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Why Canada’s first big-city Muslim mayor, Naheed Nenshi, is leaving politics — for now – Toronto Star

CALGARY—It’s his last full workday at Calgary City Hall before the first election in more than a decade in which he isn’t a contender — but even if Mayor Naheed Nenshi were inclined to be maudlin, there isn’t time.

“Everyone said, ‘Once you bang the gavel on your last council meeting — which was nearly a month ago — then you just coast; you pack up your office and pop the popcorn and watch the show,’” he says, calling Friday in a window between meetings.

“But you may have noticed we’re in a public health emergency.”

It’s been 11 years since Nenshi, who, in a recent opinion piece, described his past self as a “nerdy schlumpy professor,” shocked those inside Alberta and out by taking 40 per cent of the vote in Calgary, handily defeating the well-known alderman and former news anchor expected to beat him.

For many, the surprise victory of the first Muslim mayor of a major Canadian city, and arguably the first of any major city in the Western world, symbolized the ways in which a city known for cowboys and conservatism was changing.

An editorial cartoon in a national newspaper at the time showed a grinning Nenshi driving a Stampede-style chuckwagon, the horse in front of him scrawled with one word: “progress.”

Perhaps more than most politicians, Nenshi has also been a leader forged in fire.

When a reporter mentions some of the generational challenges he’s faced, such as the flooding of Calgary, the welcoming of evacuees from the Fort McMurray fire and a global pandemic, Nenshi cheerfully jumps in to the continue the list: “economic dislocation, the climate crisis, reconciliation, racism …”

“I would just like to very clearly point out that correlation does not equal causation,” he jokes.

Mayor Naheed Nenshi says it always rankled that he was often portrayed in national media as the face of the 'new Alberta.' For starters, he was first elected at 38, and, secondly, the framing carried with it ideas of what his province was and what a leader should be.

Still, he points out that Calgary has declared a state of emergency four times in 136 years, all of them during his tenure.

They are crises that not all believe Nenshi has handled well. His popularity has fallen over the years and some say he’s contributed to a more combative tone in Calgary municipal politics. Yet the impression he’s left over a decade seems undeniable.

It’s going to be “incredibly hard” to leave while the city is still midcrisis, he says. Case numbers in the hard-hit province are finally trending downwards, but Alberta has learned, to its peril, what it means to declare the pandemic over too quickly.

“Certainly, when I made my decision in April, I thought and hoped, like everyone did, that I would be able to help get us through this pandemic and would be able to turn over a post-pandemic city,” he says.

“That I would be able to turn over a place where we got a little bit of money in the bank, and a clean slate for the new mayor to do great things, and it hasn’t quite turned out to be that way.”

When he was first elected, Nenshi was regularly stopped in the city and asked for photos — though he notes this was the pre-selfie era — but he was surprised to realize he had also become one of the select group of Albertans casually known outside the province.

He recalled his first trip to Toronto as mayor, sitting on the plane and telling his chief of staff how nice it would be to take the subway and grab takeout without being recognized — until he got off at the airport and picked up a copy of a Toronto paper, which had run his photo on the third page.

A Toronto Star editorial cartoon from October 2010.

While he calls his national profile an “enormous honour,” Nenshi says it always irritated him that he was often portrayed in national media as the face of the “new Alberta.” For starters, he was first elected at 38, having spent most of his formative years in Alberta, and, secondly, the framing carried with it ideas of what his province was and what a leader should be.

“It wasn’t fair and it wasn’t great to Alberta,” he says. “And sort of the breathless, ‘Oh my God, he’s a person of colour and he’s a different religion, and how weird is that?’ I also found very strange.”

As uneasy as the public mantle of being the first Muslim mayor has been at times, there has also been meaning to it.

“You know, as much as I sort of rankled against all those ‘firsts’ early on, they are true, and they’re part of the whole story of who I am. So I shouldn’t run away from that,” he says. “That’s life, isn’t it? You take the bitter with the sweet.”

Within Calgary, his legacy has been more nuanced. He was the first mayor in recent years to come from east Calgary, one of the most ethnically diverse parts of the city. He is fond of saying that his family’s is a typical Canadian immigrant story. (Setting aside, of course, that most people don’t end up being mayor.)

When his parents were living in Arusha, Tanzania, in the 1960s, his father used to get copies of the Toronto Star, from which he learned about this wintry country he’d never seen. One day, the paper ran a photo of the new city hall and Nathan Phillips Square, a public gathering place named for another mayor that opened in Toronto in 1965, and vowed to one day visit the building.

They arrived in Toronto months before Nenshi was born, eventually striking out on a cross-country journey in a 1974 Dodge Dart to settle in Calgary when the future mayor was a toddler.

“Sometimes we were poor, sometimes we were very poor, and sometimes we were just a little bit poor,” he said in a 2019 video for a non-profit called Everyone’s Canada. But what he lacked in money he made up in opportunities, he said. He went to excellent public schools, “haunted” the public library and explored the city on public transit.

From those roots grew an unflagging booster for Calgary, and not just the stereotypical version many Canadians have in their heads. People outside Calgary are at least a little bit less likely to call it Cowtown today, Nenshi notes.

Mayor Naheed Nenshi leads the gay pride parade in Calgary in 2011.

But like broken clocks, some stereotypes are occasionally true, and Nenshi jokes that he became mayor mostly to ride a horse in the Calgary Stampede parade — a special political privilege traditionally granted only to mayors and, more recently, to premiers.

But, jokes aside, he says the time in the saddle has always been a chance to see his city from a new angle, and he’ll never forget riding his horse through recently flooded streets in 2013, or mounting up with a mask for a scaled-down version this year.

