The Nenshi Years

Taking stock of the purple wave

By Chris Turner

I find it easy to forget what Calgary was like when it all began—before what I’ll call the Nenshi Years. It feels like a lifetime ago, several political epochs back. Before the pandemic, before the Olympic bid, before the flood. Before the boom—and whole boom–bust cycle—ended. Before the PC collapse and NDP’s surprise supernova, before Jason Kenney’s rise and rise and ongoing splat.

Before all of that: 2007. The political baseline then, in Calgary as in the province as a whole, was stagnation. Government as a series of shrugs and self-congratulations. Who remembers what Dave Bronconnier, the last person to sit in the mayor’s chair, stood for? What his vision for the city was? Who remembers voting in the 2007 municipal election? (I do. It was a pointless errand en route to something more worthwhile, like dropping payment for a gas bill in the mail. We used to do that too, then, not so long ago—pay our bills by mail.) In 2007 the incumbent mayor’s only serious opposition was a multi-millionaire dogged by rumours of shady business dealings in Kenya who bought a little more than 10 per cent of the vote. Incumbents were returned in 9 of the 12 wards, two of them by acclamation.

Does it overstate the case to say no one really cared in 2007? Voter turnout was 33 per cent. It had been even lower in the 2004 election. Maybe it doesn’t even overstate it to say no one cared about municipal politics the whole decade.

It certainly felt like no one cared. I was doing research back then for a small group called Sustainable Calgary, and the consensus among municipal-level progressive non-profits was that the problem wasn’t a lack of non-profits producing reports full of good ideas but a yawning chasm between ideas and implementation. Civic engagement seemed all but non-existent. And so a bunch of us got together to create a little conference called CivicCamp to try to figure out how to overcome the inertia of municipal politics, and one of the people who helped organize it was a civic-minded business prof from Mount Royal University named Naheed Nenshi. And nothing was the same in Calgary politics after that.

So, yes, let’s be clear about the baseline. The baseline was a shrug, a yawn, a backroom deal, a 20-year neighbourhood development permit after half an hour of idle debate. And let’s be clear as well that the change following the 2010 municipal election was seismic. However anyone might rate the Nenshi years in Calgary, there is no denying they were the Nenshi years.

That’s how it began—the first flush of optimism in a roaring boomtown. A great purple wave carried a candidate who initially polled nearly at zero to victory in a 2010 campaign that used youth and diversity and newfangled social media to wash over the city’s inertia and land its man in the mayor’s chair. It ends this year, amid great anxiety, in a busted boomtown reeling from the pandemic, a city whose political climate feels some days like a toxic cloud. In early April Nenshi announced he wouldn’t seek a fourth term. “There are many voices that haven’t always felt heard,” he said, “and it felt like the right time to make some room.”

I’m not at all objective on this subject, to be clear. Nenshi is not a close enough friend that we share confidences—I learned he wasn’t running again, as anyone else might, when the news broke on Twitter—but he is close enough that he’s handed me a gift of his mother’s excellent samosas in my living room and it feels a little odd referring to him as Nenshi, per journalistic convention, and not Naheed, as I’ve often greeted him socially.

A great purple wave carried a candidate who initially polled nearly at zero to victory in a campaign that used youth and diversity and newfangled social media to wash over the city’s inertia.

I’m glad for my friend Naheed that he’s stepping down, because the job seemed to be visibly grinding him down in his last term and because a fully recharged Naheed has so much to bring to whatever he chooses to do next. I’m sad for Nenshi and his constituents, because he will leave the mayor’s chair at a pivotal moment in the city’s (and the world’s) history. And whatever else, we know after 11 years how he would lead us through change, and it was pretty damn good leadership in most respects, and I’m worried for Calgary in its absence.

To begin to wrestle with Nenshi’s legacy, I asked him what he thought it might be. Nenshi is not cagey in the way of a classic backroom politician, but he does sometimes say things those kind of politicians say. And so he answered, at first, with a cagey politician’s line: “I never really thought about my legacy.” And then he expanded on it, as is his professorial tendency: “When someone asks me whether or not they want to run for office, I always give them the same advice. Which is be the best one-term person you can be. You know, just go to work every day, don’t think about the concept of political capital. Don’t think about how this decision will impact you in the next election. Just think about what you can do with the time you’ve been given, which is a precious gift, to help make decisions about people’s lives.”

A fine cagey politician’s line. Here’s something about Nenshi, though. He means all of that. Truly. That’s the first thing I’ll miss about him—that he did the mayoral job, particularly the most crucial, crisis-level parts, with a deep dedication to the idea of public service and a genuine commitment to making the choices he believed were best for the largest number of Calgarians.

