Goodbye to a Good Mayor

I don’t know when I realized that former Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi was a very different kind of politician — not only the first Muslim mayor of a major North American city, but one with some very progressive views.

Naheed Nenshi on a horse

Nenshi’s annual Calgary Stampede photo, 2016: “I’m late. But here it is. I’m on a horse. Tweeting. In the middle of the parade.” (via Twitter)

In an interesting and also entertaining interview with the host of CBC’s The Current, Matt Galloway, Nenshi came across pretty much as I would have thought him to be – intelligent, funny, sincere, compassionate and politically astute with a wonderful dose of concern for his fellow citizens and the hope that all can live in a pluralistic society devoid of racism and division.

According to his Canadian Encyclopedia entry, Nenshi was born in Toronto in 1971, one year after his parents had moved to Canada from Tanzania in East Africa, and grew up in a house where they “read the newspaper every day” and “talked about politics over the dinner table.”

Having studied commerce at the University of Calgary, where he was elected president of the students’ union, Nenshi went on to earn a Master of Public Policy degree from the J.F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University in 1998. Although he was always involved in student politics and policy issues, he said he had never thought he would become a politician, but rather “a journalist or professor.” And professor it was, in fact “a business consultant prof.”

After six years as an academic during which he continuously “exhorted fellow citizens from all walks of life to enter municipal politics as a way of making change and building a stronger community,” he decided to run for a seat on Calgary City Council himself in 2004, unsuccessfully, as it turned out.

Then in 2010, at age 38, Nenshi entered the race for mayor. He made the decision as a way to show young people that voters:

…can elect good people into government . . . I wanted to prove a point. Could a relatively unknown academic with good ideas and no money actually do well in an election? That was our [campaign’s] goal, to figure that out.

Nenshi became expert at using social media and reached out to voters “across the political spectrum,” choosing purple as his campaign color to represent both the red and blue of that spectrum. He had 8% support when his campaign got underway but won with about 40% of the vote.

He was reelected in 2013 and 2017 (with 74% and 51% of the vote, respectively). In April 2021, he announced he would not be seeking a fourth term.

 

Nenshi has been a vocal supporter of ethnic and gender diversity among the city’s senior staff and was also the first Calgary mayor to serve as a grand marshal for the city’s Pride parade.  He was awarded the 2014 World Mayor Prize by the UK-based City Mayors Foundation, a research and public affairs group that honored him as “an urban visionary who doesn’t neglect the nitty-gritty of local government.”

Nenshi has focused on making communities work better, as evidenced by his “3 Things for Calgary” campaign that challenged every Calgarian to do three things for the city — whether selling pies at a charity bake sale or donating toys to a community toy bank.

He is also credited with showing leadership during disasters, like the 2013 Calgary floods, during which he tirelessly communicated with residents via his Twitter account, urging people to help their neighbors. Twitter, in fact, became his favorite medium  — a way to deal directly with citizens, responding to their concerns about “everything from transit policy to parking tickets.” A 2016 New York Times profile hailed Nenshi as “a Mayor fluent in Twitter.”

 

 

In his interview with Galloway, Nenshi said that over his years as mayor, his council consisted of independents representing everything from “Mother Earth will save us all” to the “Trump Party of Canada” and yet, the “vast majority” of their motions passed “unanimously or with huge majorities.”  Nenshi believes firmly that “we can do better if we check the blind partisanship.” (Makes one think about that promise to replace our First Past The Post federal system with some form of proportional representation which would broaden the spectrum of views represented in parliament — possibly forcing politicians to compromise and negotiate rather than endlessly attempting to score political points.)

 

One of the most impressive decisions of his council, for me, was its denunciation of Quebec’s Bill 21 as “discriminatory” in as much as it singled out Muslim women who wear the hijab, Sikh men who wear turbans and Jewish men who wear yarmulkes. Nenshi, in a speech following the bill’s passage, asked his audience to name a country in which a person would have to choose between their “faith or their work.” In response to an audience member naming Saudi Arabia, Nenshi said that Canada also denied citizens the right to work, given that Bill 21 had passed without criticism from any of the federal party leaders. In fact, those who dared to call it racist were themselves accused of being racist which, Nenshi told Galloway, is a common response to actual racism.

But while he is very aware of the “voices of anger and division” in his city — and the country, as well — Nenshi believes they constitute a “tiny minority, a segment who have difficulty with the smallest of sacrifices.” What really shocks him, when he sees anti-vaccination and anti-mask protests, is to see white supremacists joining them.

Responding to a query from Galloway — “Who is a city for?” — Nenshi said it’s a question he likes to pose in discussions about housing or the lack thereof.

Cities work, he said, “precisely because they’re for everyone,” but if you “end up building a city” where the person “who wears a badge as a police officer” or “serves you your morning coffee” can’t afford to live, you “have a very big problem,” and run the risk that cities become only for the wealthy. Nenshi said that while “a relatively modest investment in housing” might not work in Toronto or Vancouver, he believed it would eliminate homelessness in municipalities like Calgary and Edmonton and “probably in Ottawa.” All that is needed, he insisted is “the will to do it.”

 

Nenshi acknowledged that in the last five years, there has been a change in the tenor of Canadian political discourse, which he attributed to “deliberate manipulation” of social media but also to politicians “currying favor with certain elements of the vote.” As a result, he says, there has been “a lot more awfulness” for people of color in politics, although what he has experienced is only “a tiny fraction of what women in politics get.”

But he also pointed to the goodness and kindness of people he perceived during the pandemic, as they reached out to assist each other. He believes in Canada and “the promise of our country, that no matter who you are, where you’re from or whom you love, you are welcome.”

As Nenshi left the mayor’s chair after 11 years in office, he said he wasn’t sure what will come next for him but at 45, he has many years ahead in which he will continue to be involved in one way or another.

I am open to the universe. I want to be part of the city, the province and the country.

He believes in “selfless service” and hopes to revive a program he initiated some years ago that asks citizens to “do three things for Canada each year.” And he is steadfast in his belief that people in public office can change things for the better:

Even though it’s been tough, even though there’s been a lot of challenges I  never anticipated — I often joke that the City of Calgary, in 136 years, has declared exactly four states of emergency and lucky me, I was the mayor for all four of them. But despite all of that, I want to let everybody listening know, especially women, people of color, people of different abilities, you know what? There is no greater calling than this. That if you have the chance to enter public life, if you have the chance to wake up every morning, and know that you’re holding in your hand, even for a second, the hopes and dreams and fears of your community, and you have the chance to make it better for somebody? It’s worth it. It’s so worth it.

My kind of politician!

 


Dolores Campbell, a lifelong resident of Sydney, is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Cape Breton Highlander, the Nova Scotian, Cape Breton Magazine, Catholic New Times and The Cape Breton Post.