Self-styled “brown guy” Naheed Nenshi has reshaped politics in Canada’s conservative, white-bread energy capital.
The mayor of Calgary, Alberta, was about to give a speech in Toronto when an aide drew him aside to tell of trouble brewing back home. Floodwaters were surging in the Rocky Mountains. Towns upstream of Calgary were already under water, and Calgary would be inundated within a matter of hours. “Get me on the next plane out of here,” said the mayor, Naheed Nenshi. “This is serious business.” He delivered his speech while his staff scrambled to get him on the four-hour flight back to Calgary. Seven hours later, Nenshi was on the ground in his city’s emergency management centre, answering media questions about a calamity that could define his entire mayoralty. Just as Hurricane Sandy drew widespread attention to the leadership skills of New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, and 9/11 belonged to Rudy Giuliani, the Calgary Flood of 2013 could become the crisis that established Nenshi as Canada’s mayor.
Calgary, the Dallas of Canada with its cowboy hats and oil barons, is a booming city of 1.1 million in the western province of Alberta. Established in 1875 as a mounted police fort, it is located on a downstream floodplain at the confluence of the Bow and Elbow rivers, 60 miles east of the Canadian Rockies. Spring freshets, triggered by heavy rains and rapid mountain snowmelts, occur regularly. Upstream dams and their adjacent reservoirs, though built primarily for hydroelectric generation, generally keep the swollen rivers in check. Overflow ponds provide additional protection for residents of nearby low-lying areas. In the case of the June 2013 flood, however, these control systems were stretched beyond limits. More than 100,000 Albertans were displaced. Calgary’s downtown core – the nerve centre of Canada’s oil industry – was left waterlogged and without electricity or phone service. Such widespread flood-related disruption had not been seen in the area since 1897, when Calgary had a population of just 4,000 and a similar deluge swept away dozens of homes and businesses.
Mayor Nenshi is a self-styled “brown guy” of South Asian ethnicity. His surprise victory in the October, 2010, Calgary mayoralty race put a new face on civic politics, in what has traditionally been one of Canada’s most conservative white-bread cities. The election had offered a choice between a veteran city councillor (now a provincial Conservative cabinet minister) and a popular local television news anchor. Either was expected to win. Instead, the mayor’s chair went to this roly-poly former business school professor who said, candidly, he was “within spitting distance of zero” in the polls when he first announced his candidacy.
With his wide eyes, big toothy smile, nasal voice, untamed black curly hair, Clark Kent glasses, and rumpled black suit, Naheed (pronounced, Nah-HEAD) Nenshi looks and sounds for all the world like a winning contestant on the American television quiz show, Jeopardy! Now 41, he was born in Toronto, the son of Ismaili Muslim immigrants who came to Canada from Tanzania in 1971. He grew up in a working-class Calgary neighbourhood, and earned degrees in commerce and public policy from the University of Calgary and Harvard before pursuing a career as a business strategist. After professional stints in Toronto and New York, Nenshi returned to Calgary in 2001 at age 29, to teach business at a community college that has since become a university.
At the same time, he immersed himself in local municipal affairs, as a self-appointed city hall watchdog. He wrote a freelance column for a local daily newspaper in which he articulated his “better ideas” for the growing city. These included putting more money into public transit, and legalizing secondary suites in private homes to alleviate a shortage of affordable rental housing. The population was growing at the rate of five percent a year yet, as Nenshi saw it, the city was still functioning in many respects as it had in the 1970s.
His East Coast friends were surprised when Nenshi decided to move back to Calgary. “The New York people and the Harvard people were, like, ‘Naheed, why are you in the middle of the Canadian prairies?'” he told a Reuters correspondent. But Nenshi felt his friends didn’t realize how provincial their own world had become: “When I lived in Toronto and New York – big, big cities – how come I saw the same people all the time? This so-called borderless world had become more insular. The number of times I heard from people, ‘Oh, I ran into so and so on the flight from JFK to Dubai.’ I am very happy to let the Four Seasons (hotel) tribe do their work on global prosperity. I’ll do my work on local prosperity.”
Nenshi switched from watchdog to candidate in 2004 when he first ran for Calgary city council, as an alderman. He came in fourth. “It was a gong show,” he said afterwards. “There were 13 candidates running.” But, he told reporters, it was a terrific learning experience that taught him a lot about local politics. He vowed to try it again when the time seemed right. In the meantime, he returned to his role as self-appointed municipal watchdog. With a group of fellow city hall watchers, he formed the Better Calgary Campaign, a non-profit group dedicated to limiting suburban growth and promoting inner-city high-density living.
