in town from Oyen — her 26-year-old son, Bruce, couldn’t make it.

Jim had just received surgery on his face the day before to operate on skin cancer — the result of a lifetime working under the hot prairie sun, Marie says — and the family is grateful to spend David’s birthday weekend together.

Seated there in the kitchen of their magnificent, well-lit home backing onto the Glenmore reservoir — the renovation of which Diane oversaw while David was in Nigeria for his job as an engineer — one gets the sense that they’re no longer in Calgary.

Diane Singing
She began singing opera in Oyen, Alta.


Bay windows open onto the frozen, snow-covered reservoir and sun cascades through the glass panes like spotlights on the early-twentieth-century artifacts — a butter churner and cream separator, to name a few — placed tastefully through the home.

The seascape paintings pay tribute to David’s upbringing in Nova Scotia, she says —- a place they still visit often because his mother, Allie, is still out there.

At 94, Allie is still living at home in her house built in 1908, and Diane and is to thank, she says.

“I don’t know what I would do without her,” Allie says. “She’s made it possible for me to live in this old house.”

That’s because, for Diane, family is the most important thing.

Which takes us back to looking at her childhood in Oyen — a life brought up with younger sister, Linda, by a mother who never had the opportunities Diane has, and a father who didn’t know the meaning of rest.

“I always said, ‘Diane, I never had the chance to do what I want, I never had an education,’” Marie — from whom Diane gets her trademark red hair — says.

“So I always told her that if she wants something, do it. And you can’t back down.”
Not one to waste any time, Diane got right to work doing just that.

She says she’s always loved to sing and, recognizing that, her church minister and his wife taught her about opera.

“Then I got involved in operettas,” she recalls.

By Grade 9 she was meeting with a group regularly and starring in a local production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore.

“That’s when I learned the drama as well. It kind of goes with my personality now,” she laughs.

“They wanted to meet me at the Hyatt,” she laughs and, before I have the chance to ask her why that’s so funny, she adds, “I’m not a Hyatt girl, I’m a Humpty’s girl.”

Beyond her passion for singing, Diane’s always stayed active in sports. She played competitive basketball, baseball and volleyball growing up.

She’s even completed the New York Marathon.

But none of that was enough to keep her settled in Oyen.

In 1967 she felt a pull to Calgary’s bright lights and moved here to go into nursing at the Foothills hospital, which was an affiliated program with the University of Calgary.

She spent three years there in a registered nursing program, and then took off to Columbia University in San Rafael, Cali.

There, she spent two years completing her bachelor of sciences in health and human services.

Upon graduation, she accepted her first job and moved back north to Saskatchewan.
“To be close to the farm,” she says.

But she wasn’t ready to settle just yet.

After six or seven months, she was hired by the University of Alberta hospital and headed for Edmonton.

Early days at Calgary's Foothills Hospital


It was on a night out with friends and away from work in the intensive care unit that she met the man who would become her husband.

“I never went out during the week,” she says. “I was just about to leave at midnight when David walked in.

“He asked one of my friends to dance, but eventually he asked me to dance. My friend hoped he’d call, but he called me the next night.”

David was based in Calgary working in oil and gas, but distance was no match for their growing love — they commuted back and forth for a year before David proposed, and they were married in 1975.

Though she never got to make a career out of her opera — because, as she says, “Dad said I couldn’t make a living sounding like a coyote” — her parents say she’s made them proud.
“She’s accomplished a lot in her life, the way we wanted her to,” Jim says proudly of his daughter.

While she may not spend as much time singing these days, Diane has found other ways to fill her hours — when she’s not working or with her family, she can often be found working out up to five times a week at the Talisman Centre.

Joining her there one day, I see a busy blur of red hair zipping around the track, over to the weights and onto a stationary bike.

Finally, she takes a seat on a rowing machine.

There, she confesses between breaths that in her colourful life she even worked on the presidential campaign trail for Ronald Reagan, in Wichita, in 1984, when David’s work moved the couple down to the U.S.

“I got politics in my blood down there,” she says.