Nenshi’s first come-from-behind victory confirmed what many Calgarians already knew about their city, says Zain Velji, who donned his first purple T-shirt as a somewhat reluctant volunteer on Nenshi’s first campaign before going on to run his last. (The mayor has famously made the colour purple part of his brand, wearing a flash of it most days because it symbolizes, in part, the blending of Liberal red and Conservative blue.)

“Politics is a trailing indicator of what is happening in community,” Velji says. “He certainly was a response to the changing demographics, the changing attitudes, a group of folks trying to bust through stereotypes.”

There are some signs that the community has continued to shift since then, too. Increasingly, Alberta is no longer the petro-powerhouse of past boomtimes and roughly a third of Calgary’s downtown office towers now sit empty.

Prime minister Stephen Harper, far right, looks at a map of the flooded areas of Calgary with Alberta premier Alison Redford, centre, and Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, as fire chief Bruce Burrell points out problem sites in June 2013. The Calgary flood was one of the first major crises' that Nenshi would deal with as mayor.

In recent years, council meetings have often run late into the evening as councillors publicly sparred in meetings and online. His critics are quick to say Nenshi’s fondness for verbal sparring can veer into arrogance. Nenshi himself has said one of his biggest regrets includes decisions made about budget and business support as the city struggled with dropping revenue while buildings sat vacant. Then, there’s the failure to bring the Olympics back to the city.

In 2018, he threw his weight behind the plebiscite that asked Calgarians whether the city should make a bid to host the 2026 Winter Olympics — the majority said no. The following year a ThinkHQ poll found his approval rating had dropped to 39 per cent, slightly more than half of what it had been just five years before.

The past decade has also seen politics take a turn for the toxic.

Velji, who ran Nenshi’s 2017 campaign, recalls online bots and trolls spewing Islamophobic comments beginning to pop up then, a phenomenon that was newish at the time but has only gotten worse since.

While the growing polarization of politics is arguably a global phenomenon, he argues Alberta’s urban-rural divide makes it a particularly good petri dish for division, and, when Nenshi leaves office, one of the province’s loudest voices for unity will go, too.

Mayor Naheed Nenshi waves to the crowd at a Calgary bar after winning his third term as mayor. By this point, online Islamaphobia was becoming a bigger issue in politics.

“To use a cliché, you don’t know what you’ve lost until it’s gone,” he says, adding Nenshi’s real gift was being able to take the spotlight shone on him by the rest of the country and redirect it onto the city. Nenshi has acted as that central lionizing figure with a clear vision for where the city needed to go, he adds.

“Does everyone agree with that? Absolutely not. But I think no one can argue that Naheed Nenshi wasn’t clear in terms of what he wanted to do with the city … and that he was a mayor that was present.”

One of the unsung parts of Nenshi’s legacy, Velji argues, is the number of people he inspired to get involved in politics or in the community at large — Nenshi himself often uses the word “seva,” which is Sanskrit for selfless service.

In Velji’s case, he says he went from volunteering on a campaign because a friend persuaded him to, to running Nenshi’s final campaign, to working on other campaigns, and he says he’s not the only one campaign alumni that was inspired to go onto other community work.

Adding to a sense of looming change is the fact that Nenshi is far from the only leader stepping down as Alberta hurtles toward a major shakeup in its local politics — on Monday, only one of the mayors of the largest half dozen or so cities in the province is running again. Both Edmonton and Calgary are also seeing significant turnover of councillors and school trustees.

While Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi (right) says part of him wanted to stay on and try for former Mississauga mayor Hazel McCallion's record in office (left), it was time to let other voices speak. Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson (back) is also stepping down this election.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and some of his ministers have publicly butted heads with municipal leaders who have been vocal about many have said is a failure to do their duty with pandemic restrictions, often downloading things such as mask mandates onto the cities.

Nenshi, never one to mince words, called the United Conservative provincial government “the most incompetent he’s ever seen” on CTV’s Power Play last month. For their part, at least one minister has tried to brand Nenshi as “Trudeau’s mayor,” a distinctly made-in-Alberta insult.

Nenshi says that as much as he might personally have liked to stay on and give longtime former Mississauga mayor Hazen McCallion a run for her money in terms of political longevity, it was time to step back, trust that the community will continue to do great things, and let other voices in. (Though he admits that when he watches the mayoral debates involving the current 27 hopefuls he sometimes wonders, “Wait, did I mean those voices?”)

Still, he calls the coming climb out of the pandemic a “wet clay” moment, in which new leadership will have the opportunity to create something different and special — though they’ll have to do it quickly, before the window closes.

His belief that this country is a place where people from anywhere, of any background, can find belonging remains mostly intact, he says.

Politics may be getting more divisive, but Nenshi urges those who follow in his footsteps to focus on the most voices, not the loudest.

Budget crunch time for Mayor Naheed Nenshi at City Hall on Nov. 29, 2019, in Calgary. Nenshi has said that one of his biggest regrets as mayor was decisions made around support for businesses as tax revenue downtown dropped.

Even in Alberta, at a time when COVID vaccines have become a political football, the vast majority of people have chosen vaccination, he points out.

“Certainly the voices of indignation and anger are growing louder, but they’re so small; they’re such a tiny minority of who we are,” he says.

“The fact that we’re spending all of our time on these meaningless people? We’ve got to stop that. We can’t ignore it. We got to take it very, very seriously. But we also cannot valorize it, we cannot raise it up. If I never hear from Maxime Bernier ever again, that would be a good day.”

For now, he swears he truly has no idea what he plans to do next — a prospect he finds “remarkably liberating.” He’s going to take a break, maybe travel to the U.S. once the border reopens, and think about new jobs in the new year.

With that, he ducks into his next meeting.