Incumbent Calgary mayors, unless they’ve been tainted by scandal, are generally a shoo-in for re-election once they’ve been in office for a term or more. As a result, more serious contenders for the mayor’s job tend to bide their time until the mayor of the day decides to step down. That’s what happened in 2010 when the incumbent mayor opted not to seek a fourth term. Nenshi decided to try for the top job rather than run for one of the 14 aldermanic seats on council. He still thought of himself as more of a policy wonk than “the guy in the front of the room.” But opportunity beckoned.
Nenshi’s rivals offered political experience or PR skills. Nenshi offered a dozen new ideas and “politics in full sentences.”
In their election platforms, Nenshi’s main rivals offered political experience (in the case of the former alderman) and public relations skills (in the case of the television anchor). Nenshi offered new ideas. Among them was a plan to cut city hall red tape to make Calgary a magnet for business investment. He rolled out the rest of his “better ideas,” one per week, over the course of his 12-week campaign. All told, they added up to more than the combined platforms of the other 14 mayoralty candidates.
The local media made much of the fact Nenshi was a social media aficionado who used Facebook, YouTube and Twitter to build his support base. But tweeting doesn’t win elections. Smart ideas win elections. “People are really hungry for ideas,” a Calgary oilman told Toronto’s Globe and Mail. “Previously, they’ve been so apathetic because they’ve been treated like idiots, with just sound bites. So at least Naheed’s tried to make longer discussions. He didn’t dumb things down.”
Nenshi called it “politics in full sentences.” He joked to a CBC Radio announcer that it took him 45 seconds to pronounce his name. His aim was to conduct detailed discussions about complicated issues “and we’re not boiling it down to simple solutions and bullet points.” During the campaign, he talked about transit, accountability, and open government. He promised to curb urban sprawl by charging homebuilders more for building in the suburbs. He insisted that Calgarians wanted a conversation about their city, and would support him because he and his team didn’t condescend to people.
The victory of this man dubbed “Canada’s first big-city Muslim mayor” caused heads to turn across the country. “The election of Naheed Nenshi as mayor of Calgary is the most exciting political event of the year,” wrote a Globe and Mail columnist. No longer could Calgary be characterized, as it often was in Canada’s mainstream media, as “a town of rednecks and cowboy hats.” Nenshi represented an increasingly diverse population in a city that was now home to 230,000 visible-minority residents. An astonished Calgary Herald columnist wrote, “We just didn’t realize that Nenshi was the face in Calgary’s mirror.”
Nenshi acknowledged that his election might serve to give the city a new vision of itself. “Today, Calgary is a different place than it was yesterday. A better place.” He also acknowledged that he carried an added responsibility because of his heritage and religion. “I do a good job and it’s, like, brown guys are OK. Muslims can do a good job. I do a bad job and I take people down with me.”
Doing a good job proved challenging for Nenshi. The mayor holds only one of the 15 ballots cast by council members. Calgary, like many Canadian municipalities, has a “weak-mayor” system of government where the mayor wields no veto power and has to rely on at least half the aldermen for support. In major American cities, by contrast, the mayors carry considerable independence and clout, and have the ability to override council decisions.
Nenshi had mixed success with propositions he supported during his first two years in office. He did manage to persuade council to eliminate park-and-ride fees at transit stations, to authorize food trucks and downtown bicycle lanes, and to improve snow removal in residential areas. And, most important for Nenshi, he got council to approve construction of a $294-million airport runway tunnel that will eventually become a key transit corridor. But he couldn’t get his colleagues to support legalizing secondary suites, which left students in this four-university city with a limited range of housing options. Nor could he get them to cut the police budget, as council struggled to find ways of reducing debt without raising taxes.
Outside of council chambers, Nenshi shone as a public speaker. He is invariably well prepared, intelligent, witty, self-deprecating, and articulate. In a typical speech, to a group of public library employees, he quoted from a book by Alberta author Aritha van Herk, describing how the province is viewed by some outsiders: “Redneck, intolerant, racist, conservative, neo-Christian, suspicious of anything new, home of white supremacists, gun lovers, and not a few book-banning school boards.” Was there any truth to this characterization? Nenshi joked that he thought he had read “that exact paragraph in the newspapers, last week. In MANY papers last week – accompanied by a picture of me.”
“You have a duty to get the facts right,” Nenshi told reporters. “If you get the facts wrong, I’m going to call you on it. If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen.”
Reporters enjoyed sparring with him in media scrums after council meetings because, notwithstanding his preference for doing “politics in full sentences,” Nenshi proved to be a master of the sound bite. In one typical exchange, he accused a local tabloid of “making stuff up” in its reporting on inflation rates. He told the assembled reporters he was putting the newspaper on notice: “If you’re going to engage as a journalist, regardless of what medium, you have a duty to get the facts right. If you get the facts wrong, I’m going to call you on it. If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen or find a new profession.”