This was the Mayor Nenshi of the 2013 flood. The city’s emergency crews oversaw the official response, of course, but Nenshi’s sheer ubiquity in the tensest days of the disaster set a clear and unwavering tone. Nenshi was seemingly everywhere all day, on TV and on social media, always calm, reassuring and decisive, talking up the ways Calgary was making it through the mess while gently ribbing those who ignored civic orders to stay out of the way of emergency crews. His guidance made all the room needed and more for the city’s very best spirit to explode out of the debris, for neighbours to pitch in with all their hearts, for McMahon Stadium’s parking lot to fill with so many volunteers it all but overwhelmed the city’s capacity to deploy them. The Globe and Mail’s Gary Mason has written that Nenshi’s management of the flood “should be studied in courses on leadership.” I agree, and it is surely the cornerstone of his legacy—when a city in deep crisis needed a forceful, pragmatic mayor, he was more than up to the task.

Nenshi’s management of the 2013 flood is surely the cornerstone of his legacy. When a city in deep crisis needed a forceful, pragmatic mayor, he was more than up to the task.

The other thing about Nenshi, though, is that when he claims never to have thought about legacy, he’s both telling the truth, in that it wasn’t the motivation for his decisions, but he’s also talking nonsense, because of course he thought about how he would leave his mark on the city. He’s not lacking at all for ego or ambition. He wanted that mark to be substantial. I suppose that’s the question of his legacy: Did he succeed in that?

Mayors are often measured by tangible things, and some of the ones built on Nenshi’s watch are irrefutably impressive. As a first-time candidate, Nenshi made much of his background as a bookish child of immigrants who asked the public library to allow him to withdraw more books than the limit permitted. And so perhaps the strongest emblem of his years in office is the new Central Library. Plans for a new library predated Nenshi’s arrival at city hall, but he became its vocal champion, ushering a new plan through a rare unanimous council vote in 2013 and celebrating the ambitious design by the world-renowned Norwegian firm Snøhetta at every turn. The library, which opened on time and under budget in 2018, is surely one of the best civic buildings in the country, immediately transformative in palpable ways—the welcoming space itself, the services and amenities it brings downtown, the way it opens up the east side of the inner city. It says something about Calgary in the 21st century that possibly its greatest building is a public library. And it says something about Calgary’s ambitions that its new public library is an architectural achievement of international import, earning the city a spot on The New York Times list of “52 places to go” in 2019. It’s not hard to see it as a physical embodiment of what Nenshi wanted Calgary to be—civic-minded, welcoming, unfussily world-class.

Nenshi first ran for mayor, in 2010, by leaning into his strengths as a wonky professor. He assembled a list of 12 “better ideas” for Calgary and unveiled one a week throughout the campaign. He promised “politics in full sentences.” And on the campaign trail—in living rooms across the city and in thread after thread on Twitter—he was open, direct and expansive in explaining those ideas to anyone who wanted to talk with him.

The “better ideas” are a dual laundry list of policy-wonk wishes and standard political promises. And yet as the third term comes to an end, the mayor’s actions match them still. If he hasn’t enacted all of them, he at least tried hard. Number 12, the last on the list? “Outstanding libraries, recreation amenities and a vibrant cultural scene.” Nenshi notes that several new branch libraries and four new recreation centres opened during his tenure, and every other library in the system got renovations.

Nenshi was the new Central Library’s champion, ushering the ambitious plan through a rare unanimous council vote in 2013. It is surely one of the best civic buildings in the country.

Further down the list, other items pop out as issues Nenshi returned to again and again. No. 9, for example: “Calgarians will be able to get around easily by any transportation mode.” We could certainly quibble over the definition of “easily,” but Nenshi’s tenure saw Calgary’s largest-ever investments in transit and cycling infrastructure. The transit capital budget, for example, expanded from a little over $150-million per year around 2012 to a peak of more than $300-million, with major new investments in a Bus Rapid Transit system and a new CTrain fleet. The transit expansion is nowhere near extensive enough to make a major dent in the city’s car dependency, but the improvements are substantial. The downtown cycle track network is a great gift to the city, and I see it snaking outward in all directions now with little of the fuss that accompanied its launch, because it works. Calgary’s transit network is slowly evolving from a hub-and-spoke design that only moves people in and out of the core into a system with more options for neighbourhood to neighbourhood travel. And there is now near universal agreement that expanded transit is the centrepiece of the city’s transportation future—and its budget—which was emphatically not the case in our CivicCamp days. Progress is sometimes less than you’d like, but it’s still progress. (The Green Line, Nenshi assured me, will get built.)

