Ten years after becoming the first Muslim mayor of a major North American city, Naheed Nenshi leaves office in October bearing a political record that has remained as fascinating as it began. He was the first mayor to serve as grand marshal of Calgary’s gay pride parade. He led the city through three states of emergency, a failed push for an Olympic Games, and a global pandemic. And in a time of rising bipartisanship, he insisted on unity, using social media to promote a “Purple Revolution” of inclusive politics.
Nenshi, 49, spoke to John Stackhouse and Naomi Powell from his office in Calgary.
You just led in your final Stampede on horseback—a very unusual one due to the pandemic. What was that like?
You know, it was good. It gave us a sense of optimism about a better future, about turning the page, about honoring what we’ve been through. And then very practically, it was good for businesses.
The pandemic prompted some to predict the death of cities. Is that playing out?
I don’t think it is at all and I think it has to do with the length of the pandemic. If it had been a few months, people might have been like, “hey, this is interesting. I can work from my cottage at all times.” But what happened over 16 months is people found they were really missing that element of connection.
What will change for cities?
I think the cards have been rearranged. If you’re a city like Toronto that’s struggling with really high housing costs, extraordinarily high commutes, big congestion, a lot of folks will say, “you know what? I can get what I need—restaurants, arts, educational opportunities for my kids—in a city that doesn’t come with all that too.” You’re going to see Calgary, even Edmonton, do really well, while cities that have perhaps been a victim of their own success are going to see further challenges.
We’re seeing the growth of secondary cities in the U.S.—places like Boise and Austin. How can Canadian cities like Calgary attract people from larger metropolises?
The Canadian context is quite different. Our large cities are quite large. Calgary is about three times the size of Atlanta, for example. So we already have the ability to play on a regional, national and local scale. And we are in a good position because we can offer people a really good cost of living.
Ok, what does that look like?
I always freak out audiences in Toronto and Vancouver with the following anecdote: I live in a 2,100 sq. ft. house with a garage in a very lovely neighborhood close to the train. I can drive downtown in 20 minutes or take the train in 25 minutes. My house was assessed this year at $480,000. Did I mention there are great public schools and shopping nearby? Cost of living is not just a big deal for people’s quality of life, but it’s also a big deal for businesses. It means the war for talent looks very different.
What are some of the challenges cities of the future will need to tackle?
We have to talk about inequity, about redistribution of wealth in our communities. If COVID taught us anything, it’s that the people we rely on, the essential service workers who keep the economy going, are also the poorest people in our community. They are largely women, they are largely racialized. We can no longer have a society where the rich get richer, and the vast majority of people don’t see any increase in their quality of life. Social mobility is starting to become a thing of the past.
But cities have historically been social mobilizers. How can they restore that?
Well, a lot of it has to do with education, which is not strictly a city responsibility. We have to make sure there aren’t barriers to post-secondary education. I grew up in a quite poor family on the east side of Calgary. But despite what we lacked in material goods I never lacked for an opportunity. I graduated from excellent public schools. I learned to swim very badly in a public pool. I always felt I lived in a community that had a stake in my success. We have to look ourselves in the mirror and say, “does every kid growing up in Calgary today feel the same way?”
Things have become even more polarized since you launched the Purple Revolution. Is it still possible today?
It’s not only possible, it’s critical. This coming election isn’t going to be fun. But maybe it’ll be the beginning of something new. People just want to live good lives and don’t define themselves by right or left. And the great secret of the Purple Revolution is that it wasn’t about uniting right and left. It was about uniting top and bottom, helping people understand that wealthy and less wealthy people actually have things in common and can work together to build a better community.
Can we can we ask you about the Olympics?
No, I have a lot of PTSD about that word. Ok yes, what about them?
They’re quite a badge for cities and you fought hard to get one for Calgary. Any thoughts in hindsight?
I’m a big Olympics fan. And I was so excited to have the Olympics come to Calgary in 2026. As it stands, we’re going to have to spend a bunch of money revitalizing our Olympic legacy facilities if we want to have people on the podium in Italy. But we won’t get an Olympics at the end of it to celebrate, which is really a shame. It’s probably my biggest political failing. If I had a time machine, I’d go fix it.
Ok, you have a time machine. What would you do differently?
It was a real government relations problem. The provincial and federal governments at the time were fighting with one another and the Olympics were in the crosshairs. I should have said, “if you guys can’t sort yourselves out, we’re leaving. It’s not worth the pain you’re going to cause my community because you can’t get your acts together.” The fact that they only released the final financial deal for the Olympics, which was an excellent deal, seven days before the referendum, six months past their deadline? I never should have stood for it.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
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