It was a volunteer position on a Progressive Conservative leadership campaign that propelled Sandra Jansen into a journalism career and, eventually, politics.
Now the PC party’s education critic, Jansen was in her early 20s when she worked as an assistant press liaison on the campaign for Ron Ghitter, who finished third to Don Getty for the leadership of the PC party in 1985. That experience, which occurred alongside fellow volunteer Alison Redford, made a lasting impression on Jansen, a graduate of Calgary’s William Aberhart High School.
“Being involved in that campaign, I realized how important it was that people take part in the democratic process,” she said.
While seeing democracy in action left a positive impression on Jansen, she says she also witnessed a negative side, in the form of anti-Semitism and biased reporting. What she observed confirmed her desire to be a journalist.
“I felt that I could do a fairer job,” Jansen said. “I really felt that we needed to have unbiased journalists out there, and I wasn’t seeing enough of that in that campaign.”
Jansen earned a broadcasting diploma from the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology and went on to a 24-year career in front of the camera, including 10 years as a national news anchor at the CTV News Channel in Toronto.
During that time, Jansen interviewed a lot of politicians, and was always impressed by those who were willing to give of themselves rather than just push partisan views.
“It was always nice to actually meet people involved in the political process who genuinely wanted to make that connection and wanted to work on good policy,” she says. “When I met those people, I was always very inspired.”
After returning to Calgary in 2007, Jansen earned a master's degree in professional communications. A few years later, prompted by her positive recollections of the Ghitter campaign, she worked in communications on Redford’s leadership campaign and then became the new premier’s southern Alberta communications manager. Five months later, during the 2012 provincial election, Jansen ran and won under the PC banner in Calgary-North West.
It was a step she never expected to take, but a conversation with her daughter convinced her it was the right move.
“My daughter was concerned that people can be very mean to women running in politics,” Jansen said.
“She said to me, ‘You know, I don’t want to see them bully you.’ I said, ‘If I decide not to do something because someone’s going to bully me, then the bullies win, don’t they?’”
“I took on that challenge and I’ve never regretted it.”
The other side
As an elected MLA, Jansen found herself on the other side of the microphone, a role reversal that came with a learning curve.
One well-publicized learning moment came in March 2014, after she suggested during a live television interview that former PC MLA Len Webber reconsider his decision to step into federal politics, given his view that Redford was a bully.
“Maybe he should go back to being an electrician,” Jansen said.
The comment sparked a social media backlash from people who felt that she’d insulted electricians and tradespeople in general. Jansen apologized.
“It certainly was a learning experience,” Jansen says now. “I should choose my words more carefully for sure.”
Another of Jansen’s high-profile moments came with her role as the PC government’s sponsor of Bill 10, which was introduced last December. As it was originally written, the bill allowed students to form gay-straight alliances (GSAs) in schools and would have given school boards the right to refuse such requests, with the only redress available to students being an appeal at the board level and then the courts.
After a loud and sustained public outcry, the government halted the bill, conducted some consultation, and then introduced amendments making it mandatory for schools to allow gay-straight alliances if requested by students.
In a recent Facebook post, Jansen revealed that she was pressured to champion the bill even though she had “little knowledge about its contents beyond the fact that it didn't make GSAs mandatory.”
“So I made what I believe was the biggest mistake of my political career,” Jansen wrote. “I bowed to the pressure of the premier’s office when I should have stood up to them. I think back on that time now and about how I failed the LGBTQ community in that action and I’m truly sorry. Speaking truth to power is never easy, and the premier’s inner circle had an unmovable agenda. I allowed them to intimidate and silence me. I will never do that again.”
The posting, dated Sept. 20, came after Jansen took criticism in social media for attending Calgary’s Pride parade, with critics saying she wasn’t an ally of the LGBTQ community because of her involvement in Bill 10.
“I felt I needed to set the record straight because I consider myself to be a strong ally,” she said in an interview. She said she had no problem expressing her regrets openly and frankly.
“Too many politicians don’t say what they really mean, and I think the public gets tired of that,” she said.
Jansen was the vice-chair of former education minister Jeff Johnson’s Task Force for Teaching Excellence. When the task force was announced, she tweeted that it would “explore new ways to support educators.”
The report that the task force produced contained several recommendations that the Alberta Teachers’ Association viewed as an attack on the profession. With the change in government, that report is now on the shelf.
After being re-elected by 600 votes in May, Jansen said she asked to be her party’s education critic and was thrilled to get the role. The education portfolio is top of mind for her on two fronts: she has a daughter in high school and she receives many calls about education at her constituency office.
“I have a lot of teachers in Calgary-North West and I know that their experience in the classroom needs to be better,” Jansen said. “My question now is, how do we get to that better experience?”
Jansen said her experience volunteering in her daughter’s class when she was younger showed her first-hand the lack of supports for teachers who are struggling with large groups of students with diverse needs, coupled with a push to provide inclusivity.
“I thought to myself, ‘Wow, teachers aren’t getting enough support in the classroom.’ I think about that all the time,” she said.
During the last legislature sitting, Jansen delivered a member statement calling for the province to ensure that every child receives comprehensive sexual health education that includes discussions about consent and LGBTQ identity. She said she will continue to push for this every chance she gets.
“When we are providing that opportunity for all of our kids in the province, I believe we cut down on bullying, we increase understanding, we raise more compassionate kids ... and we raise healthier kids.” ❚