Edmonton candidate's plan to live in Ottawa prompts debate about MP residency

Liberal Amarjeet Sohi and Conservative Tim Uppal are fighting to represent Edmonton Mill Woods, but only one of them plans to live in the Alberta capital if elected Oct. 21.

Uppal, a minister of state in the Stephen Harper government between 2011 and 2015, is up-front about his intentions should he win election again.

He says he’ll continue to live with his family in Ottawa, more than 3,300 kilometres east of Edmonton.

In an interview this week with CBC News, Uppal, who grew up in Mill Woods, said he and his family decided to move to Ottawa shortly after he was first elected as the MP for Edmonton-Sherwood Park in 2008.

It was a matter of trying to find a balance, he said.

“And so I have a young family and we chose that we would move them to Ottawa where I have more opportunity to be with them,” Uppal said. “My wife is a lawyer for Foreign Affairs so we set up shop there.”

Candidates not required to live in riding

The Canada Elections Act says a candidate running for a seat in the House of Commons must “have established residency somewhere in Canada but not necessarily in the constituency where he or she is seeking election.”

Winning candidates can choose to live in Ottawa, their home riding, or anywhere else across the country.

Right now, incumbent Sohi and challenger Uppal are locked in a rematch of their 2015 face-off. The other candidates in Edmonton Mill Woods are Nigel Logan for the NDP, Don Melanson for the Christian Heritage Party, Annie Young for the People’s Party of Canada and Tanya Herbert for the Green Party.

In 2015, Sohi, a former Edmonton city councillor, defeated Uppal in Edmonton Mill Woods by the narrow margin of 92 votes. This time around, Sohi is leaning on his long record of public service and his close ties to the community to win the seat again.

He said casual encounters with his Edmonton neighbours open up conversations he wouldn’t  have had otherwise.

“My family is here, my friends are here,” Sohi told CBC.

At the Knottwood Community League picnic last weekend, Edmonton Mill Woods incumbent Amarjeet Sohi campaigned with residents. (Kim Trynacity/CBC)

“You know, my neighbours expect me to be seen and they can knock on my door, and people often do.

“They know that if I’m home I’ll answer the door. If I’m not home they’ll call my office.”

Uppal said he believes a strong community connection is vital, but that it can be achieved without living in the riding.

Connect and commute

Uppal said he has never stopped connecting with Edmonton residents, regardless of where his immediate family lives.

Instead, he said, he gets opportunities to devote more time to constituents when he is back in the city.

“When I’m here and I’m at events and meeting with people, it doesn’t finish until 10, 11, 12 at night. That’s fine because I’m going home to an empty house anyway.”

CPC Edmonton Mill Woods candidate Tim Uppal chats to supporters in his campaign office. (Supplied: CPC)

Sohi, the minister of natural resources in Justin Trudeau’s government, said long hours and being away from home are “part of the job” — and something he and his family struggled with when he was a rookie city councillor. 

“It’s a choice that we as elected officials or politicians make to serve the public,” he said. “And we make that decision consciously, understanding the sacrifices and difficulties we’re going to face.”

Asked about MPs who choose to live full-time in Ottawa, Sohi said it wouldn’t work for him.

“For me to do my job properly, living in the community that I represent is so important.”

At an event last weekend at the Knottwood community league, a large crowd was on hand to enjoy the sunshine, music and hot dogs.

Mill Woods resident George McCarthy said it’s important to see his MP in the community. (Kim Trynacity/CBC)

Edmonton Mill Woods constituent George McCarthy said it’s important for him to have an MP who lives in the riding, someone you might bump into at gatherings like the community league picnic.

“And if the guy lives somewhere else, maybe lives in Ottawa or lives somewhere else, you can’t talk to him,” McCarthy said. “You can communicate [through] emails, whatever, but it’s not the same.”

But others said they aren’t so sure. 

 Michelle Kroetsch, who also lives in Mill Woods, said she feels being a part of the community is important, but there are ways to engage with the public, without living there.

“We can also tune into things on the internet, Facebook, they can do live events differently that can make people part of it. So I don’t think it’s as important anymore as technologies develop,” Kroetsch said.

Desh Punjab radio listeners prefer candidates who live in the area, said station owner Kulmit Sangha.

At the Desh Punjab radio station in Mill Woods, owner Kulmit Sangha said most of his listeners want an MP who can relate to what they are experiencing.

“Well, they certainly prefer if the candidate is living in the area,” Sangha said. “They would like to see somebody here for sure.”

Tough on family life

The Samara Centre for Democracy, based in Toronto, has done numerous exit interviews with departing MPs. Senior research associate Paul Thomas said the evidence shows that for an MP with a young family, travelling back and forth to Ottawa is challenging and takes a toll.

“The solution Mr. Uppal is proposing makes sense in some regard,” Thomas said in an interview.

For the most part, citizens don’t engage directly with their MP, but instead with the politician’s constituency staff, Thomas said. In that case it really doesn’t matter if the MP is in the constituency, or in Ottawa, he said. 

“Finding ways to make Parliament more inclusive so that we can have a diverse set of representatives [with] people who have small kids, people who have older kids — will improve public policy especially when so much of the debate right now is about how to make life more affordable for families,” Thomas said.

In an email response from the House of Commons, communications officer Kori Ghergari said all members are required to declare their living arrangements at the start of each new Parliament by completing a primary and secondary residences form.

“Members who have a residence in the constituency and in the National Capital Region must indicate which one is the primary residence and which one is the secondary residence and provide supporting documentation,” Ghergari said in the statement.

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