“Then we moved back here and there was a provincial PC leadership contest on the way, so my husband and I worked on Getty’s campaign.”

Through that, Diane became a political fundraiser, worked as president of the PC Women’s Federation and, in 1988, got involved in the Canadian federal election with Brian Mulroney.
And her political whirlwind didn’t stop there.

“I became VP of the national Women’s PC Federation. Then came Kim Campbell’s leadership,” she says, the campaign in which she was also heavily involved.
“It was a slow evolution.”

“She worked on the presidential campaign trail for Ronald Reagan, in Wichita, in 1984.
“I got politics in my blood down there,” she says.

Finally it was her turn.

The 1998 municipal election proved irresistible to the budding politician — she went head-to-head with popular incumbent Patty Grier in the election that year.

And she lost.

“I got 10,000 votes and she got 15,000,” Diane says. “It was close, but no cigar.”
But 18 months later temptation came knocking again. Patty Grier quit her position to go to the Calgary Health Region and, once again, Diane couldn’t resist the pull.
Twelve candidates ran in the 2000 by-election for Ward 13.

Pulling in a scant 288 votes ahead of Ric McIver (now alderman for Ward 12), Diane secured 2,359 votes and made her debut as a public servant.

Since then, she’s been reinstated by acclamation twice, in 2001 and 2007, and came out on top in the 2004 election with 6,485 votes.

Three people ran in that election — the next-closest candidate got 1,579 votes.
Frank Roper has lived in Diane’s ward since 2001 and couldn’t be happier with how she’s represented her constituents.

Colley-Urquhart finishes a marathon bearing the Canadian flag

“I wouldn’t want any other alderman,” he says. “She stood against the bridges and didn’t want the salary increase … she’s so efficient and considerate of her ward, it’s unbelievable.
“That’s the type of person we need as an alderman in Calgary.”

But not everyone in her ward agrees.

Sandra Robertshaw says she was left “hung out to dry” almost a year ago by Diane and city hall after the reconstruction of a fence in Woodbine and Woodlands.

A little background: the fence Sandra’s talking about is on 24 St. S.W. between Anderson Rd. and Woodview Dr.

For about 10 years, she says, community residents had been trying to get city hall to rebuild it.

“It looked like kids had been kicking it in,” she says.

“I got roped into helping the fence get rebuilt because I called Diane and I became determined to see this through.”

Sandra says Diane was helpful as the project unfolded over the course of the year in which Sandra was involved but, towards the project’s completion, things changed.

Some of the residents in the area noticed the fence wasn’t being built the way they were told it would.

“Basically they (city hall) were not living up to their end of the bargain,” Sandra says.
“The lines of communications somehow dropped off, and I’m still not sure why that is.
“It gave me a bad taste in my mouth in dealing with some of the players at city hall.”

But Roper stands by Diane, saying he also appreciates the time she takes on a monthly basis to meet with board members within her community.

And listening to people is one of the biggest tenets of being an alderman, according to Diane’s colleague, Ward 12 Alderman Ric McIver.

He says his method of hearing his constituents and getting their feedback is engaging them in discussion.

“I think one of the things she’s probably effective at is organizing large public meetings on different issues,” he said.

“What are Diane’s strengths and weaknesses, in your opinion?” I ask.

Colley-Urquhart with Canada's Prime Minister Kim Campbell

After a long, pensive pause, he answers: “We all have our strengths and weaknesses, and I have my opinions about every member of council, including Diane, but this isn’t the forum to share it.”

Now, back in Humpty’s, my time with Diane is wrapping up and the inevitable question, “What’s next?” arises.

Rumours have been circulating that she may run for Mayor Bronco’s post in the 2010 municipal election, but she denies them with a smile.

“What’s next?” she says, throwing the question into the coffee-scented air, admitting she’s not sure where she’ll go politically.

“I haven’t done as much in the global area as I’d like, but I can’t say for sure.”

She does say, however, that she’ll likely keep both feet in politics for awhile, balancing it out with nursing, volunteering and, of course, family.

“It’s about working all these things together and letting it make you who are,” she says.
And then she gives me a hug and says goodbye.