Naheed Nenshi’s unlikely stardom

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Naheed Nenshi. © 2013 Neil Zeller (City of Calgary photo)

There are strange doings in Alberta, the Canadian province that’s often compared to America’s state of Texas.

Alberta has been characterized by its Go-Get-‘Em attitude, cowboy hats, and an economy based on oil and gas extraction, especially the oil sands in its north. It’s widely associated with the full-throated call for unfettered markets by its neo-liberal “Calgary School” of economics. Alberta is home to Canada’s Bible Belt. Its Wildest and Westest city is dubbed Cowtown for its famous Calgary Stampede, but has developed into one of the world’s great modern energy headquarters. In short, Alberta has been fertile territory for Canada’s version of America’s Republican party. 

Alberta is now at a crossroads: a landlocked province, it’s on tenterhooks awaiting U.S. President Barack Obama’s decision on approving the next leg of the Keystone pipeline, crucial for transporting bitumen from Alberta oil sands to world markets. And yet, despite its safe historic identity and these parlous times, the citizens of Calgary have abandoned their predictable scripts. They’ve enthusiastically embraced a leader who surely ranks amongst the world’s least-likely political stars: Naheed Nenshi, a former policy wonk and academic, a self-styled “brown guy,” a liberal quite willing to fetter some sorts of business, and an Ismaili Muslim. 

Nobody, noplace and nothing can be captured in the simplistic terms I’ve used above, of course. But facts underly most stereotypes – and if there’s even a grain of truth in Alberta stereotypes, a remarkable political shift is now underway. Conservative, staid Alberta has begun electing politicians, both provincially and locally, who can only be characterized as “moderate,” perhaps even “progressive.” Provincially last year, Albertans voted for the centrist Progressive Conservative party over the far-right Wild Rose Party. This week its two biggest cities chose unapologetically “progressive” mayors: Nenshi by a 74 per cent landslide in Calgary, and a newcomer named Don Iveson by six out of 10 voters in the provincial capitol Edmonton.

Nenshi, who came to national and international media attention earlier this year after massive floods struck Calgary (he was called a “superhero” for his adroit handling of the crisis) is arguably the poster child of this shift. 

But as surprising as it is to find Nenshi as Calgary’s much-loved mayor, he is no risk-taker. His role as a change-maker may be more symbolic than actual. In his first term he proved willing to forcefully push back against opponents on local issues – but he very deftly avoided the big issues:  North America’s culture wars and Alberta’s bête noire, climate change. The question now is whether his horizons will expand in term two.

Log in to read Canada’s Mayor, a profile of Nenshi by Alberta author Brian Brennan, in the Magazine section, accessible with a $1 day pass for the entire site, or by subscription.

 

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