Another better idea was to “reduce the number of people living in poverty and ensure opportunity for all.” Nenshi takes some pride in having ushered in the city’s first-ever poverty reduction strategy, which included Canada’s first sliding-scale fee for monthly low-income transit passes and a new application process that enables people to apply just once for numerous low-income subsidies—the largest Canadian municipality to adopt this more dignified (and cost-effective) approach, and with the most subsidized programs to boot. Nenshi also described Calgary’s new community action plan on mental health and addiction as “probably the most important thing I’ve ever done in my life, certainly my political life.” And Nenshi has seen progress on this front. Calgary’s poverty rate declined until 2018, even if the pandemic and oil-business bust have since pushed it back up.

He has other real victories as well, most of which point at one or another of the original better ideas, some of which will leave marks on the city’s landscape for generations. One is the change made in 2016 to how the city calculates “off-site levies.” This is a pure Nenshi move—technical, wonky, transformative. The off-site levy is the fee paid to the city by developers when they build new communities, intended to cover the costs of public services such as new roads, sidewalks and utilities—a mostly unseen subsidy taxpayers handed to suburban developers and homeowners for decades. Calgary’s levy had always been insufficient, with much of the uncovered costs borne by taxpayers citywide. The 2016 change boosted the levy by more than $100,000 per hectare, an increase of nearly 50 per cent, bringing the fee much closer to the actual cost to the city. In a Calgary Heraldcolumn at the time, Nenshi called it “one of the most important decisions of our term,” arguing that it will “fundamentally change how we pay for growth in this city.”

Did the off-site levy change end Calgary’s outward growth? Alas, no. But it certainly tilted the scales toward a better balance and a denser and more sustainable city.

Nenshi’s first few years fufilled his promise of “politics in full sentences,” with the mayor in sole command of his Twitter account and using it to engage citizens. (Sometimes, famously, helping them find their missing pets.) When his victory struck the rest of Canada and the world as wildly improbable—a Muslim elected mayor of Cowtown?—Nenshi made a shrewd choice to use the international spotlight to highlight the city he loved. “I’m going to take advantage of this,” he told the CBC. “I’m going to tell people around the world a story about a place where pluralism works, and where multiculturalism works, and a model perhaps for the world.”

And it did seem to work, for a time. After the flood, Nenshi barely campaigned and was still returned to office in a landslide. The World Mayor Project awarded him its “World Mayor Prize” for 2014. Never mind that such accolades are wildly arbitrary—the title fit the city’s vibe. Calgary was young and smart and successful, and so was its youthful, geeky mayor. It felt like the era that first came into view in 2010 had fully arrived.

And then came Trump, and Jason Kenney in his theatrical prop of a blue pickup truck, and politics in Calgary rapidly turned poisonous.

Nenshi told me about a debate his office had in its first year about banning one particularly noxious Facebook troll from the mayor’s page. The forum was otherwise civil, so they chewed over the decision for weeks. By the time of the 2017 election, however, social media feeds seethed constantly with hateful, often racist rhetoric. The city where, as Nenshi always put it, “nobody cares where your daddy came from” had become a beacon for poisonous, xenophobic right-wing politics. Nenshi himself expressed shock after his narrow 2017 victory at how toxic the campaign had been. When I crossed paths with him after that election, I noticed a wariness and weariness sharply at odds with the smartest-guy-in-the-room buoyancy that had given his political career such irresistible energy. Politics in full sentences had been drowned out by epithets smeared on Facebook walls.

In retrospect, 2018 has begun to feel like the nadir of the Nenshi Years. Calgary was reeling economically, the reactionary right had united behind Kenney, and the mayor was wading through the political morass with a luckless plodding far removed from his once-confident stride. No. 1 on that faded 2010 list of better ideas reads: “Nenshi proposes common sense policy on secondary suites.” That battle—to allow homeowners to add a basement apartment without appealing to the entire city council for approval—dragged on through multiple failed votes that revealed Nenshi’s weakness at rallying allies to his causes. Critics of the mayor often cite his arrogance and unwillingness to compromise; the endless drag of the secondary suite debate, which was repeatedly amplified as yet another bunch of homeowners arrived at council chambers to argue that their mother-in-law apartment wouldn’t ruin the fabric of their neighbourhood, felt like that weakness writ large, and over such a pointedly puny issue. When council finally voted, narrowly, to change the secondary suite process in March 2018, it felt less like a victory than a pointless street fight’s exhausted end.

The mayor himself pointed to the plebiscite later that year on Calgary’s bid to host the 2026 Winter Olympics as his greatest personal regret. Nenshi saw the Olympics as a way to fast-track infrastructure projects—affordable housing, athletic facilities, entertainment venues—as well as update the city’s image and boost its tourist economy. He admitted to me he botched the sales pitch (he should’ve sold it hard as a city-building exercise), then got lost in a jurisdictional squabble between the federal and provincial governments, which led to the fateful decision to put the bid to a plebiscite vote. Nenshi’s pro-Olympics side lost, and an unwarranted share of his political capital had been spent on nothing. “It was a shame and I think a missed opportunity for Calgary,” is how he put it.