Occasionally he found that shooting from the hip could land him in trouble. When a blogging city hall watcher accused Nenshi of being an “extreme lefty” for allowing Occupy Calgary protestors to squat in a city plaza without penalty, the mayor tweeted back, “I know I shouldn’t bother you when you’re off your meds, but I love how freedom of speech is now an extreme lefty issue.” Nenshi later apologized for his “off your meds” comment, but said he wasn’t about to sacrifice his Twitter “authenticity” for the sake of political correctness.
In September, 2012, as he neared the end of his second year in office, Nenshi enjoyed one of the highest public approval ratings (76 percent) of any mayor in Canada. He had been a popular guest on local and national television public affairs programs, and been interviewed by CNN and the BBC. But he had made enemies. He had annoyed members of the Alberta provincial government – which has jurisdiction over education, welfare, inter-city transportation and health care – by pushing for more autonomy and taxing authority for cities. (One provincial cabinet minister dismissed him as a “peacock.”) He had alienated Calgary homebuilders, who accused him of favouring inner-city condos at the expense of suburban development. (The homebuilders endeavoured to get more pro-suburban people on council by donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to a private foundation that trains political candidates to govern “in accordance with conservative values.” Nenshi responded by saying city politics was largely devoid of partisanship: “Is it a conservative or a liberal idea to plough residential roads?”) And Nenshi had alienated his fellow city councillors, saying they treated taxpayers like bank machines whenever they tried to add new spending to the city budget. (One alderman called him “petulant” and “disrespectful.”)
Notwithstanding his high public approval rating, it looked for a while as if Nenshi might be facing stiff competition in the October 2013 municipal election. The homebuilders and others in the business community were looking for candidates who would better represent their interests at city hall. Complaints were being voiced about the city’s growing debt load and annual tax hikes. Among those mentioned as a possibility for mayor was a popular radio talk-show host, well known for his right-wing views.
Then came the Flood of 2013.
Rainfall of biblical proportions struck southern Alberta
On Wednesday, June 19, rainfall of biblical proportions struck southern Alberta. New York City had experienced a similar downpour in the wake of tropical storm Andrea, but Calgary had not seen rain like this for more than eight decades. Over a 24-hour period, more rain fell than the city normally gets in a month. A dozen towns west and south of Calgary declared states of emergency. Mudslides closed the highways between Calgary and the Rockies. Mayor Nenshi cut short his speaking tour of Ontario and gave his first media briefing in Calgary while low-lying areas of the city were being evacuated. “The Bow River looks like an ocean at the moment,” he said. He got little sleep for the next 36 hours.
More than 75,000 Calgarians were forced to leave their homes. High River, a bedroom community of 13,000 immediately south of Calgary, was emptied in its entirety. With evacuations from other surrounding communities added in, the total reached 100,000. Miraculously, only four people died. Canadian soldiers were deployed to build temporary berms for controlling riverbank erosion. Calgary had installed a permanent $20 million berm in one vulnerable neighbourhood after a 2005 flood, and it protected dozens of homes from damage in the 2013 flood. Would additional berms have saved other neighbourhoods? Nenshi didn’t think so. “I strongly believe that this flood was of such force and magnitude, nothing would have helped.”
Nenshi was ever-present on television and radio and the Internet, providing updates on river water levels, road closures, and cleanup activities. Sometimes he was the compassionate neighbour, sympathizing with residents who lost their homes. Sometimes he was the chiding grown-up, warning thrill-seekers to stay off the rivers: “I have a large number of nouns that I can use to describe the people I saw in a canoe on the Bow River today. I’m not allowed to use any of them.” Within minutes, the hash tag “#Nenshinoun” was trending on Twitter.
Nenshi worked around the clock during the week after the flood, giving news conferences in the middle of the night to keep Calgarians informed. His Twitter followers, who increased from 89,000 to 120,000 over the course of a few days, urged him to take a nap. A Globe and Mail editorial characterized him as “such a superbly effective leader that he appears on his way to folk-hero status.” The talk-radio host who had briefly mused about challenging Nenshi in the fall municipal elections quickly changed his mind. The Calgary Herald predicted Nenshi would have little serious competition in the election. “Even political tire-kickers are wary of running against Nenshi.” The only credible challenger to file nomination papers was a former alderman who admitted he had little chance of winning. But he wanted to prevent Nenshi from “coasting into his second term via virtual coronation.” As it turned out, Nenshi’s re-election victory, October 21, 2013, indeed resembled a coronation. He captured 74 percent of the votes cast while his nearest challenger, the former alderman, captured less than 22 percent.
