Seen and Heard: Naheed Nenshi on Policy and Politics

Scarlett Jones

Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi was introduced at the Rotman School of Management on October 21st as “His Worship the Mayor of Calgary” and “a policy rock star.” The politics-policy duality implied in his introduction, made by the Director Mark Stabile of the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy and Governance, was a reoccurring theme over the course of the evening as the mayor engaged in conversation with Richard Florida as part of the ongoing Big Cities, Big Ideas (BCBI) lecture series.

Nenshi’s upset mayoral win in the 2010 Calgary municipal election has been widely attributed to his social media savvy and social engagement techniques. His use of Twitter, Facebook, and Youtube, events held in voters’ homes, and pure charisma have all played a role in his success, mobilizing young voters generally ignored by electoral candidates. But it was his re-election in 2013 with 73.6 per cent of the vote that established Nenshi to be about much more than likes and retweets.

self-described “policy wonk” who went on to be a politician, Nenshi’s political savvy goes beyond social engagement to centre on a thoughtful, policy-orientated approach. Governance was a reoccurring theme last Tuesday, observed to exist at the core of many of the mayor’s community engagement initiatives (such as 3 things for Calgary and the engagement bus), as well as of his commitment to stakeholder involvement in everything from re-imagining neighbourhoods to budget planning.

The BCBI event began with a slick promotional video of Calgary, featuring cowboys, art galleries, and fly-fishing. The ballerinas and yogis may have been an attempt to dispel Alberta’s backcountry, oil drilling, small-c-conservative reputation, but the video was also a testament to the 120,000 new residents that have immigrated to Calgary over the last four years. As Mayor Nenshi was quick to note, “Calgary, [with a population of 1.09 million], has as many people as five provinces.”

But Nenshi is more than just an ambassador – he is also an active promoter of his city. Good politics and good policy are highly sought after in one of Canada’s fastest growing urban centres. “Come back,” he told one audience member, a self proclaimed Calgarian ex-pat,

“Come back, we want you.”

Nenshi lauded Calgary as a new frontier with a sense of opportunity, but he also talked shop: discussing how he wants to use zoning laws to affect change in segregated neighbourhoods and touching briefly on the topic of managing suburban sprawl.

An insistent urbanist, Nenshi describes cities as a way to bring people and ideas together. On the jurisdictional and institutional problems that mayors and cities face as “creatures of the province”, he went so far as to predict that the first federal party to re-think regional strategies and make a move for Canada’s cities will win the next election.

Alberta has been roundly criticized for its environmental policies and while Nenshi recognized the concerns– “if you’re an environmental engineer I don’t know why you’re not in Calgary” – his response, that sacrificing economic growth is not an option, was to be expected. Yet even in that, he improved on the well-worn Albertan rhetoric by affirming that the value of these resources is time-sensitive, and that its dividends must be re-invested in social programs.

Comparisons between Nenshi and former Toronto mayor Rob Ford have been well documented, often portrayed as a tale of two cities. They were elected the same week in dramatic election showdowns; both have been immortalized on the web in Internet memes and trending hashtags (#keepcalmandnenshion and #inadrunkenstupor, respectively); and their successes stem largely from inspiring residents to become citizens. However, where decisions made by Ford further divided his city, Nenshi has used his to position to increase public dialogue, raising his vote share by 30 per cent between elections, and has been named the second most powerful person in Canada (second only to Stephen Harper).

Naheed Nenshi’s policy-through-politics approach is also reflected in his public persona, an odd combination of self-awareness and sincerity. On Tuesday, he played to his Toronto audience – not above a little self-deprecation to get a laugh, but at the same time challenging them to become hyper-engaged, to run for public office, and to get involved in the community. Most importantly he was passionate, noting to a round of applause that:

“As citizens, ensure that you fight against intolerance, racism, prejudice, small-mindedness, discrimination and bigotry. Demonizing people for their differences is a cheap political strategy.”

And his advice for politicians?

“Don’t abandon your decisions to the polls. Be the best one term politician you can be.”

Scarlett Jones is a 2016 Master of Public Policy candidate at the University of Toronto. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in English literature from the University of British Columbia, and has previously worked as an editor and translator for the Instituto Politécnico Nacional research centre in Oaxaca, Mexico. Her academic interests include immigration and foreign policy and transnational migration.