Perhaps even harder to swallow for many long-time Nenshi supporters was his vote for a new arena for the Calgary Flames. There’s much more to the deal than just a hockey rink of course, but in public it played out largely as a battle between the crazily wealthy, arrogant ownership group of an NHL team and an increasingly cowed city council. After years of wrangling over the arena’s location and the size of the city’s investment, council committed to splitting the $550-million cost, with the stated promise of economic benefits in excess of the city’s half of the deal. But third-party analysis indicated that the City’s end of the deal would be a net loss of nearly $50-million in present-day dollars.

It was a surprise to see the mayor on the cowed side of the vote—though of course this is emphatically not how he characterized it, and his approach has more merit than the debate around the arena project permitted. He reminded me that he launched his 2017 re-election campaign standing next to the last remaining tree among “a sea of surface parking lots” in Victoria Park, a community that had collapsed under the weight of neglect and the exigencies of the Saddledome and Stampede grounds. “I kicked off my 2017 campaign saying ‘Let’s imagine what we could do to not only create a great neighbourhood here but to help with our economic development.’” The rebirth of Victoria Park, he assured me, is the substantial public benefit that will come from the public money he voted to invest in the deal.

As our conversation wound down, I asked Nenshi the question I’d batted back and forth with friends in recent months. Some grim mixture of the pandemic’s grind, the provincial government’s braying intransigence, and the self-defeating commitment of many prominent business leaders in Calgary to denying the basic facts of the global energy economy in the 2020s had us all wondering out loud whether the city was still the right place for us, whether we and our families had a durable future here. The question, phrased that way, wounded Nenshi. Whatever else, no one should ever doubt his abiding love for the city.

“Of course you want to stay in Calgary,” he answered. “We built—with every bit of politician hyperbole in place—we built the best place in the world. We built a place of limitless—except for the weather—we built a place of limitless opportunity. We built a place where people have the ability to live with dignity. And that’s because we do the work. And so it’s heartbreaking for me to hear that.”

Listen. I’ve known Naheed Nenshi for more than a decade. I’m fully aware of his weaknesses as a politician, but I also know his strengths. And one of those is when he talks about service and community and making a great city better, he really does mean it to his very core. And that’s why when I suggested someone like me might want to leave Calgary, he was soon in soaring rhetorical mode.

“Ultimately,” he told me, “if you’re worried, if you think provincial politics is too corrosive, or people are really mean, or Alberta is the land of the anti-mask idiots who put everyone else at risk, and I don’t want to be a part of that anymore? I want you to look up on a spring day at that big blue sky and realize… that we have been a beacon of hope for people from every corner of this broken earth to come and live in a place of safety and opportunity and dignity. And it happens because we make it happen. So yeah, the fight is harder now. Yeah, the jerks are louder now. But that’s no reason to give up the fight. In fact if anything that should embolden all of us to fight even harder.”

Earlier in our conversation he told me about a messy recent debate at city council. The City had proposed a new “Guidebook for Great Communities”—a set of planning guidelines, more or less—and Nenshi’s political opponents had used it to rend their rhetorical garments over its alleged threat to fill every neighbourhood in Calgary with tall buildings and poor renters. Council chambers inevitably plays host to a lot of grotesque NIMBYism, and this was some of the ugliest in a while. An anonymous organization had taken out a front-page ad in the Herald to oppose the Guidebook, and the entire first day of discussion had been one homeowner after another, many from affluent Elbow Park, decrying the creeping socialism and ruination of neighbourhood character contained in the document.

Nenshi: “What was interesting to me is the people following along on social media. And they were getting quite upset. And suddenly, in the evening of the second day, the tenor of the public submissions completely changed. When before, judging by people’s voices, we didn’t really have anybody under the age of 60 presenting—maybe under the age of 55—suddenly we had so many young voices. When before we had gone through dozens of people without a single non-white person, suddenly we had a bunch of non-white voices, in a city that is one-out-of-three non-white. And they spoke with such optimism about their city and such positivity about the future that I thought, this is really remarkable. And I found out later that these folks had all self-organized on Twitter.”

He was describing the 2021 version of the project that had made us colleagues. How he and I and a handful of other like-minded, committed Calgarians had come together more than a decade earlier, and we’d decided, despite the palpable apathy of the time, to try to make the city better. And there were more now, ready to do the same, probably more than ever. What Nenshi was saying was the city was in good hands. I hope he’s right.

Chris Turner is the author, most recently, of The Patch (Simon & Schuster). His new book on the global energy transition, from Penguin Random House, comes out in 2022.

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