Environmentalists were quick to connect the June flooding to global climate variability. Wrote Andrew Nikiforuk, a Calgary journalist known for criticizing Canada’s federal government and the oil industry on the climate change file: “I only hope my city’s nightmare is the climate-change wake-up Alberta, and Canada, needs. Climate change is now eroding civilization as surely as it has changed my beloved city.”
Jason Kenney, an MP from Calgary and a minister in Canada’s Conservative federal government, denied that climate change played a role in the flood. “This is a once-in-a-century event, and there was no one talking about man-made climate change in 1897, when we saw the last flood of this nature.”
Nenshi considers the climate-change narrative too simplified, and says stopping a pipeline wouldn’t expiate “the sins of the carbon economy.”
Nenshi, despite being mayor of Canada’s energy capital, sidesteps getting embroiled in the climate-change debates. When the subject had come up earlier, in talks between Ottawa and Washington about the 1,700-mile Keystone XL pipeline to transport oilsands bitumen from Alberta to refineries in Texas, Nenshi said the climate-change narrative was becoming too simplified. “You’re either for the environment or you’re for the pipeline,” he told a CBC Radio interviewer. “But the real world is significantly more complex.” Stopping the pipeline wouldn’t expiate what Nenshi called “the sins of the carbon economy.” The industry and the Canadian government would simply find other ways, such as rail transport, to get the bitumen to market, because oil exports are vital to the national economy. “And the odds of those other methods being more climate-damaging than this pipeline are very high,” said Nenshi. (As if to underscore his comment, a deadly derailment and explosion of 72 oil-filled railway tank cars killed 47 people and leveled 40 buildings in a small Quebec town on July 6.) So the real question to be resolved was, “how do we secure future economic prosperity for our country while mitigating the environmental aspects as best we can?”
Canada’s perennial dithering on the climate-change file was back in the headlines on June 25 when President Obama announced he would only approve the remaining portion of the $5.3 billion (U.S.) Keystone XL pipeline if it did not “significantly exacerbate” the problem of carbon pollution. Later, in a July 27 interview with The New York Times, Obama said it was possible that Canada could “potentially be doing more to mitigate carbon release.” Bitumen from the Alberta oilsands was already being labelled “dirty oil” by environmentalists in Europe as well as in the United States, so Canada clearly needed to do something more to rehabilitate the tarnished image of its most valuable export. Obama’s comments were followed by a letter from Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, offering to work with the Americans on a joint plan to reduce carbon emissions.
Nenshi insists that his job is as the mayor of Calgary; it’s other people’s jobs to deal with provincial, federal, and international issues. And as Nenshi sees it, it’s his priority to prepare Calgary for the next big flood. Scientists, the insurance industry, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and others predict that extreme weather events are likely to occur more frequently, and Calgary is particularly vulnerable. “When you live on a floodplain, it’s not you MIGHT get flooded, it’s you WILL get flooded,” says hydrologist John Pomeroy. “The question is when. It’s guaranteed.”
Nenshi acknowledged that the berms, dams and other infrastructure that mitigate the impact of flooding are not a “hugely sexy thing,” because they are expensive to build and just sit there as protection against presumed future weather events that are hard to predict. But with insurance companies estimating Calgary’s total cleanup and repair bills from the 2013 flood at some $3 billion, he agreed it was time to start talking more about smart spending on flood prevention. “It’s long past time to have those conversations. And I’m very happy to think through the best ways of doing that.” On July 23, he appointed an advisory panel on flood mitigation to get the conversations started.
As for how governments should deal with the larger question of global temperature and climate variability increases, Nenshi pointed to one inescapable fact: “Whether or not you believe in human-generated climate change, the point is that the weather is different now. It’s very clear that we’re seeing these kinds of incidents more often. And as such, we have to continue to make sure that we build a city that continues to be resilient.”
Copyright © 2013 Brian Brennan
Related on F&O:
The Canada We Hope For. By Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi, October, 2015
Crafting an ideal Canada—the Canada to which we aspire—lies in engaging muscularly with the past and the future. It means a thousand simple acts of service and a million tiny acts of heroism. It means acting at the community level: on our streets, in our neighbourhoods, and in our schools. It means refusing to accept the politics of fear. And then it means exporting the very best of Canada, that ideal and real Canada, to the rest of the world.
Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal, of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is funded by you, our readers. We are ad-free and spam-free, and we do not solicit donations from partisan organizations. Please visit our Subscribe page to chip in at least .27 for one story or $1 for a day site pass. Please tell others about us, and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.